Required viewing for anyone attracted by the genius of Powell and Pressburger and the seductive myths of Hollywood.
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff is a romantic eulogy to one of the great cinematographers in film history, a man whose life was dedicated to the fascinating evolution of the camera obscura.
Narrated by Cardiff himself, whose octogenarian recounts are startlingly articulate, director Craig McCall has stitched together a rich tapestry of film clips, revealing personal footage and warm interviews that chronicle almost the entirety of Hollywood’s studio era.
Born in Great Yarmouth in 1914, Jack Cardiff’s career spanned nine decades; as a toddler, he appeared as an extra in Chaplin’s silent films. At 14, he gained an apprenticeship at Elstree Film Studios, starting as a gofer and working his way up the hierarchy before, prestigiously, becoming the first cameraman to be trained in the new American Technicolour cameras.
His big break came when he met Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, becoming the cinematographer behind their masterpieces A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. After emigrating to LA, he became the trusted go-to man for John Huston, Kirk Douglas, Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles before becoming a director in his own right in the '50s and '60s. After receiving an Honorary Oscar in 2001, he died last year at the age of 94.
Immersed in the history of art, and with a house full of paintings by Turner and Van Gogh, the film casts Cardiff as a great innovator, a craftsman of lighting and lensing. Constantly creating with the ever experimental Powell and Pressburger, he famously invented the misty dissolve by breathing on the lens seconds before a take and letting the shot materialise through the evaporating condensation.
Martin Scorsese says of him: "I began to have a very strong affinity towards British cinema because of my recognition of Jack Cardiff’s name actually. You begin to realise he is using the lens like brushstrokes, it becomes like a moving painting. Not only moving visually, but emotionally and psychologically."
The film’s second act reveals how he was revered, albeit discreetly, as someone uniquely capable of lighting the nurseries and caprices of an actresses face. Jack Cardiff, as such, worked intimately with some of the most beautiful and famous women in screen history. "Some people collect postage stamps," he says as he sorts through a pile of stunningly lit monochrome portraits of Gardner, Loren, Taylor and Hepburn. "I collected beautiful women...but only in picture form."
He shared a particularly strong bond with Marilyn Monroe. During the London shoot of The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier in 1956, she said of Cardiff: "He's the best cameraman in the world, and I've got him."
Although the film ironically leaves him smelling of roses his career had its nosedives. No mention is made of his direction of the now infamous Smell-O-Vision experiment Scent of Mystery which proved to be a critical and commercial disaster never to be repeated. On returning behind the camera in the 1980s, he made some strange choices, surreally shooting Schwarzenegger in Conan The Destroyer and Stallone in Rambo II. Both are afforded roughly 10 seconds of screen time.
But this film is more than just a tribute to one man, but a tribute to the dwindling pragmatics of cinematography. There is an underlying, elegiac pathos here, the sense that Cardiff was the last of a dying dynasty. In his final monologue, he talks of his experience of trying to manipulate the shot on modern films, repeatedly being told, "Jack, don’t worry about it. Special effects will handle that."
There are polite hints and glimpses and discreet innuendo here, a bright rendering of beautiful people surrounded by shady characters. A film about films, it still adheres to the fallacies and fabrications of filmmaking. But this is an experience as rich in vicarious escapism as any narrative film, and is required viewing for anyone attracted by the genius of Powell and Pressburger and the seductive myths of Hollywood.
Call us ignorant, but we've never heard of the guy...
Both profound respect and searing jealousy are stirred.
A little spray-painted, a little BBC, but a valuable, romantically alloyed document.