Monday, October 25, 2010

NYFF 2010: Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff

Let's say you've just had a nasty personal shock, and whoever happens to be with you at the moment wants to console you. A New Yorker will keep you company on a subway platform as you stand in a fog, patiently waiting as you let three trains pass. One of the Siren's fellow Southerners will offer you a Coca-Cola or, as they say in Alabama, Co-Cola, and that means the kind with sugar, hon, you need the sugar to perk you up. An Arab will make you coffee and make sure your cup is poured from the top so you get the foam. A French person usually offers the Siren a pastis, one of the many things that endears that country to her.

A cinephile, probably, would offer you Jack Cardiff, and that was what the Siren got the first day she went to the New York Film Festival, a day that already had announced itself as the rotten climax of a personally trying September. And she sat and drank every image to the dregs and felt a bit better, at least until the lights came up. So it feels churlish to say, as the Siren must, that the film is a rather pedestrian affair that will give a Cardiff fan little fresh insight. It's like telling the consolatory Frenchman there's too much ice in the pastis. All the same, despite its having provided much balm for the Siren, it's an odd duck of a documentary.

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff gives you the work with Powell and Pressburger, zips back around to cover the Hollywood period with The African Queen, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman, The Barefoot Contessa, War and Peace, The Vikings and Errol Flynn's hell-raising. It then goes into Cardiff's work as a director, giving pride of place to Sons and Lovers and a bit of Young Cassidy before trailing off at the end with the likes of Rambo: First Blood Part II.

The film sticks almost entirely to the professional aspects of Cardiff's life; the one personal revelation is a brief discussion of his actor parents and his stint as a child actor. The Siren confesses to disappointment with this approach, although she knows she's supposed to pretend not to care. Cinematography is, to the Siren, the sexiest job on a set, and plenty of stills attest to the fact that Cardiff was a handsome devil. There must be more to tell than the old story about Ava Gardner wanting to be well-lit when she had her period. Oh well; Magic Hour didn't have much of the off-set life either.

Over at The House Next Door, Aaron Cutler goes into how the film was digitally projected. This the Siren, with her vast technical knowledge, registered as "hmm, the Powell-Pressburger stuff looked better at MOMA;" but with Cardiff it's an important point. The movies are represented mostly by rather brief clips, too brief for a Technicolor worshipper like the Siren. There's a great deal of Cardiff's musings on the artists that influenced his imagery; a painter himself, Cardiff loved Vermeer, Turner, the Impressionists. You also spend a lot of time with the still photos Cardiff made of actresses over the years, portraits that didn't give you much of the ladies' psychology but did show an unbelievable eye for their beauty. There are plenty of interviews--the Siren is pleased to report that Lauren Bacall looks great--but not much depth to the discussion. Cardiff talks a lot on camera but much that he says will already be familiar to anyone who's read Magic Hour.

The fundamental problem with Cameraman is that it concerns a figure who's a god to movie hounds, but (much as it pains the Siren to say this) is barely known to the general public. The director, Craig McCall, chose to pitch the movie to an audience only vaguely familiar with Cardiff. But the Siren suspects such people might not be watching a movie about a cinematographer in the first place, so why not get more daring? In another documentary screened at the NYFF, A Letter to Elia, Kent Jones and Martin Scorsese took a personal approach. So while A Face in the Crowd might be the consensus blogger vote for Best Kazan at the moment, it gets scant screen time compared with East of Eden, for which Scorsese feels a deep personal attachment. And the Siren didn't feel cheated at all. She felt like she needed to see East of Eden again.

So the Siren feels gratitude for the 86 minutes she spent with Cameraman, as she feels gratitude for the coffee, the pastis and the friend who finally waved her onto an F train. But if someone were to ask her which Cardiff scenes she'd like to see screened and discussed, in defiance of an audience wondering "hey, where's Black Narcissus," here are just three:

1. The love scene on the pier between Horst Buchholz and Leslie Caron in Fanny. The Siren would have loved to ask Cardiff about working with a director like Josh Logan, whose sense of cinematic visuals was, to put it charitably, nowhere near the level of Cardiff's own. Cardiff did say in his memoirs that he thought Logan's film had more heart than the original Pagnol trilogy.

