Jack Cardiff, as documented in 'Cameraman,' created astonishingly painterly expressions of pure emotion in form and color.

Cinematographer Cardiff's Eye Prized in 'Cameraman' Doc

Dennis Harvey July 29, 2011

Called by one of the directors who frequently requested his services “Probably the greatest color photographer who ever lived,” Jack Cardiff made his mark not just as cinematographer for several among the most gorgeous movies ever made. Looking at imagery from his most famous collaboration—with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the most sophisticated and adventuresome filmmaking team of Britain's immediate postwar era—there's no sneezing at his referencing Van Gogh, Vermeer and Turner as specific inspirations.

Their three features together, fantasy romance Stairway to Heaven (1946), intensely erotic yet tasteful nun drama Black Narcissus (1947) and that most famous of all ballet films, The Red Shoes (1948), are astonishingly painterly expressions of pure emotion in form and color. Admittedly, the writing-directing duo's sensibility encouraged Cardiff to push the expressionistic visual envelope, moving beyond Hollywood literalism to incorporate elements of fantasy and ideas from Freud. But Cardiff was equally at home in entirely different types of assignments, from documentaries (where his photographic career began) to ornate costume dramas and action epics, intimate indie drama and pure star vehicle.

Starting out as a child actor—his parents were vaudevillians—his career spanned an incredible near-nine decades in various capacities in the film business, nearly to the brink of his death two years ago at 94. “Hopefully I'll drop dead one day on a film set” he says in Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, which opened Friday in the Bay Area. He didn't quite fulfill that ambition, but as Craig McCall's long-in-the-making documentary shows, there wasn't much else he left undone.

Cameraman is an engaging appreciation of a modest genius with a lot of good stories to tell. Cardiff shares anecdotes about working with Errol Flynn, John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart; he shot the infamously trouble-plagued Laurence Olivier/Marilyn Monroe vehicle The Prince and the Showgirl, discreetly remembering Monroe as “a darling girl, but she had a lot of problems.”

McCall's feature benefits greatly from the subject's occasional tendency to shoot his own 16mm behind-the-scenes footage on location. There are also entertaining insights from an assortment of Cardiff's admirers and coworkers—some no longer with us, as Cameraman commenced production over 13 years ago—including Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Martin Scorsese, Richard Fleischer, Charlton Heston, Red Shoes' Moira Shearer, fellow cinematographer Freddie Francis, and many more.

But the most impressive element is inevitably taken from those films he photographed, whether famous classics like The African Queen, noble failures like 1956's all-star War and Peace and 1951's surreal romance Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, or downright forgettable studio fodder briefly elevated by his often ingenious technical and artistic ideas. A lesser Hitchcock, 1949's Under Capricorn, nonetheless features one of the screen's most elaborate tracking shots; popcorn spectacle The Vikings (1958)—an equivalent to the best of today's CGI-riddled summer blockbusters—boasts some large-scale setpieces of true grandeur.

Cardiff directed a pretty decent number of films himself, although there's a reason why he's less well known in that role. Too many of those movies were (like those Francis directed) subpar genre that didn't make full use of his visual command and haven't aged so well. A few had thematic potential, though you can't really say that about The Girl on the Motorcycle (aka Naked Under Leather, with Marianne Faithfull fulfilling both functions), let alone The Mutations (in which a pre-Halloween Donald Pleasance is a mad scientist—make that “rogue biologist”—crossbreeding humans with plants). However, he did direct one great film, the grey, gritty 1960 D.H. Lawrence adaptation Sons and Lovers, which at the time earned seven Oscar nominations yet now is very seldom seen.

The lack of discrimination that marked his directorial projects also factored large in the later decades of his cinematography career. It's a testament to his skill, the great affection with which he was regarded, and perhaps a simple desire to stay busy that those years encompassed everything from Agatha Christie (the elegant all-star Death on the Nile) and prestige TV miniseries (The Far Pavilions) to Stephen King (camp classic Cat's Eye) and Conan the Destroyer. Not to mention a noisy little thing called Rambo: First Blood Part II.

If there's some dreck as well as considerable gold in his oeuvre, Jack Cardiff had the last laugh by apparently enjoying it all, and never failing to bring his professional best to the table. Cameraman is a lovely portrait of an innovator and consummate craftsman who no doubt worked with more than a few egomaniacs, but from all evidence remained the nicest man you'd ever meet.