Few filmmakers understood color as well as British cinematographer Jack Cardiff. And those who did understand have Cardiff to thank for it.
Early in Craig McCall’s documentary, an aged Cardiff (he died in 2009 at the age of 94) describes his first interview with Technicolor, which had just opened a lab in England. Then a young camera assistant, he told the Technicolor people that he really didn’t know much about the technical side of filmmaking, but had considerable knowledge about Rembrandt and other important painters (Cardiff painted as a hobby). That answer landed him a job that helped make him the master of the three-strip Technicolor format.
McCall doesn’t even pretend to provide a warts-and-all portrait. He clearly worships Cardiff—as does Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, and other notables interviewed for this film. Cardiff imself comes off as witty, urbane, dashing, friendly, well-read, and smartly dressed, as well as extremely talented.
He also appears to have no private life. The only relatives mentioned even briefly are his music-hall parents (he first worked in movies as a child actor). Wikipedia tells me that “He was survived by his wife and his four sons,” but you’d never know he married from this movie.
But we’re not interested in Cardiff because of his romantic and family life. We’re interested in him because he shot Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Even if you have trouble surrendering to their melodramatic storylines, you have to admit that no other movies used the Technicolor medium as daringly or creatively as these two. Here’s what I wrote about The Red Shoes last year:
…it’s one of the most expressively beautiful color movies ever made.The outdoor European locations and lush interiors dazzled, while the rehearsal halls somehow managed to be lovely while looking completely utilitarian. But it was in the dance numbers—where expressionistic colors were utterly realistic—where Cardiff’s art shined most. There’s a close-up of Moira Shearer’s eyes where her red stage makeup makes her surprise all the more effective.
Cardiff followed those two early works with dozens of additional films (including some he directed). His work was always good, even when the movie wasn’t. But as far as I know, he never again reached the daring and creative levels of those two early works.
McCall doesn’t directly address the fact that, like so many artists, he peaked early. The second half of Cameraman rides on anecdotes—problematic directors and stars, adventures on location—rather than on the subject’s talent and technique.
Color cinematography changed dramatically in the mid-1950s. The screen widened, and color film replaced the difficult and bulky three-strip camera that Cardiff understood better than anyone. McCall never even discusses this transition, which may have partially caused Cardiff’s fall from brilliant innovator to mere excellent craftsman.
McCall’s documentary shines a light on a great and important film artist whose name was never well-known outside the industry (sorry; I couldn’t resist the light metaphor). I thoroughly enjoyed it. But it left me wanting a little less worship and a little more substance.
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff opens Friday for a one-week show at the Balboa.