2. The closing of King Vidor's War and Peace, with Audrey Hepburn in her red velvet dress standing out like a torch amidst the blanched ruins of her Moscow home. This movie could use some sprucing up, too, judging by the Siren's anemic-looking DVD.

3. Edmond O'Brien's telephone scene in The Barefoot Contessa, the one where he's trying to prevent a torrent of bad publicity from the title character's father having committed a murder. Shooting Ava Gardner beautifully is a wonderful thing, but getting the light just right on Edmond O'Brien's nerve-sweat is art, too.

More links:

Marilyn Ferdinand on Cameraman.

For balance, the delightful Amber Wilkinson at, who liked Cameraman more than either Aaron, Marilyn or the Siren.

Glenn Kenny on Cardiff, here, here, here, here and here.


Arthur S. said...

Another terrific Cardiff film is PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN.

Cardiff didn't get along well with King Vidor on WAR AND PEACE(a great film) he said that Vidor didn't allow him to experiment as much as Michael Powell did. Hitchcock, for whom he made UNDER CAPRICORN(and the scene where Ingrid Bergman sees her reflection in the window for the first time in many years is a key Cardiff moment), almost destroyed his career because of the complicated technical problems he invited on the shoot of the film.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Gavin Lambert loathed Cardiff's direction of Sons and Lovers (which Gavin scripted.) "Couldn't direct his way out of a paper bag!" he told me. I can't agree. He was more than competent.

And anyone responsible for Girl on a Motorcyle (Marianne Faithful and Alain Delon!) is in my good books forever.

But Mr. Cardiff was a wiz as a d.p. Utterly adore Pandora and the Flying Dutchman. But then I love Lewin.

And Ava, of course.

The Siren said...

Pandora is a batty, extremely lovable movie, and I love Lewin too; talk about someone who deserves auteur status and doesn't seem to get it. Cardiff's work is magnificent. But it's been rediscovered recently and discussed a lot, esp. with the restoration, and it's in Cameraman. I was deliberately picking three scenes that I like, that I figure *no one* ever really asked Cardiff about, more's the pity.

Arthur, so glad you share my War and Peace love. I ran a few scenes this morning though and my DVD is shockingly drab, compared with what I remember. Must investigate whether there's a better version out there, or one in the works.

Peter Nellhaus said...

So I guess there was no mention of Cardiff's last directorial effort.

The Siren said...

Oh my. I think they ran posters and a still or two from all his directorial work; but this was notably absent, Peter. How very timid.

Karen said...

But the Siren suspects such people might not be watching a movie about a cinematographer in the first place, so why not get more daring?

That is just a marvellously astute observation, Siren. Well, maybe it's obvious; anyway, it's astute to ME.

I wonder how many non-cinephiles devoured something like Visions of Light? I mean, it seems like the filmmakers had an existing litmus test to identify the size of their potential audience.

The Siren said...

You could call it astute, or you could also call it defeatist, which I seldom am with regard to old movies. But still. I'd be really interested to see how this did play with someone who didn't know Cardiff, or Powell or Pressburger or Vidor or even Huston, from a hole in the ground. Would it convert anyone? I think to do that you'd need more wall-to-wall Cardiff work, and less talk. It's neither fish nor fowl. But Cardiff's delightful and it's just a treat to go back to these movies, I can't deny that.

Tony Dayoub said...

This is the movie I most regret missing at NYFF. I'm happier now to hear that it was a bit lukewarm.

I caught THE VIKINGS for the first time the other day during TCM's day-long tribute to Tony Curtis, unaware Cardiff had been the cinematographer until I got to the closing credits, and by then I was not surprised. Cheesy though it may be, the film looks magnificent. I was most impressed with Cardiff's lighting during the scene where the British king (that guy who played Herod in, was it Ray's KING of KINGS?) executes Borgnine's character and maims Curtis. The way the torches' light danced on the shadowy faces of the men as they argued in the dank dungeon, it's hard to see such subtlety in Technicolor films of the time, which often try to impress with brighter and brighter color. But for Cardiff, I guess this color stuff was old hat, and he challenged himself in other ways by then.

