CIFF 2010: Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010)

Director: Craig McCall

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

There is no cinephile worth his or her salt who doesn’t know the name Jack Cardiff. A true artist with a camera, Cardiff was responsible for some of the most stunning films ever made, including three certified masterpieces from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger—A Matter of Life and Death (1946), The Red Shoes (1948), and Black Narcissus (1947). Cardiff was also a fine director, as evidenced by the success of his fourth feature, Sons and Lovers (1960), which garnered seven Oscar nominations, and one win for cinematographer Freddie Francis.

Cardiff was 95 when he died in April 2009, and a very worthy subject for a film biography. Sadly, while Cameraman has some interesting tidbits of information and a generous sampling of Cardiff’s reflections on his own work garnered when director McCall followed him around over a 13-year period, the film gives too much time to extraneous interviews with stars who had little to offer but admiration, spends an inadequate amount of time actually delving into his cinematic compositions, and gives almost nothing of the life the film’s title promises.

Cardiff was born in 1914 in Yarmouth, England, and began his career as a child actor in 1918 on a picture called My Son, My Son, following in the showbiz footsteps of his parents. He climbed behind the camera in 1928 as a glorified errand boy on The Informer, in which his father was cast. He worked as a camera operator through the 30s on such films as As You Like It (1936) and Things to Come (1936). A seminal experience he had was working as a camera operator on the Marlene Dietrich vehicle Knight Without Armor (1937). He talks at length about her excellent knowledge and command of lighting, saying she would have made a great cinematographer. In a close-up still photo of her he shot—he photographed many of the actresses he worked with—he shows how she put white on the inside of her bottom eyelid to catch light properly. “It must have been painful,” he supposes.

His work on the second unit of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)—he was responsible for the scene of multiplying animal heads that appear rapid-fire on the walls of Clive Wynn-Candy’s study—brought him to the attention of director Michael Powell and sealed his glorious future as a cinematographer, as Powell hired him to be the cinematographer on A Matter of Life and Death.

Working with The Archers unit during this period was excellent training for Cardiff. They were allowed to work independently by their parent studio, Rank, and experimented a great deal. He shot the dance sequences in The Red Shoes as they might have felt for the dancer, tidal waves of emotion becoming a literal wave from the audience onto the stage, and what she might have seen, for example, the audience spinning around as she pirouettes on stage. Martin Scorsese, a perennial interviewee in films of this type, remarks that this POV shooting influenced the way he shot the boxing sequences in Raging Bull (1980).

What many, myself included, consider Cardiff’s masterwork is Black Narcissus. Shot at Pinewood Studios, it’s a miracle how he and production designer Alfred Junge managed to make the convent in which the action takes place appear to actually be on a mountaintop in the Himalayas. Beautifully constructed and painted plaster mountains, lighting Cardiff said was in imitation of the works of Jan Vermeer, and raked camera angles lent dimension to the proceedings. Kathleen Byron, who plays the unhinged Sister Ruth, says Cardiff gave her half her performance by the way he lit her. Unfortunately, J. Arthur Rank thought Black Narcissus was a horrible film, and The Archers’ independent era came to an end.

Cardiff mentions his indebtedness to the American camera crews that came to England to teach the Brits about Technicolor, and Cardiff shows the inside of a Technicolor camera and explains how light is captured on the various strips of film that will be melded to produce a full-color image. The cameras are huge, and one appreciates the difficulty of shooting a location film like The African Queen (1951) in Technicolor. Lauren Bacall gives some insight into the shoot of that picture and how much Cardiff and John Huston admired each other. Other films Cardiff discusses include The Barefoot Contessa (1954), The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). He said his greatest achievement was shooting Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn (1949), a nightmare of logistics to create the continuous shot that Hitchcock was still enamored with from Rope (1948), and he talks extensively about the effects he created for The Vikings (1958). His reminiscences about the stars he worked with aren’t earth-shattering—Marilyn Monroe had a lot of problems, Errol Flynn had the timing of a real stuntman when he did his own stunts, Humphrey Bogart didn’t want the lines in his face erased by lighting—but some of his memorabilia (a photo of himself and Monroe with funny lines written by her and her husband, Arthur Miller) and his own exquisite photos, “home” movies of the shoots, and paintings are delightful.

Unfortunately, his life is kept private and very little about his day-to-day work, aside from how he used his ingenuity to create effects, is explored. He said that modern special effects had taken a lot of the fun out of filming that required creating solutions on the fly, and one senses that despite his admiration for the abilities of today’s cinematographers and his wish to drop dead on the set, the work wasn’t as fulfilling for him at the end. When Cardiff isn’t speaking, the film drops to the ground from the weight of the talking heads with little to say, like Charlton Heston, Raffaella De Laurentiis, and Kirk Douglas. Even Thelma Schoonmaker failed to say anything to make me sit up and take notice. It was lovely to see Moira Shearer interviewed for a brief moment, but she wasn’t more than an aged, beautiful face among the many Cardiff took a lot of time to admire. We learn about Monroe and Dietrich’s upturned noses, Audrey Hepburn’s eyebrows, Sophia Loren’s eyes, all of which, of course, required Cardiff’s magic lights to look their best.

