Jack Cardiff: A Life in (Moving) Pictures

We talk to Scottish filmmaker <strong>Craig McCall</strong> at the Cannes Film Festival on how he came to make a documentary on the legendary cinematographer <strong>Jack Cardiff</strong>

Feature by Gail Tolley | 26 May 2010
  • Jack Cardiff

In 1998 when Jack Cardiff came to Cannes as an honorary guest people had no idea who the elderly gentleman walking up the red carpet was. While his face might not be familiar his name certainly is and has graced the opening credits of some of the most loved and respected films ever made as cinematographer (and later director). Cardiff’s career began during the silent picture era when he started as a clapper boy before rising up the ranks to be cinematographer on films such as The Red Shoes, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and The African Queen. He was known for his innovative camera techniques and use of colour which was heavily influenced by his love of painting.

Cardiff’s life is celebrated in the heartfelt documentary Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff which was made over the course of 13 years by Kilmarnock-born filmmaker Craig McCall. Filled with humour and anecdotes from the film industry, it’s an engaging insight into cinema’s golden years and into one of its most influential and charismatic figures. McCall first met Cardiff when the two were both working at EMI. “I was doing music videos” he says, “Jack was doing something very different, he was doing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. However I had a clockwork camera that he also had and we started talking about it and he was saying how much he loved that camera and how many in-camera effects you could do with it. From that conversation he made me a cup of tea and I started to talk to him and I thought a lot of people would like to talk to Jack. So I shot a pilot and the next thing, I raised some money independently.”

Alongside interviews with Cardiff the documentary features an impressive array of talking heads including Martin Scorsese, Lauren Bacall and Kirk Douglas (who rarely grants interviews). “Jack was the key. Jack is very, very well loved and I think it comes across so strongly with each of the interviewees. I was overwhelmed that everyone [I approached to appear] came back. They did it because they really loved Jack, none of them had to do it. They did it because they felt it was important to say why Jack was special.”

Cardiff himself was full of anecdotes from the sets he worked on and one of McCall’s favourites is from the set of The African Queen. “The [cast and crew] all got very ill, in fact they sent a doctor down to try to work it out because the film had to shut down because of dysentery and vomiting. Eventually one doctor realised that they were staying on a houseboat and they hadn’t put in a water filter and so they were basically drinking water straight from the river. But John Huston, the director and Humphrey Bogart weren’t sick and they’d never been sick and they couldn’t work out why that was and then they worked it out: they didn’t drink water, they just drank whisky!”

The best biographical documentaries capture the spirit of their subject, and Cameraman does just that by painting a portrait of Cardiff as a skilled artist with an infectious passion for the cinema and lust for life. It's a must for film fans.

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff is out in selected cinemas in June, and on DVD on 19 Jul. The Filmhouse are screening several of Cardiff’s films in a short season until 8 Jun