The Siren said...

Tony, I myself have an imperishable fondness for The Vikings. Ludicrous it kind of is, but it moves and it looks great and it's just so damn entertaining.

Tony Dayoub said...

You might understand then why, for me, THE VIKINGS doesn't start until you get your first glimpse at Douglas with the scar over his blinded white eye.

Arthur S. said...

To Siren,

I am a huge fan of King Vidor, the most criminally underrated of all great American film-makers. He was the decisive influence on Italian neo-realism and THE BIG PARADE was the single greatest influence on the painter Andrew Wyeth(he saw it 120 times, because in his words, "once is not enough"). WAR AND PEACE was originally a VistaVision release, since that greatest of widescreen formats isn't in an existence anymore, it's a pain to restore but hopefully Scorsese(a huge Vidor and W&P and Jack Cardiff fan) will put himself to it(a restored print played this year or the last at the Berlin Film Festival).

The Siren said...

Wholeheartedly agree on Vidor, Arthur. What great news that there is a restored print out there of War and Peace. I will be so pleased if it makes it here. A stunningly beautiful movie, and dramatically much more worthwhile than people give it credit for being. Audrey's wonderful.

Tony, ha, yes I do understand!

Tom Block said...

>A Face in the Crowd might be the consensus blogger vote for Best Kazan at the moment

I sure hope this isn't the case--if it is, it's time for a blogger Masada. Crowd starts out okay, but it's so preachy and heavy-handed by the end it's just an embarrassment.

The good news is that Wild River--my own pick for best Kazan, and one of the best movies there is about either the South or the Depression--is finally coming out on R1 DVD on 11/9. The bad news? It's only available (initially, at least) as part of a pricey Kazan box-set.

The Siren said... know Tom, I might need to back off that a bit. A Face in the Crowd got a lot of attention for the past year or so, but Wild River has a very devoted following. I haven't seen it yet to my sorrow, I'm waiting for the boxed set; or maybe it will be screened somewhere in NYC as part of the box-debut festivities. Anyway my favorite Kazan is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.

Tom Block said...

A Tree has been on my list forever...

I don't want to spoil anything about Wild River so I'll just say it's got a generosity of spirit all its own. The stridency that takes over a lot of Kazan's movies is entirely absent; it's like it was made by someone with all of his talent but a totally different temperament. Just a beautiful, beautiful work.

Ladybug said...

Although I will remain eternally grateful to TCM for showing THE VIKINGS during the Tony Curtis tribute, for me the ONLY way to truly see this film is on the big screen which I happily did way back around 1958. Down here we need a return to more big screens and crying rooms (how many remember those?).

And on bad days in Texas, Siren, it’s not Co-Cola, but have a Pepper (as in Dr. Pepper, the state drink, made with real cane sugar). Or a really big glass of sweet tea (Southerners will know what that means).

The Siren said...

Ah Nora, but -- is Texas the South? **sprints away**

Peter Nellhaus said...
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Peter Nellhaus said...

It should be noted that Cardiff did his own Viking movie, The Long Ships. Not as visually as striking as The Vikings, but I can't hate a film that has Sidney Poitier, Richard Widmark and Russ Tamblyn in search of a giant gold bell.

Ladybug said...

Well, I've always blessed the mint in my julep. But point taken since Texas is actually a REPUBLIC.

Now back to the movies and crying rooms, please......didn't I hear someone mention Albert Lewin awhile back?

D Cairns said...

I wonder why Cardiff made such dubious choices in his last films as cinematographer: not only Rambo, but Michael Winner's The Wicked Lady... At least he made them look good. I once saw Nestor Almendros interviewed and the then-recent Rambo came up. He said that the cinematography was outstanding, "the exception in that film."

Somebody asked Cardiff about The Mutations once and he laughed and said he'd forgotten he made it. It's a really unpleasant film, actually. There's nothing of Cardiff's personality in it: he was a gent of the old school.

Vanwall said...
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Vanwall said...

