Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

Cinematographer Jack Cardiff

“Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff” begins with a clip from the 2001 Oscar Ceremony, at which cinematographer Cardiff was presented with an honorary Oscar. Presenter Dustin Hoffman tells the audience, “For those of you age 70 or younger, Jack Cardiff has been shooting film before you were born.”

The number of films, and the range of their various subject matters, photographed by Jack Cardiff, is almost not to be believed.  Keep in mind that this was the man who shot both “The Red Shoes” (1948) and “Rambo: First Blood Part II” (1985), and seemingly everything in between.  The new documentary “Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff” is a beautiful, informative and entertaining ride through film history that gives a comprehensive view, and analysis of, Cardiff’s contributions to British and Hollywood cinema. 

Seeing “Cameraman” is almost like seeing many movies in one.  A generous amount of film clips illustrate the points being made by the film’s impressive line-up of luminaries. Martin Scorsese shows a side-by-side comparison of how he based the structure of a boxing sequence from “Raging Bull” on a dance sequence from “The Red Shoes.”  While Cardiff’s sequence shows a dance from the point of view of a dancer, Scorsese’s shows a fight from the point of view of a boxer.  Other “Cameraman” interviewees include film editor Thelma Schoonmaker (Scorsese’s editor and widow of Michael Powell, director of “The Red Shoes”), actors Kirk Douglas, Moira Shearer, John Mills, Charleton Heston, Lauren Bacall, directors Alan Parker, Richard Fleisher and others.

“Cameraman” took 17 years to complete and was not finished until after Cardiff’s death in 2009 at the age of 95.  Fortunately producer and director Craig McCall was able to film extensive interviews with Cardiff himself.  Cardiff’s warmth, matter of fact demeanor, and stories of his career make “Camerman” a truly priceless record of a time gone by.

Cardiff was a pioneer in using the Technicolor camera, a large, monstrous contraption that used three rolls of film simultaneously. He and Powell nicknamed it “The Enchanted Cottage.”  Shearer (“The Red Shoes”) recalls Powell and Cardiff constantly coming up with new things to do, “and when you see how big the camera was, I don’t know how they did it,” she explains. It was a lost era of filmmaking where effects had to be created on set, as opposed to, today, being done digitally in post production.  On one movie Cardiff created a fog effect by simply breathing on the camera’s lens.  Bacall recalls being on location for “The African Queen” and remembers director John Huston wanting impossible shots and Cardiff always being able to get them.  Cardiff’s explanation for it all was simply, “You should be bold.  That is the essence of photography.”  He describes being in film as, “…a non-sensical job to be in.  Full of hypocrisy and hyperbole.”  Despite this comment “Cameraman” catches up with Cardiff, in his 90s, still on a set, shooting a film.  On the subject of retirement he states, “I hate the idea.  Hopefully one of these days I’ll just drop dead on a film set.”

“Cameraman” is playing at the Quad, 34 W. 13 St.

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, Director Craig McCall, 2011,

Strand Releasing, 90 minutes, not rated

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About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on May 22, 2011, in Documentary, New. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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