Above-the-line stars get most of the credit and glory for Hollywood successes, but dozens if not hundreds of other specially gifted artisans labor on most big-budget productions, often going their entire careers without so much as an acknowledged tip of the proverbial cap from the moviegoing public at large. Craig McCall’s fascinating documentary Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, then, attempts to right this wrong, shining a light on its namesake subject, who in March, 2001 — more than five decades after winning his first Academy Award, for his stunning work on Black Narcissus — became the first cinematographer ever presented with an honorary Oscar, for his exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences.
After getting his start as first a “clapper boy” and then a camera assistant for a string of quick-shoot quota pictures, many of the British-born Cardiff’s gifts were rooted in his extraordinary touch with Technicolor, honed through work with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger on the groundbreaking A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and then The Red Shoes. While he lacked a formal education and wasn’t the most technically proficient, Cardiff’s lifelong love of painting, and more specifically his astonishing, virtually peerless ability to communicate mood through lighting, quickly won him a legion of filmmaker fans. From Alfred Hitchcock and John Huston to Henry Hathaway, Laurence Olivier, Alan Parker and many more, Cardiff worked with highly skilled directors spanning seven decades, and even helmed more than dozen feature films himself.
Actors whom he beautifully lit (including Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, Lauren Bacall and Kim Hunter) sit to sing Cardiff’s praises, and many more with whom Cardiff worked (including Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn) are glimpsed in photographs and on-set home video footage from his private collection. The most edifying interviewees, however, prove to be Cardiff’s fellow behind-the-camera craftsman, including peers and colleagues like Freddie Francis and Richard Fleischer. None other than Martin Scorsese also pops up, crediting Cardiff’s subjective work on The Red Shoes as a major inspiration for the boxing scenes in his Raging Bull.
Cameraman director McCall has an obvious affection for his subject (several times he’s glimpsed on screen alongside Cardiff, always smiling adoringly), and his passion for the most part is infectious. In letting Cardiff (who was still mentally sharp as a tack until his death at 94 years of age in 2009) basically narrate his own story, McCall is the beneficiary of a wide variety of amazing and delightful anecdotes, ranging from Marlene Dietrich’s intimate knowledge of lighting and Ava Gardner’s insecurities to how the crew of The African Queen was gripped with dysentery, and why Humphrey Bogart and the aforementioned Huston were the only ones immune.
If there’s a strike against the picture, it’s that it unfolds in a very linear and somewhat unimaginative fashion. Cameraman lacks a real spine, and doesn’t delve at all into Cardiff’s (doubtlessly fascinating) personal life. More about what shaped him in his young, formative years (there’s one scene that touches on this, but it seems the tip of an iceberg), as well as how Cardiff coped for so long with the itinerant lifestyle of a cinematographer and director, would have given McCall’s movie a much-needed extra dimensionality. Regardless, as is, Cameraman is a captivating look back at a transitory time — before basically all movies were made in color — when camerawork was slightly more welded to the emotion of the material, and used unabashedly to heighten the effect of genre elements. That Cardiff’s unique role in this era, and spanning into the periods that both preceded and followed it, finally receives its own recognition is indeed a special thing.
Separated into a dozen chapters and presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, Cameraman comes to DVD with a nice complement of supplemental material. An interview with director McCall from June 2010 by Ian Christie runs14 minutes, and tells of the filmmaker’s first meeting with his subject-to-be (they bonded over a Bolex camera), as well as other anecdotes. There is also a clutch of photo galleries, including many of Cardiff’s portraits of the actresses with whom he worked, and 10 minutes of Cardiff watching some of his behind-the-scenes movies from the set of The African Queen and the like — the latter at least a generation before lightweight cameras made such off-the-cuff cinematic capturing all the rage. Eleven minutes of extra interview material featuring filmmakers like Alan Parker and Christopher Challis discussing the important nature of the cinematographer-director relationship are also included, and a five-minute segment on three-strip Technicolor highlights the stringent measures the company’s color-control department in safeguarding their technology and rare cameras. A collection of trailers for Cameraman and a quartet of other Strand releases rounds out the release. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B (Movie) B (Disc)