M Nellhaus -
"The Long Ships" - my old pal,(a rather Holmse-ian fellow) always called it "The Giant Rat Tit Of Steel", because of that ridiculous slicer-dicer execution device of Poitier's character. If any film needed to look better than the entire rest of it's meager offerings, this one is it.

I prefer the Big Easy offering: Hurricanes, 'cause you can walk around all day with a go-cup full of it, an' 'sides, Jax beer is gone, (thankfully) and I dunno what native soft drink there goes with a mud-bug boudin.

There was a kind of light that seemed to bathe Cardiff's films, it was almost uniquely his - regardless of genre or time of day, my eyes always enjoyed his d.p. work.

Edgar W Hopper said...

The Siren has done it again. Namely, made me wish I'd been reading you for years. You never fail to remind me of something that I never realized was important. Yes, I have waited with a friend on the elevated platform at Smith and 9th Street offering a kindly ear while several F trains came and went into the night. And now, like you, I absolutely must see East of Eden again. I was an ardent James Dean fan in the mid to late fifties and The Siren has me looking forward to revisiting a film that I enjoyed greatly. This time, however, I'll be trying to pay attention to the work of Kazan and McCord. In fact, you've offered me a different way to react to a movie. Thank you.

Patrick Wahl said...

Tom - great news that Wild River is soon to be available. Well, good news since it's only part of a boxed set. I've been waiting for that to show up on DVD for a few years, it's a big favorite of mine. When I go through the list of titles available on DVD at Netflix, I find it almost bizarre what is and is not available.

Siren - you have a movie treat ahead of you when you get to see Wild River.

Patrick Wahl said...

Tom - great news that Wild River is soon to be available. Well, good news since it's only part of a boxed set. I've been waiting for that to show up on DVD for a few years, it's a big favorite of mine. When I go through the list of titles available on DVD at Netflix, I find it almost bizarre what is and is not available.

Siren - you have a movie treat ahead of you when you get to see Wild River.

gmoke said...

David Quaid, the DP of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians among other things, told his students to study the paintings of the Old Masters and watch their favorite movies with the sound off in order to concentrate on the lighting and the staging.

It's not just the light in a Cardiff film, it's also a quality of the filmstock itself. The movies look as if they have a bracing wind blowing through them. Not that everybody's hair is out of place, just that everything looks as open as the sky.

Or at least, that's how I remember his work.

Uncle Gustav said...

For what it's worth, Cardiff's Dark of the Sun (aka The Mercenaries, 1968) is one of the most amazing movies I've ever seen. Two scenes in particular -- Rod Taylor plying a guy for merchandise, the other with Taylor going after someone with a machete -- refuse to leave my mind. It's Taylor's best film, and I've no doubt Tarantinto wanted him for Inglourious Basterds based on his performance in it.

The Siren said...

Nora, I've never seen a Lewin that didn't enchant on some level.

David C., Rambo was scripted by James Cameron, another filmmaker I like, and I have a fondness for Sylvester Stallone as well. (When I mentioned my Stallone fandom at a party another film writer gave me a flummoxed look and murmured "Well, that's...incongruous." But why? He's an old-fashioned star in many ways.)

And yet I do not love Rambo. Part of it is the dubious politics, yes, but it's also a weirdly whiny sort of film; I don't think a sense of victimization adds that much to an actioner. I confess that when I saw Rambo the cinematography didn't impress me beyond thinking the jungle looked better than Stallone did with that thing tied around his head. The clips in Cameraman look good but I could have lived without them and subbed in even something from The Mutations or Girl on a Motorcycle, which David E. maintains is Cardiff's key film as a director.

As for Cardiff's late-career choices, nobody in the documentary talks much about it, but my guess would be that it wasn't much different from Crawford and Davis taking horror-crone roles late in life. You want to keep working, you take what's on offer.

The Siren said...

Vanwall, I don't know whether to kiss you or kill you for the Giant Rat Tit of Steel image. Next time I encounter The Long Ships that is gonna be stuck in my head for sure.

Edgar, thanks so much. The subway figures so much in our lives here. I knew I had become a real New Yorker when my recurring childhood nightmare of being in a car that had no driver shifted to being on a subway train that deposited me on a completely unfamiliar platform.

