Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

Framing the career of ace cinematographer

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / June 24, 2011

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There’s a lovely and telling anecdote about halfway into “Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff’’ that says a lot about making movies — the art and craft of it, but also the fun of pulling rabbits out of hats. Director Michael Powell approaches Cardiff on the set of 1946’s “A Matter of Life and Death’’ and asks for a misty opening shot. The cinematographer walks to his camera, breathes on the lens, and — voila — a foggy day.

Cardiff was the greatest color cameraman who ever lived. It’s not arguable, not once you’ve seen his films with Powell, especially “Black Narcissus’’ (1947) and “The Red Shoes’’ (1948), both of which turn the chemistry of Technicolor into astonishingly vibrant fever dreams of repression and release. But Cardiff was also a working filmmaker whose CV was absurdly long — 87 years from his first credit to his last — and puckishly varied. He directed 13 films, some good (1960’s “Sons and Lovers’’) and some less so (1974’s “The Mutations’’). He worked in London and in Hollywood. For Hitchcock and John Huston. He shot art. He shot “Rambo: First Blood Part II.’’

And he lived to the ripe old age of 94, dying in 2009, by which point Cardiff had collected an honorary Oscar and been followed around for over a decade by “Cameraman’’ director Craig McCall. The documentary itself isn’t a work of art but it doesn’t need to be — it just needs to frame Cardiff’s art for our appreciation and it does so handily. There are the requisite stellar talking heads: Martin Scorsese, Lauren Bacall, a post-stroke Kirk Douglas, and “Black Narcissus’’ actress Kathleen Byron on how her psychotic Sister Ruth gained power through the cameraman’s lens (“He gave me half my performance with the lighting’’).

The movie clips are luscious, as you’d expect, and Cardiff’s own “home movies,’’ shot on various movie sets with a 16mm camera, catch the gods during downtime. But the film’s ace in the hole is its own subject, who tells tales and offers insights like the gracious, engaged fellow he was. A serious Sunday painter, Cardiff was the first to bring the techniques of the great artists to the cinema — he based the lighting in “Narcissus’’ on Vermeer — and he relished working with pros at the top of their game. That included Marlene Dietrich, who knew so well how to light her face that she could have been a cinematographer herself.

“Cameraman’’ is at its best when dealing with its subject’s brilliant heyday during the 1940s and ’50s, and it inevitably loses a little steam with the lesser movies of later years. The same can’t be said of Cardiff, whose momentum and cheer never flagged. “Hopefully, one of these days I’ll just drop dead on a film set,’’ he says in “Cameraman,’’ and while that wish didn’t come true, it wasn’t for lack of trying.

Ty Burr can be reached at To follow him, go to

CAMERAMAN: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff Directed by: Craig McCall

Starring: Jack Cardiff, Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas, Lauren Bacall, Charlton Heston

At: Museum of Fine Arts, today and various dates

through June 30

Running time: 86 minutes


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