Cinematographer and director Jack Cardiff, who died in 2009 at age 94, stands as a regal presence at the center of Cameraman, a worshipful new documentary devoted to his remarkable life and career. Cardiff has always occupied the eye of the hurricane; he’s a quietly exceptional man in a medium ruled by lunatics and egomaniacs. Director Craig McCall approaches Cardiff with something approaching awe, though his subject views his accomplishments with the good-natured humility befitting a proper English gentleman.
Cameraman chronicles Cardiff’s venerable career from his early days as a teenage prodigy through his glory years as the house cinematographer for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Archer Films, and eventually on to his career as a director himself. Over the course of decades in the business, Cardiff worked with the very best, rubbing shoulders with John Huston and Alfred Hitchcock as he watched silent film give way to sound, and black and white give way to radiant Technicolor.
Late in the film, Cardiff, in his early 90s at the time, but still sharp, vibrant, and handsome, looks at a series of stills he shot of famous beauties like Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner decades earlier. As he lovingly contemplates the ghosts of his glorious past, Cardiff explains that he’s spent his life “collecting” beauties photographically. As a cinematographer with a painter’s eye for composition, Cardiff had a great feeling for female beauty, but he also spent his life creating beauty, not just collecting it. Cardiff has the quiet self-confidence of a man who has devoted his life to breathing rarified air, collaborating with geniuses and making great art without making too big of a deal about it. The film’s subtitle turns out to be something of a lie, since Cameraman has little interest in its subject’s personal life. But given a career as remarkable as Cardiff’s, the “work” part provides enough fodder for a dozen documentaries.