By Don Simpson | August 9, 2011
Director: Craig McCall
Jack Cardiff’s work in cinema spanned nine decades, starting as an actor in My Son, My Son (1918) and ending his career as visual effects coordinator and art director on Silence Becomes You (2005). Cardiff began working as clapper boy and assistant camera in 1929. By 1935 Cardiff became a camera operator and by 1938 he was a full-fledged cinematographer. In 1948, Cardiff won his first Oscar for his Technicolor cinematography on Black Narcissus; 43 years later Cardiff became the first cinematographer ever presented with an Honorary Oscar for “exceptional distinction in lifetime achievement; exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences; and for outstanding services to the Academy.”
In his documentary, Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, director Craig McCall allows Cardiff — who died on April 22, 2009 — to tell much of his own story. Cardiff explains how he helped elevate cinematography to an art form with his unique vision and technical wizardry in Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, Scott of the Antarctic, The African Queen, The Vikings…and the list goes on. Cardiff’s biography finds itself fatefully intertwined with the history of Technicolor, particularly Technicolor Europe and Technicolor in the UK. While Hollywood mainly reserved the use of Technicolor film for musicals and large outdoor productions, British filmmakers — especially Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger — utilized Technicolor much differently, thanks in no small part to Cardiff’s keen kino eye.
But who gives a hoot about the art of cinematography? So, Cardiff also gives the audience what he suspects they really want, tales about what it was like to work with Cinema’s greatest icons: Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Kirk Douglas and Sophia Loren.
McCall calls upon Martin Scorsese to explain to the audience why Cardiff’s films are so important in the context of the history of cinema while illustrating how Cardiff’s oeuvre not only influenced his own vision, but also that of his peers, such as Brian DePalma and Francis Ford Coppola. McCall sporadically turns to Douglas and Charlton Heston for additional support.
As the saying goes, a picture speaks a thousand words; and the most moving sections of Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff occur when the pontificating stops and the stunning High Definition clips from Cardiff’s resume are able to speak, albeit visually, for themselves. If anything, Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff gave me the urge to seek out more of Cardiff’s work (especially his directorial efforts) and re-watch (on the largest screen if possible) the films that I have already seen from his resume, namely A Matter of Life & Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, The African Queen and War & Peace. However, I will gladly forgo another viewing of Rambo: First Blood Part II.
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff has just been released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Strand Releasing.