Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Love for the Cameraman: Jack Cardiff

It boggles the mind, but the same man was behind the camera for both Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes and Rambo: First Blood Part II. Jack Cardiff had himself a career. The first cinematographer recognized with an honorary Oscar, Cardiff worked professionally well into his nineties, yet he still found time to sit for the extensive interviews that provide most of the narrative for Craig McCall’s thirteen years-in-the-making documentary profile, Cameraman: the Life & Work of Jack Cardiff (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Perhaps Cardiff (1914-2009) is best compared to Portuguese centenarian director Manoel de Oleivera, since both began their decades-spanning careers in the silent era. A child actor in the late nineteen-teens, Cardiff started working professionally as a camera operator. Opportunity knocked when the young Cardiff was invited to attend a training program in the new-fangled color photography process. Suddenly, he was in demand as one of the few cinematographers with color experience.

Cardiff’s legion of admirers, including the likes of Martin Scorsese and Kirk Douglas, argue on-camera Cardiff was not just the first. He was also the greatest color cinematographer, able to render delicate chiaroscuro effects through his lush palette and “painterly” use of light and shadow. Exhibit A would be The Red Shoes, for which he won his first Best Cinematography Academy Award. As further supporting evidence, Cameraman features plenty of high-def clips from masterworks like The African Queen, Black Narcissus, Under Capricorn, The Barefoot Contessa, and Death on the Nile. Viewers will likely want to check out many of his classics that might have previously eluded them after hearing his commentary and sampling his visual artistry. Indeed, a film like Al Lewin’s Pandora & the Flying Dutchman looks ripe for a repertory rediscovery as a result.

There is no dirt in Cameraman, partly because McCall focuses exclusively on Cardiff’s professional career, while for his part, the celebrated cinematographer comes across as a truly gracious gent. If anything gets short shrift, it is the treatment of Cardiff’s relatively limited directorial career, which almost entirely concentrates on his Oscar-nominated adaptation of Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers. Yet, surely the audience for a Cardiff doc would be just as interested in his Britsploitation thrillers, like Dark of the Sun and The Liquidator (if not more so). Still, Cardiff offers us an anecdote about Marlene Dietrich naked, which is not nothing.

Clearly, McCall never shook his reverent awe for Cardiff, despite the filmmaker’s warm telegenic charm. Yet, Cardiff’s films and reminiscences are so entertaining, it hardly matters. Ultimately, it is just a pleasure to spend time with the man. An affectionate valentine to a giant of cinema wrapped in a classy package, Cameraman is recommended well beyond TCM junkies when it opens this Friday (5/13) at the Quad Cinema.