A Letter to Elia (which I have written up in an essay I'll link to when it comes out) is being included as part of the Kazan boxed set, which will also include East of Eden. That's the good news. The bad news is that the set will be $200. I honestly don't know if I am going to spring for that. I may. I want my kids to see A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and I want to see Wild River pretty badly. Maybe somebody will have a sale...

The Siren said...

Charles, I don't get the DVD priorities either. I do know from my old interview with the fabulous Lee Tsiantis at TCM, as well as conversations with others who are more plugged-in than I am, that there are often things we barely comprehend going on behind the scenes. Wheels within wheels, as Psmith would say. Sometimes a rights situation is going on, sometimes the film is in bad shape and they're debating the finances of getting a copy good enough to put out there, and sometimes (this is depressing) the people trying to get the movie for us are running into bureaucrats who don't know or care about what is in the vaults. I know, for example, that The Constant Nymph is deeply desired by a large number of people, both fans and professionals, and yet the ongoing efforts to get it back into circulation are like running a film frame by glacial frame.

The Siren said...

Gmoke, you should definitely look at Aaron's article; he also saw A Matter of Life and Death and your description of the wind reminds me so much of certain things about the look of that movie. What a masterpiece, one of those films you can recommend to just about anyone and be sure they will love it as you do.

Flickhead, speaking of recommendations, you know yours carry weight with me. Pllus, I like Rod Taylor.

Tom Block said...

>The bad news is that the set will be $200

Amazon's got it on sale for $149 right now. Also, I assume Netflix will carry Wild River & Co. as individual titles. (20th Century Fox dumped the movie on its original release, and now, 50 years later, it's doing the exact same thing. That's what I call messed up.)

Karen said...

You know, I like Jack Cardiff as much as the next guy does (especially if the next guy is a member of our esteemed hostess' salon), but I admit to be saddened to see four times as much activity on this thread as there is for the divine Constance Bennett...

Vanwall said...
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Vanwall said...

"kiss you or kill you" - damn, a noirish conundrum; mebbe both, I'll have to think about it.

Stallone came out of nowhere into my viewing universe, jumping out of the TV screen, practically, in a "Kojak" episode, where he was a cop in rigged shooting, and intelligently underplayed brilliantly, with not a hint of mumble-de-sly. I thought, "This guy is going places." Unfortunately, not the places I thought, until "Cop Land".

Cardiff and the other great "eyes" in the film world, had amazing judgement of light and color - it's like a top-level athletes, like ball player Ted Williams, who could see the stitches rotating when a pitch came in and could tell you where on the ball he hit it, or race car drivers who see and react in times that would shame a hummingbird or a starving panther; greatness is really an individual thing, not to be Rand-y - I don't support using powers for selfish evil! hehe - but when they make their vision available to anyone to see on the screen, it's terribly generous, and that in itself must be mightily satisfying.

The Siren said...

Well now Karen, part of that is just that the Siren didn't add a whole lot of value with that Constance post; not like my marathon "she was SO GREAT" tribute to What Price Hollywood?. Not as much to bite into.

Although, I will confess to a small qualm about Cardiff worship, and you remind me of it. There are non-Powell-Pressburger Technicolor movies that could go to the mat with Cardiff's work. Meet Me in St Louis, for example. Go back to the Halloween sequence and tell me different. George Folsey, DP. Now I know next to nothing about Mr. Folsey beyond the fact that he was also DP on The Band Wagon, which is my favorite movie musical on days I haven't just seen Singin' in the Rain. But a quick zip over to IMDB reveals one heck of a filmography, even down to underseen gems like Seven Sweethearts, a B&W Borzage that is sheer loveliness. I'll just stop here because I haven't got all day but check it out:

Don't mind the Siren, she just likes to spread the love...Cardiff wouldn't want to hog it all for himself I'm sure.

Karen said...

But...but...but does this mean that my fellow salonistes (is that a word??) didn't run to the DVR and watch all those films, then run back to your place to offer their opinions??

It is to weep. My Saturday was Constance Bennett Day.

