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Cameraman: The Life & Work of Jack Cardiff (Blu-ray Review)

22 Aug, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Box Office $0.02 million
$24.99 DVD, $34.99 Blu-ray
Not rated

Every time a fresh viewing of The Red Shoes recertifies my opinion that the screen’s champion ballet drama may also be the most impressive Technicolor feast of all time, I take another look at Cardiff’s immediate predecessor, Black Narcissus (the film that got him his Oscar). And then, I throw my hands up in the air.

In any event, it’s almost inconceivable that anyone could ever demur from the widely held assertion that Cardiff was the greatest color cinematographer who ever lived — what with a filmography that also included Stairway to Heaven (also from the Shoes/Narcissus team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), Scott of the Antarctic, Hitchcock’s underrated Under Capricorn, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, The African Queen, The Barefoot Contessa, The Prince and the Showgirl, The Vikings, Legend of the Lost (lousy movie, fabulous lensing) and the King Vidor version of War and Peace (in VistaVision). Fabulous lookers all, and just about any knowledgeable film person could look at five minutes from any of them and take a pretty fair guess at who shot it.

And speaking of lookers, you can also address this point from a slightly different direction — one that Craig McCall’s loving documentary made me think about to a degree that hadn’t quite hit me before. Which is that Cardiff’s work also represents the apogee — or pretty close to it — of color glamour photography (moving-image category). Working with some admittedly great raw material, he conjured up breathtaking visages of Ava Gardner (twice), Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn (or as much as that War and Peace costuming would allow), Janet Leigh and even Deborah Kerr in those Narcissus fishing-stream flashbacks before her character became a nun. Cardiff got along with all of most of them spectacularly well, too — he even shot still photos of several — which is easy to understand. Because McCall’s portrait certainly establishes, beyond its subject’s artistry, that Cardiff was a prince of a guy, too.

Filmed over many years, Cameraman ultimately captures Cardiff when he was 91 but looking and acting as if he were 20 years younger. In this regard, McCall’s documentary reminds me a little of John Paulson’s on-DVD Les Paul: Chasing Sound (2007) as a primer in how to age gracefully while capping a life well led (Cardiff finally passed away in 2009 at 94). Self-educated from voluminous reading when his parents’ nomadic existence made formal education a near-impossibility, Brit-born Cardiff began his photographic career, as so many directors of cinematography did, as a camera operator — the person who actually “works” the camera. He was also one of the first individuals chosen by Technicolor for specific instruction in the then new 3-strip format when it began in the 1930s — an itinerant period that lasted until Cardiff’s heyday began a decade later and continued into the late ‘50s, at which point he elected to become a director of mostly marginal films.

The one major exception was 1960’s Sons and Lovers, which Fox Entertainment has inexplicably never issued on DVD despite the fact that it was Oscar-nominated for best picture and shared the New York Film Critics Circle award that year with The Apartment (Psycho wasn’t much of a “quality” factor that year — a case, as with John Ford’s The Searchers, where the general public was way ahead of the critical establishment). Other than its disinclination to say anything about Cardiff’s personal life (he was married three times), the only question unanswered here is why the quality of his projects fell so precipitously when he finally did return to cinematography — even if shooting Conan the Destroyer and Rambo: First Blood Part II probably didn’t hurt his standing with some of today’s backwoods rabble.

Cardiff liked to shoot home movies on the set, and both the documentary itself and its copious bonus extras (among the most enjoyable I’ve seen in a while) incorporate a lot of this material. A highlight is some fabulous stuff from the set of The African Queen taken before cast and crew took ill from impure drinking water that the only two principals spared (Humphrey Bogart and John Huston) ignored from the get-go in favor of booze. Though the footage here from Pandora appears to be taken from a print that predated its restoration, several clips here are up to the Blu-ray quality of the best home release versions and may soon have viewers running off to Criterion-ville. Interview subjects are top of the line: Martin Scorsese, Lauren Bacall (along with Bogie on the Queen shoot) and Charlton Heston are just a few.

Cameraman opens and concludes with Dustin Hoffman presenting Cardiff with a special Oscar on the telecast — the first time one was ever given to a cinematographer. Of course, were this to happen today (as with Gordon Willis in 2010), the ceremony would get shunted off to a luncheon, and we wouldn’t be able to see any legitimate tribute on the actual broadcast. They show’s producers be too busy mounting a salute to Ashton Kutcher or something.

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