Review: Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff


I have been on a bit of a cameraman kick (you can read my interview of cinematographer Ryan Hill here), so when I heard there was a documentary about one of my favorite DP’s, Jack Cardiff, I was quite excited. Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff is at once a wonderful portrait of a true visionary and pioneer in the film medium and a thoroughly engaging documentary about the early days of Technicolor. Jack Cardiff, the film’s hero and subject, was an old-school technician who learned about film during its early years, and became the go-to guy for color film when the trade took off. Filmmaker Craig McCall was fortunate enough to get Cardiff on film just before his death in 2009, and turns this documentary into a sort of tribute film to the man who was responsible for shooting classics like The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus.

Jack Cardiff is the kind of guy you wouldn’t recognize on the red carpet, but should be if the film world was fair and balanced (which, of course, it is not). How many writers in Hollywood could you name by sight alone? And no, Diablo Cody doesn’t count. The cameraman is a vital cog in the machine, possibly more so than the actors themselves. Gordon Willis (The Godfather trilogy, Manhattan) was central to the performance of Marlon Brando’s Godfather, and likewise the work of Cardiff is inextricably linked with the films he worked on (and would later direct). Yet many of the cinematographers who work in the industry are (for some unknown reason) relegated to “crew” status, as if they weren’t as much a part of the film as any actor or writer or director that gets their hands dirty during a film’s creative process. Much of the director’s job is getting the most out of their actors and making sure that everything they want to shoot gets captured on film, but its the DP that makes everything shine. Gregg Toland probably should have gotten a co-directing credit on Kane, but that’s neither here nor there. 

My point here, albeit long-winded, is that the cinematographer is an incredibly important piece in the filmmaking puzzle, and it is this importance that allows Cameraman to shine. Any good director should know what f-stop to shoot at, what the difference is between a zoom lens and a prime lens, and what lighting schemes work best for crowd scenes. For a DP, this is barely scratching the surface. Cardiff, who cut his teeth in the early days of cinema, treated the camera as a vehicle to capture his works of art, and treated his subjects like paintings. Cardiff’s fascination with masters such as JMW Turner and Vincent Van Gogh allowed him to borrow their approaches to lighting and composition, while adding his own touch that would come to typify his works. His collaborations with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are truly a sight to behold, and each frame in works such as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus are stunning in their use of light and color. These films are (in this humble reviewer’s opinion) some of the most stunning works ever captured on film, and the use of Technicolor (the nearly over-saturated color scheme seen in The Wizard of Oz) adds an extra, magical element to the already fantastical world of these films. 

Cameraman echoes the sentiments of the subject, keeping an air of playfulness about it that Cardiff himself would have loved. Some of the most wonderful moments in the film involve people reminiscing about Cardiff, including Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, and, with his trademark mile-a-minute banter, Martin Scorcese (who was, apparently, heavily influenced by Cardiff’s work). Cardiff enjoyed his work immensely and treated it as a process, one that he would improve upon and tweak as the years went by. Even in his final months (which the film fortunately captures), Cardiff was sharp as a tack when discussing his work and influences.

One particular scene finds Cardiff shooting through a piece of glass that he had painted on himself, which hid the intrusive scaffolding of the studio’s stage. The end product looks like a pristine wide shot, but is actually a composite of a much tighter frame and the aforementioned painted glass. Aspiring cinematographers could do well to take some lessons from the film, and anyone who has an interest in painting and film needs to check this one out. Like Visions of Light, Cardiff unfolds as an intimate portrait of the men and women who are behind the camera, conveying the emotions and thoughts of the film’s subjects to an anonymous audience of thousands. It just happens that the film, and Cardiff himself, do it better than most. 

An inherent problem with reviewing documentaries is analyzing them based not on their subject, but on the quality of the production itself. Do I love Cardiff’s work? Absolutely. Does that make the film great? No. An uneven structure to the film jumps us in and out of Cardiff’s work, and some of the interviews get bogged down with somewhat irrelevant information about the people surrounding Cardiff. Film buffs will love the history and importance of the man and his work, but casual filmgoers who are not familiar with Cardiff may be turned off. This isn’t a portrait of the artist as a young man, or as a father or friend, but more of a tribute to a man whose work stands above many of his peers. One might ask themselves how important this man’s personal life was if he was never a public figure or icon, but it also challenges us to ask “why isn’t this man an icon?” It is this paradox that is at war within the film, and it is never clear that one side should win out over the other. Visions of Light takes a more straightforward approach towards the medium itself, while Cameraman focuses on a man who was great at his craft. Both, perhaps, could use a little dose of the other to make each a stronger film. 



Overall Score: 7.80 – Good. (7s are good, but not great. These films often have a stereotypical plot or are great movies that have a few minor flaws. Fans of this movie’s genre might love it, but others will still enjoy seeing it in theaters.)