Jack Cardiff was one of the legendary cinematographers. He was an innovator, a magician, an artist. McCall’s film spends time with him over the last 13 or so years of his life. The film features Cardiff talking about his career and features tributes from some of cinema’s greatest names.
A few years ago Jack Cardiff was opening the Yarmouth film festival. He was a native of the East Anglian seaside town. Stephen Fry was interviewing him and I had a ticket. Setting out in the afternoon full of excitement, my excitement and trip were curtailed as I got snared just behind a bad accident on an A road. I sat for ages and watched the window of opportunity to make it out to the coast dwindle.
Watching this film brought that sadness back, because Cardiff is truly one of the greatest artists cinema has ever produced. The film follows a linear thread, starting with his early work as a camera operator through his work as cinematographer and director. His stories of working with Marlene Dietrich as a young man are a highlight of the film for me. His insights make you realise that just like Cardiff, we don’t have performers like Dietrich anymore either.
Spending time with Cardiff inevitably left me lamenting the way cinema has changed at the highest level. He was a worker. He was on set making films well into his 90s and yet directors and producers rarely used him as he deserved following his mid century heyday. It’s heartbreaking to know that people said to him “don’t worry, special effects will deal with that”. This is a man who painted filters by hand for his lenses, he created innovative glass reflectors, he would breathe on the lens to create the right effect and his work on Black Narcissus, where Pinewood stood in for the Himalayas is one of the finest technical achievements in cinema history. He was a visionary. Watching it, you can’t believe that not a single frame was shot outside Buckinghamshire. It’s a miracle. How could you want Jack Cardiff to shoot your film and then not use him? It’s a crime that I as a filmmaker resent. People clearly just wanted his name on the credits without giving him the courtesy of the freedom to work to his potential.
Most famous for his work with Powell & Pressburger on their masterpieces Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death and The Red Shoes amongst others, he also worked for and shot cinema’s greatest. I think only a list can do it justice:
Ingrid Bergman, Wayne, Flynn, Hitchcock, Hathaway, Loren, Curtis, Bogart, Huston, Welles, Monroe, Olivier, Mason, Gardner, Hepburn (K&A) and Janet Leigh to name a few.
McCall’s film not only includes the man himself talking modestly at length but features contributions from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Charlton Heston, Lauren Bacall and an ill, but willing and gracious Kirk Douglas.
There is a lot of time and valid connection of Cardiff’s work to the art forms of painting and photography. He was a painter and photographer (his collection of portraits of actresses he worked with is magnificent) and knew how to create moving masterpieces through his unique blend of lighting, composition, movement and colour. His use of colour is exemplary.
He was a good director, never a great one. His one great film Sons & Lovers is deservedly lauded here, but he never matched his unique work as a cinematographer. But then, look at his work as a cinematographer. Anybody would have struggled. Scorsese says in the film that cinema is never considered a true ‘art form’ because of how populist it is. A truth somewhat, but I defy someone to watch this film, and immerse themselves in the work of Jack Cardiff and tell me that it is not art, and that this man was not an artist.
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff is released on DVD by Optimum on July 26th.