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Remind Me

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

There is a sequence in Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff (2010), Craig McCall's stylish documentary, in which Cardiff gives the viewer a look inside a vintage 3-Strip Technicolor movie camera. The cinematographer who used the technology available in the late 1940s to create the painterly and revolutionary color for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's Stairway to Heaven (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948) gleefully points out how light entering through the lens is divided by a color prism and recorded on three separate pieces of film (specifically, 25 percent of the light travels straight to the film carrying the green record while the other 75 percent is sent to a bi-pack - two more strips of film holding the blue and red records). This short sequence alone is enough to warm the heart of any film aficionado, yet it is also one of the only occasions in which the film's subject ventures into the technical side of his profession. Through most of the running time, Cardiff's varied artistic sensibilities are front and center and fortunately his recall and sense of humor are completely intact.

Jack Cardiff (1914-2009) proves to be an ideal documentary subject. His career in films spanned an incredible 89 years, from a 1918 appearance as a child actor in Britain (thanks to his Music Hall performer parents) to his final project as a cinematographer in 2007. In between he was a clapper boy, focus puller, assistant camera operator, cinematographer, and finally one of the greatest cameramen in the field and a director in his own right. In addition to Powell and Pressburger, he worked with Alfred Hitchcock (Under Capricorn, 1949), John Huston (on location for The African Queen, 1951), and Albert Lewin (Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, 1951) among many others. Cardiff photographed such beauties as Ava Gardner (The Barefoot Contessa, 1954), Audrey Hepburn (War and Peace, 1956), and Marilyn Monroe (The Prince and the Showgirl, 1957) - not only through the motion picture camera, but also through the lens of his black-and-white portrait camera during downtime on the films; portrait photography, painting, and home movies were hobbies that further extended his artistic reach.

Fortunately, director McCall not only had the sharp-witted Cardiff at his disposal for his documentary, but also Cardiff's archive of photographs, home movies and ephemera. As an example of the latter, for each day of shooting on one of their pictures, the Technicolor Company would compile cards which had slipped-in film frames for that day's rushes - each shot broken out with the three separated colors and a composite frame. Cardiff had the foresight to save these cards. Even more revealing are the 16mm home movies Cardiff took on film sets when he was not manning the actual 35mm camera. There is priceless behind-the-scenes footage in Cameraman showing how cameras and tracks were set up to accomplish difficult shots in films such as The African Queen and The Vikings (1958). There are also more playful home movie scenes, such as Kirk Douglas working out his stunts during The Vikings and John Wayne teaching Sophia Loren to twirl a six-shooter on the set of Legend of the Lost (1957).

Director Craig McCall worked for several years compiling the material for Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff. Along the way he shaped roughly thirty minutes of material for the DVD featurette Painting with Light [2007], which concentrated on Cardiff's Oscar®-winning work on Black Narcissus. As it turned out, Jack Cardiff was not the only film industry notable captured by McCall's camera before their death; many of the interviewees - including Freddie Francis, Richard Fleischer, John Mills, Moira Shearer, Kim Hunter, and Charlton Heston - had also passed away by the time of the film's release.

Producers: Craig McCall, Richard McGill
Director: Craig McCall
Cinematography: Steven Chivers, Ricardo Coll, Simon Fanthorpe, Nicholas Hoffman, Jonathan Rho, Ian Salvage, John Walker, James Welland, Bob Williams
Art Direction: Miles Glyn
Music: Mark Sayer-Wade
Film Editing: Dan Roberts
Cast: Jack Cardiff, Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Charlton Heston, Kim Hunter, John Mills, Alan Parker, Thelma Schoonmaker, Freddie Francis
BW & C-86m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.

by John M. Miller

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