Before we begin in earnest, let’s look at Marilyn Monroe.
She’s beautiful, I’m sure we can all agree. But she isn’t as beautiful as she looks in that photograph. And she knew as much when she insisted Jack Cardiff (1914 – 2009) helm the camera in her 1957 film The Prince and the Showgirl, shot in England and co-starring Laurence Olivier.
Same goes for Audrey Hepburn, who Cardiff photographed in the chiaroscuro style — light, dark, light, dark — during the shooting of War and Peace in 1956 …
… and Anita Ekberg, who also starred in War and Peace and is best known for her role as Marcello’s sopping-wet seductress in La Dolce Vita.
Cardiff shot each of these photographs, and his lens had the pleasure to capture many more iconic beauties during his 90-year career in cinema, which began in 1918 with him as 4-year-old screen actor.
“Like one collects stamps, I collected beautiful women,” he says in Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff. “Photographically, of course.”
Whereas the wry parenthetical reveals Cardiff’s wit, Cameraman, which is screening this weekend at O Cinema in Wynwood, reveals him to be one the great cinematographers in film history. Beyond that, it casts him as, in many ways, a personification of film history, someone who worked in black and white during the silent era, then pioneered Technicolor technique, and survived to shoot films as far apart in time and tone as The African Queen (1951) and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985).
Filmmaker Craig McCall’s documentary goes light on the biographical details, choosing instead to chronicle Cardiff’s work as cinematographer for a host of great directors, among them Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, and British envelope-pusher Michael Powell, who, with Cardiff as his cameraman, broke ground with Stairway to Heaven (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948).
“These three films created such a stir in the cinema world and still resonate today,” McCall told me in a phone interview Monday.
The section on Black Narcissus, a film I’d never heard of before Cameraman, is fantastic. It shows the extent of Cardiff’s rare genius as he helps Powell physically construct the Himalayas (!) inside a studio. A feat that would never be accomplished or even attempted in the computer age, Cardiff and Powell pull it off to the extent that the blue mountain range backdrop almost makes you cold. Black Narcissus features one of the most stunning character entrances I’ve ever seen — Kathleen Byron (as deranged “Sister Ruth”) bursting through the convent door — and Cameraman shows it to us in all its recently remastered splendor, which alone makes the documentary silver-screen worthy.
The section on The Red Shoes is also great, if only for Martin Scorsese’s film nerd/master explanation of how a 1948 ballet influenced, in a surprisingly direct way, his brutal 1980 boxing masterpiece, Raging Bull.
“What Scorcese is pointing out is that the camera starts in the seats with the audience, but at a certain point in The Red Shoes you move from the audience to the stage and the ballerina,” says McCall, referring to a scene shot through the dancer’s eyes. “The exact same thing happens in Raging Bull, where you go from outside the ring to inside the ring.”
For all its high-powered cameos — besides Scorsese, Charlton Heston, Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, and many other yesteryear Hollywood icons appear in the documentary — Cameraman is above all about Jack Cardiff, the first director of photography in the history of the Academy Awards to win an Honorary Oscar (2001). His character and creativity are the lifeblood of the film, and it is through his work — as a cinematographer, a consummate painter, and a photographic “collector” — that we traverse 90 percent (literally) of the history of cinema. It is a lush journey through the color of a different era, one you will wish you’d known by the end of the film.
Cameraman is playing at O Cinema on Saturday (3:15 and 5:30) and Sunday (1 p.m., 3:15, 5:30). You can purchase discounted tickets through Eventbrite by entering “beached” as the discount code (right above the “Order Now” button). The promo also gets you a free glass of wine at O Cinema. To learn more about film and watch the trailer, visit O Cinema’s website.