Movie a Day Blog knows that documentaries about filmmakers can often be boring and technical to those not involved in the business. This is not true of CAMERAMAN: THE LIFE AND WORK OF JACK CARDIFF (2010, Netflix DVD, TCM), a fascinating look at an artist whose medium is not canvas or metal, but light itself.
The cinematographer is the individual responsible for making the film the visual medium that it is; without picture, there is nothing but radio. Englishman Cardiff was one of the masters, responsible for the dizzying use of Technicolor in several films directed by Michael Powell, most notably BLACK NARCISSUS (1947) and THE RED SHOES (1948), but equally adept at shooting a location picture in the most remote area of Africa with THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951).
He’s the only cinematographer in Academy Awards history to win an Honorary Oscar for his contributions to his craft, and won a competitive Oscar for BLACK NARCISSUS (he was also nominated for WAR AND PEACE (1956), SONS AND LOVERS (1961) and FANNY (1962).)
In total Cardiff shot 86 films, filming a TV mini-series at the age of 92 before passing on in 2009. Directors seemed to love working with Cardiff, and he is quite blunt in his assessment of the most famous of them, although he couches everything in proper British politesse. After all, this man shot everything from RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II (1985) to Alfred Hitchcock’s UNDER CAPRICORN (1949).
Cardiff made a transition that most directors of photography lie awake in bed dreaming about: he became a successful director. Barry Sonnenfeld is one of the few to do so since, but Cardiff ended up directing 15 films, some of which were quite good: SONS AND LOVERS, probably the best black and white adaptation of D.H. Lawrence, and THE LONG SHIPS (1964), a Viking movie that somehow incorporated Sidney Poitier into its plot.
Alright, so maybe Cardiff wasn’t given the best material, but he proved an adept director of actors because of his experience in working so closely lighting them. Cardiff was a master at making actresses in particular seem to glow onscreen: Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Ava Gardner — Cardiff made them all into true movie stars, glamour personified.
The camera loves some performers, and not others, but Cardiff made almost everyone look better, whether the camera cooperated or not.
He instinctively seemed to know which lens and camera position would move the narrative along best, and he attempted and succeeded at shots that seemed impossible given the limitations of the equipment and its flexibility. When shooting his Technicolor masterpieces for Powell in the late 1940s and early ’50s, the Technicolor camera was as big as one of today’s Tiny Houses.
Yet Cardiff put it in the most daring places to capture action literally seen from a new angle. Even a grouch like Humphrey Bogart had only good things to say about the cameraman, according to his wife Lauren Bacall, in one of several interviews conducted by director Craig McCall, who has the irritating habit of purposefully including himself in shots with Cardiff for no ostensible benefit.
He did gather intelligent commentators on Cardiff and his work, particularly Martin Scorsese (a Powell devotee), British cinematographer-turned-director Freddie Francis, director Richard Fleischer and other industry veterans who worked with Cardiff.
McCall keeps the conversations non-technical and uses examples effectively to demonstrate what his interviewees are praising in Cardiff’s work. It’s worthy of everything they say. There have always been and currently are great cinematographers working in every part of the world, from Emmanuel Lubezki to Roger Deakins, but few will reach the level of career accomplishment that Cardiff earned.