I had a sneaking suspicion while I was watching Cameraman that it had been produced as a tribute, perhaps for BBC-TV or the Cannes Film Festival, after Cardiff’s death. The film is only 86 minutes long and is an expanded version of McCall’s short documentary Painting with Light that is included as an extra on the Criterion DVD of Black Narcissus. That DVD was released in 2001, and it appears McCall dusted off the old footage and didn’t do too much additional shooting, given the large number of interviewees who are dead. While it is a great pleasure to revisit Cardiff’s artistry through clips of some of his greatest works, as well as hear from the man himself, this film was too shallow for my tastes and pleases mainly for its “gossip” value.

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff screens Friday, October 15, 4 p.m., and Sunday, October 17, 1:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    30th/09/2010 to 8:55 pm

    “What many, myself included, consider Cardiff’s masterwork is Black Narcissus. Shot at Pinewood Studios, it’s a miracle how he and production designer Alfred Junge managed to make the convent in which the action takes place appear to actually be on a mountaintop in the Himalayas. Beautifully constructed and painted plaster mountains, lighting Cardiff said was in imitation of the works of Jan Vermeer, and raked camera angles lent dimension to the proceedings. Kathleen Byron, who plays the unhinged Sister Ruth, says Cardiff gave her half her performance by the way he lit her.”

    Ah, Marilyn you are really speaking my language here with this subject and documentary. By any barometer of measurement Cardiff is one of the cinema’s greatets cinematographers, every bit the equal of Toland, Miyagawa, Burel, Cloquet, Rosher, Mate, Fisher, Nykvist, Hall and a few others. His color work for Powell and Pressberger (as you note here) is a textbook example of bringing this form to perfection. His work’s metaphorical underpinnings have long been studied by the most serious cineastes. Only Robert Krasker (who sot THE THIRD MAN and ODD MAN OUT) could rightfully be considered within shouting distance among British helmers, and few cameraman are as identifiable.

    I completely agree with you on BLACK NARCISSUS (hence I copied the paragraph above) and have long known of your high regard for Cardiff.

    To hear Martin Scorsese speak of Cardiff, you think you may have entered the gates of movie heaven. But Marty is not far off as well.

    Fantastic celebration here. You are one lucky lady!

  • Rod spoke:
    30th/09/2010 to 9:23 pm

    Interesting also that they seem, by your account, to avoid Cardiff’s directorial career, although The Long Ships, The Liquidator, My Geisha and Girl on a Motorcycle aren’t likely to inspire hagiographies.

    Sam: really got to take issue with you there. 1) Robert Krasker was an Australian. 2) Cardiff belonged to a quite legendary generation of British cinematographers which also included the likes of Freddie Young, Freddie Francis, Guy Green, Oswald Morris, Desmond Dickinson, and Geoffrey Unsworth, all of whose work could rise to the same level as Cardiff’s did on the right project.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    30th/09/2010 to 9:54 pm

    Rod – They did discuss Sons and Lovers at some length, but used a few stills to fast-forward through the rest of his directorial work. Freddie Francis and Chris Challis were among the interviewees, and had the most interesting things to say. The framing device for the film was Cardiff receiving an honorary Oscar from Dustin Hoffman, mentioned as the only cinematographer to have that distinction. So the filmmaker made the decision to consider him mainly in terms of his camera work right from the start – probably not a bad decision, but certainly indicative of a lot that is missing from this far-too-short documentary.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    30th/09/2010 to 10:12 pm


    I know Green, Francis, Dickinson, Morris, Unsworth et al, and they are great cinematographers for sure, but only Green of that lot (in my humble opinion) stands on the same stage with Cardiff and Krasker. I listed Krasker as British because his best work was on British films. It’s the same as me considered Ophuls as a titan of French cinema, when he wasn’t French. When you say that any of that lot could “reach the level of Cardiff with teh right project” you are right. But the bottom line was that Cardiff achieved greatness more often.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    30th/09/2010 to 10:26 pm

    A real giant among film artists, perhaps a better appreciation will come along someday. Not surprising that Dietrich knew how to light – Sternberg was an excellent teacher, whether he meant to or not. Cardiff’s name for me, even when I was a kid, meant a great looking film, regardless of the rest of its merits, or lack thereof. I’ll look for this one anyway, just for completeness.

  • Rod spoke:
    30th/09/2010 to 10:51 pm

    Sam, I’m almost angry in my disagreement. David Lean’s films without Young’s colours? 2001 without Unsworth’s? Get real.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    1st/10/2010 to 6:43 am

    Rod: I am not disputing that at all. Ranking these artists is never really yields a truly satisfying result. That’s why it’s always better to avoid that frustrating task, something (lamentably) I didn’t do here.

  • Yann Heckmann spoke:
    3rd/10/2010 to 3:14 am

    While we’re at it, let’s add Douglas Slocombe to that list – I watched “The Servant” last night and that is some of the best camerawork I’ve ever seen (“Raiders of the Lost Ark” is quite amazing as well).

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