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A cinematographer and his masterpiece

Young Eyes
By BETSY SHERMAN  |  June 21, 2011
3.5 3.5 Stars

African Queen screenshot - Jack Cardiff

It's fitting that the last image of Cameraman: The Life & Work of Jack Cardiff — a film containing interviews with the great British cinematographer but not released until after his death — is of Cardiff. What's odd is the span of years that appears on screen: "1918-2009." Cardiff was born in 1914, but first worked on a film set in 1918 as a child actor (his parents were stage performers). Perhaps director Craig McCall considered his subject's first four years an incubation period before a prodigious life on and around celluloid.

Cameraman gives us insight into how and why movies manage to swallow us up for two hours and make us think we understand places, eras, and feelings we've never experienced. The trick may have been as simple as breathing on a lens — as Cardiff did to create a mist — or painting on a glass, which simulated fog enveloping ships in The Vikings (1958).

Cardiff, active into his 90s, was a master of Technicolor. As attested to by colleagues and admirers, he had a gift for using color to express emotion. Kirk Douglas speaks of Cardiff's "young eyes" that "remind me of Chagall — very inquisitive." Cardiff himself is an articulate speaker with a self-deprecating humor, who tells juicy tales about Marlene Dietrich and Ava Gardner. He is humbled by the artists who were touchstones for his work, especially Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, with whom he made A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947), and The Red Shoes (1948). A painter himself, Cardiff credits J.M.W. Turner for inspiring his boldness with lighting.

His knowledge of art helped get Cardiff chosen in 1936 as the first British cameraman to use the new three-strip Technicolor camera. The enormous machine was nicknamed the Enchanted Cottage, yet by 1949 Cardiff was using it on Alfred Hitchcock's Under Capricorn atop the first trackless crane, capturing lengthy, intricately choreographed shots. When Hollywood productions traveled to exotic locations in the 1950s, Cardiff directed 13 pictures, including a 1960 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (shot by Freddie Francis), then returned to the DP post for films including Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985).

Evidence of Cardiff's brilliance is close at hand. The same day Cameraman opens at the MFA, the 35mm restoration of one of his major works, The African Queen, opens at the Brattle Theatre. John Huston's 1951 adventure-comedy — in which gin-swilling riverboat captain Humphrey Bogart and prim missionary Katharine Hepburn flee Germans in East Africa during World War I, falling in love in the process — was famously as dramatic off-screen as on. The director allegedly agreed to take on the project because in Africa he'd have the chance to shoot an elephant. Hepburn's entertaining memoir about the film is subtitled How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind.

Hepburn only mentions Cardiff to note that he came down with malaria, but it's safe to assume she appreciated his ingenuity during the arduous shoots in the Belgian Congo and Uganda. Cardiff's home-movie footage of the production in Cameraman gives an idea of the challenges he faced.

The restoration was especially laborious because The African Queen's Technicolor negative had shrunken over the years. Luckily the restoration team had the benefit of Cardiff's guidance: in 2004, they recorded him watching the movie and explaining the shots and locations. This week, local audiences also have a chance to see a remarkable movie and meet one of its creators.

Cameraman: The lief and work of Jack Cardiff
Directed and written by Craig McCall with Jack Cardiff, Martin Scoresese, Kirk DOuglas, Lauren Bacall, and Charlton Heston
Strand Releasing | 90 Minutes
Museum of Fine Arts

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