Title: Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff
Director: Craig McCall
Featuring: Jack Cardiff, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Martin Scorsese, Lauren Bacall, Kim Hunter, Thelma Schoonmaker, Freddie Francis and more
Above-the-line stars get most of the credit and glory for Hollywood successes, but dozens if not hundreds of other specially gifted artisans labor on most big-budget productions, often going their entire careers without so much as an acknowledged tip of the proverbial cap from the moviegoing public at large. Director Craig McCall’s fascinating documentary ‘Cameraman’, then, attempts to right this wrong, shining a light on Jack Cardiff, who on March 25, 2001 — more than five decades after winning his first Academy Award, for his stunning work on Black Narcissus — became the first cinematographer ever presented with an honorary Oscar, for his exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences.
After getting his start as first a “clapper boy” and then a camera assistant for a string of quick-shoot quota pictures, many of the British-born Cardiff’s gifts were rooted in his extraordinary touch with Technicolor, honed through work with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on the groundbreaking ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, ‘Black Narcissus’ and then ‘The Red Shoes’. While he lacked a formal education and wasn’t the most technically proficient, Cardiff’s lifelong love of painting, and more specifically his astonishing, virtually peerless ability to communicate mood through lighting, quickly won him a legion of filmmaker fans. From Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston to Henry Hathaway, Laurence Olivier, Alan Parker and many more, Cardiff worked with highly skilled directors spanning seven decades, and even made more than dozen feature films himself.
Actors whom he beautifully lit (including Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Lauren Bacall and Kim Hunter) sit to sing Cardiff’s praises, and many more with whom Cardiff worked (including Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn) are glimpsed in photographs and on-set home video footage from his private collection. The most edifying interviewees, however, prove to be Cardiff’s fellow behind-the-camera craftsman, including peers and colleagues like Freddie Francis and Richard Fleischer. None other than Martin Scorsese also pops up, crediting Cardiff’s subjective work on ‘The Red Shoes’ as an inspiration for the boxing scenes in his ‘Raging Bull’.
‘Cameraman’ director McCall has an obvious affection for his subject (several times he’s glimpsed on screen alongside Cardiff, always smiling adoringly), and his passion for the most part is infectious. In letting Cardiff (who was still mentally sharp as a tack until his death at 94 years of age in 2009) basically narrate his own story, McCall is the beneficiary of a wide variety of amazing and delightful anecdotes, ranging from Marlene Dietrich’s intimate knowledge of lighting and Ava Gardner’s insecurities to how the crew of ‘The African Queen’ was gripped with dysentery, and why Humphrey Bogart and the aforementioned Huston were the only ones immune.
If there’s a strike against the picture, it’s that it unfolds in a very linear and somewhat unimaginative fashion. ‘Cameraman’ lacks a real spine, and doesn’t delve at all into Cardiff’s (doubtlessly fascinating) personal life. More about what shaped him in his young, formative years (there’s one scene that touches on this, but it seems the tip of an iceberg), as well as how Cardiff coped for so long with the itinerant lifestyle of a cinematographer and director, would have given McCall’s movie a much-needed extra dimensionality. Regardless, as is, ‘Cameraman’ is a captivating look back at a transitory time — before basically all movies were made in color — when camerawork was slightly more welded to the emotion of the material, and used unabashedly to heighten the effect of genre elements. That Cardiff’s unique role in this era, and spanning into the periods that both preceded and followed it, finally receives its own recognition is indeed a special thing.
Written by: Brent Simon