A no nonsense overview of a legendary cinematographer’s work

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

on April 26, 2011 by Vadim Rizov
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A briskly efficient overview of (as the title suggests) the work and nothing else of the late, legendary cinematographer Jack Cardiff, Cameraman is no one's idea of great documentary formalism. This is strictly talking heads fare, broken up with movie clips, stills and home movies; fortunately, Jack Cardiff's ephemera are better than yours. Those unfamiliar with his work (which ranged from classics like The Red Shoes down to journeyman jobs like Rambo First Blood Part II) will find little to allure them, but the careful assembly of interviews and anecdotes will be catnip to cinephiles and no one else; commercial prospects are attendantly limited.

Cameraman begins with the usual, stunningly dull tributes, going from Dustin Hoffman speaking in generalities at a 2001 AFI ceremony to equally generic plaudits from Martin Scorsese (of course) and Cardiff's collaborators. After that stock opening, though, the film gets down to business; director Craig McCall wisely skips all the usual dull biographical info about parents and childhood. Indeed, he elides Cardiff's personal life entirely, which is a terrific decision: this is 86 minutes of work and stories, with no lip service paid to the idea anyone would really want to hear about his personal life.

A lot of time is devoted to Cardiff's training days in the '30s UK cinema, as Technicolor was introduced. American technicians were imported to train everyone; Cardiff became, in effect, the British DP who best understood how it worked early on. After doing second unit work for Powell and Pressberger, he made his name with three of their biggest hits (A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes), pioneering lurid color as an expressionist device. From there it was on to The African Queen, The Vikings and much more.

Cardiff's front and center in this doc (he passed away last year, at 94) and he proves a sharp storyteller, predictably (Britishly) modest and self‐effacing. Offering fun stories and technical insight in equal measure, the film's really just a trip through his archives. Whereas most people's home movies are dull, Cardiff's have sights like Sophia Loren and John Wayne twirling guns side by side; his lunch‐hour photos of Marilyn Monroe et al. aren't bad either. The stars who show up to pay tribute include the late Charlton Heston, Kirk Douglas in a rare interview and the ghostly voice of the long dead Michael Powell. Clips are well selected and generous in length, as Cardiff explains many of his tricks and ad hoc innovations.

The film largely glosses over his directorial career, which was all downhill after Sons and Lovers, and briefly if amusingly skips over his later career in a fleet montage of competently shot exploitation stupidity. Mostly, this is a guided tour to some of the highlights of '40s and '50s cinema with one of its great creators, annotated by the ever excitable Scorsese; nothing wrong with that.

Distributor: Strand Releasing
Director: Craig McCall
Producers: Craig McCall, Richard McGill
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 86 min
Release date: May 13 NY

 

Tags: Richard McGill, Craig McCall
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