The word “painterly” is perhaps too often applied to cinematography, but in the case of Jack Cardiff it couldn’t be more apt. He was a painter as well as one of the true innovators in the history of moviemaking, and it was with a painter’s eye that he approached the use of color on celluloid.
“Cameraman: The Life & Work of Jack Cardiff” is filled with gloriously vivid HD clips of his groundbreaking work in such films as “The Red Shoes” and “Black Narcissus,” as well as rich anecdotes from Cardiff, who died in 2009.
Craig McCall’s affectionate “Life & Work” doesn’t dig deep on the biographical side, and the lack of personal detail can be frustrating. Yet it suits its subject’s gentlemanly reserve. A mild-mannered practitioner of hothouse visions, Cardiff was the first British cameraman to be trained in Technicolor — the better to break the rules, as the film makes clear without getting overly technical or geeky.
Given that Cardiff’s movie career covered nine decades, it might be argued that the work is the life. He began that career in 1918, as a 4-year-old bit player. His lensing credits are as diverse as “The African Queen” and “Rambo: First Blood Part II,” with time out for a segue to the director’s chair for 13 features.
Among McCall’s interviewees is reliably passionate historian Martin Scorsese, who drew directly from Cardiff’s work for key sequences in “Raging Bull.” But the film also includes more exotic talking heads — notably the ever-elegant Kim Hunter, Moira Shearer and Kathleen Byron, in their last screen appearances.
Cardiff, who shot everyone from Audrey Hepburn to Marianne Faithfull, explains convincingly why Marlene Dietrich would have made a good cameraman. He would know.
“Cameraman: The Life & Work of Jack Cardiff.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes. At Laemmle’s Sunset 5, West Hollywood.