Alan Diment meets Craig McCall

to talk about the legendary Jack Cardiff…

You may not be all that familiar with the name Jack Cardiff but there is every chance that you love his work. Let me mention a few of the films that this highly regarded cinematographer left his mark upon. There was ‘The African Queen’ for a start, then ‘Scott of the Antarctic’ and historical romp ‘The Vikings,’ not to mention Hitchcock’s ‘Under Capricorn.’ Working alongside the genius movie-making partnership of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Cardiff was instrumental in creating three cast iron classics starting with ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ in 1946. This was followed by ‘Black Narcissus’ a year later and then by the triumphant final flourish of ‘The Red Shoes’ in 1948. All these films may still have been made had Jack Cardiff never existed but would they have been as wonderful? Not a chance.

Now, fittingly, Cardiff is the subject of an excellent new documentary from independent director Craig McCall. ‘Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff’ traces a career which lasted nearly as long as the age of cinema itself. Born in Norfolk in 1914, Cardiff began as a child actor before films had even found their voice. He gradually rose within the studio ranks to operating the clapperboard and then the camera. His big break in cinematography came with ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ where his experiments in pushing the boundaries of Technicolor were much encouraged by Powell and Pressburger. Cardiff worked on many more films afterwards and became a director in his own right but it is this period for which he is perhaps still best remembered.

“Jack’s name is synominous with Technicolor,” Craig McCall told me recently. “He was a Technicolor trainee before ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and then he won the Oscar for ‘Black Narcissus.’ His use of Technicolor was unlike what Hollywood was using, it was more ‘painterly’ and it had an incredible impact on people like Scorsese and Coppola. The use of colour and photography in Black Narcissus is like a character in the story.”

McCall explains how he first came to meet Jack Cardiff in the early nineties. “He was directing a version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons for EMI and I was directing dance videos. I had a clockwork camera, a little 16 millimetre Bolex and he wanted to use it to get some shots in Venice where it had snowed and when he told me about all the little tricks that he wanted to do with this camera I was just taken by it all.”

“I didn’t know who he was; I didn’t know all of his films. So I took a look at ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and a couple of other films and that’s how it all began but it took two or three years before I actually sat him down and did the first interview with him in 1997.”

It certainly turned out to be a long old haul mainly due to the difficulties involved in obtaining the rights to use excerpts from Cardiff’s work in the documentary. “You enter a legal minefield. That’s the real reason it took so long as you can’t really make a film about a cinematographer without showing clips from his films. I was aware that I was entering a dark tunnel but it took longer than I thought to come out the other side.”

In the end, the quality of the material that he was eventually able to obtain made it all worth while for McCall. “What I am really happy about is that in the final film I have clips not only from all the Powell and Pressburger films in high definition but also from the restoration of ‘The Red Shoes,’ which was overseen by Martin Scorsese, and was one of the most expensive of all time. So if you come and see the documentary at the cinema you get to see Jack’s work in the way that he intended.”

The film-maker had clear ideas on how he wanted to tell the life of Jack Cardiff. The story unfolds through interview footage, shot by McCall, and the testimonies of those who knew the great man. “I would see documentaries which were quite dry and academic – heritaging the past I call it – and I found them quite soulless. I was very interested in making a film about someone where the story is not told in voice-over but predominantly by people who were with him and who were eye witnesses to events.”

The list of names lining up to pay homage to Jack Cardiff takes the film to another level and demonstrates the respect with which Cardiff was held within his profession. Among the venerable talking heads are the likes of Martin Scorsese, Charlton Heston, Sir John Mills and Kirk Douglas.

McCall elaborates, “I did all the interviews myself and I knew that I needed a range of people so that with, you know, ‘The African Queen’ you have people, including Lauren Bacall, who know what the director John Huston was like. For me that has a lot more resonance than a dry academic thing. Kirk Douglas (who worked with Cardiff on ’The Vikings’) had a stroke so we took him off the list but he called back a few months later and said, ‘I’m going to do it now.’ Since then he’s gone back into acting!!”

Sadly, other notables in the film did not prove so resilient and several have moved on to the great cutting room in the sky. “I was aware that people like John Mills were getting on and I was aware that the clock was ticking when I was doing these interviews. Several of the people in the film have since passed away so I am glad that I shot them all on film. I’ve transferred them all to high definition so they’re future-proofed.”

Naturally, Cardiff had many an anecdote to share which made it tricky when McCall came to edit his film. “I had a massive abundance of material but you can only leave in one of three jokes, you have to choose something that best represents him. I put things in from ‘Rambo II’ and he wasn’t sure about that but I said, ‘no, Jack, you have to tell the whole story.” He was one of the few people I met who you could sit down with over a cup of tea and he would tell stories that had him go from Stallone to Marlene Dietrich and then on to Humphrey Bogart. That’s what I wanted to reflect in the film.”

Jack Cardiff died in April 2009 but not before he saw a ninety minute cut of McCall’s film. “He watched it with (director of ‘The Vikings’) Richard Fleischer which made me very happy. What Jack really found interesting is the way people laughed at his jokes. He was a very positive person, very inclusive and always trying to fill people with enthusiasm.”

Cameraman : The life and work of Jack Cardiff is out on DVD 26th July.

Alan Diment

Updated: Jul 23, 2010

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