Vanwall said...

Karen -

Haven't had a chance yet to see all the Connies. Real life intrudes. Will have something presently.

Trish said...

I'm with Karen... For those who have TCM, have pity on the rest of us and offer up your Constance observations from the big day.

I saw Pandora and the Flying Dutchman recently and can honestly say I stuck with it only for its visuals. Stunning opening sequence, car being pushed into the sea, the flying dutchman -- all enthralling. But the story drags, and I don't feel for these two at all. I like my James Mason left of centre, and he does nothing for me here. I love Ava, but truthfully she's not much of an actress -- at least not at this point in her career. So I guess I'm not much of an Albert Lewin fan... Now Val Lewton -- HE was something... ;)

Vanwall said...

Ragnar Loðbrók seemed to have entirely too much fun in "The Vikings", but what better bear of a man to play him than Ernie Borgnine, with his gap-toothed gurn as he leaps to his death towards the end? The eye-patch and dimpled chin, and long ships, and the Vikinger leaping to the fjord's promontory to blast out the rousing theme song - we would periodically do that ourselves when a handy low wall came into view - all were wonderful visuals that Cardiff made seem Beowulfian or Wagnerian; "The Kirk Douglas Saga", with a side of Curtis and Leigh, with that windy look from squinting into the fjord breezes. Michelangelo paintings come to larger-than-life, or perhaps David's "Napoleon Crossing the Alps" - the windy look was writ large on those kinds of inspiration. But oops, this was one of my old man's bugaboo films at rib-time - Curtis croaks.

As for "Dark of the Sun", it doesn't flow with a passing gust, it's limp with sweat, the humidity shining all thru that one. Taylor was fun to watch in a lot of films, he's a fave for me. "Young Cassidy" was on the telly recently, another Taylor/Cardiff connection, and the women had a hard time out-shining Taylor in the physical beauty dept. - Cardiff really knew how to show actors to their best advantages.

Arthur S. said...

My favourite Kazans are East of Eden and America,America and Wild River. I'd like very much to possess this box-set but then I'd much rather pay more and get the FORD AT FOX boxset. Kazan being a great Ford fan would understand. ''A Face in the Crowd'' has become really popular because of its present topicality but for me the satire of media isn't as interesting as the relationship between Andy Griffith and Patricia O'Neal and Walter Mathau's speech at the end is incredibly sanctimonious and unncessary(as Kazan himself admitted).

My favourite Technicolor films are,
- Jean Renoir's The River, The Golden Coach and French Cancan.
- King Vidor's 'An American Romance'
- John Ford's 'The Searchers'
- Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo'
- Powell-Pressburger-Cardiff's AMOLAD, Black Narcissus, Colonel Blimp. Although i like very much non-Cardiff films like Colonel Blimp and TALES OF HOFFMANN.
oh and
- Luchino Visconti's SENSO(you can't beat it's title credits with Senso in ornate font and below it "Colore della Technicolore")

Minnelli's most creative use of colour is in his melodramas like THE COBWEB(also by George Folsey) and especially SOME CAME RUNNING. They illustrate Minnelli's riposte to people who nostalgically pine for B+W, "Colour can do anything black-and-white can!"

Arthur S. said...

One mistake,
Powell-Pressburger-Cardiff's AMOLAD, Black Narcissus, Colonel Blimp.

I meant AMOLAD, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Technically, Cardiff worked as an assistant on Colonel Blimp(its DP was Georges Perinal who worked with Rene Clair) so it is a Cardiff film after a fashion. Powell was so impressed with the way he lit a shot of the animal busts that he insisted that Cardiff be his DP on his next film, which would become AMOLAD and which would not really be Powell's next film but that's where it began.

wwolfe said...

Apologies if someone else has mentioned this, but TCM recently showed a short documentary about the 1937 Paris Exposition with very pleasant and well-preserved Technicolor cinematography credited to "John Cardiff." I don't know for sure it's the same Cardiff, but I do know that when I saw the name on my TV screen, I let out an excited yelp of recognition. It's a sweet little movie, made melancholy by our knowledge of what's about to happen to all the countries participating in the Exposition.