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Cavalcanti was born in Rio de Janeiro, the son of a prominent mathematician. He was a precociously intelligent child, and by the age of 15 was studying law at university. Following an argument with a professor he was expelled. His father sent him to Geneva, Switzerland on condition that he did not study law or politics. Cavalcanti chose to study architecture instead. At 18 he moved to Paris to work for an architect, later switching to working on interior design. After a visit back to Brazil he took up a position at the Brazilian consulate in Liverpool, England.
In 1920 Cavalcanti left his job at the Consulate and moved back to France to work for L'Herbier; he was to be involved in the making of numerous films, the most notable being L'Inhumaine. He was soon making his own films, in 1926 directing his first, Rien Que les Heures (Nothing But Time) — a day in the life of Paris and its citizens. Cavalcanti took a job with Paramount's French studios after the talkies came in, but he found himself making more commercial films which could not hold his interest and left Paramount in 1933.
The following year Cavalcanti returned to England to work for John Grierson's GPO Film Unit. He was involved in many capacities, from production to sound engineer. He was to spend seven years at the GPO Film Unit, working on many projects, most notably; Coal Face (1935), Night Mail (1936), Message to Geneva (1937), Four Barriers (1937), and Spare Time (1939). Much of Cavalcanti's work at the GPO was uncredited, he acted as a mentor to many new film makers, but in 1937 he was appointed acting head of the GPO Film Unit when Grierson left for Canada. When Cavalcanti was told that the only way the position could become permanent was to become a naturalized British citizen, he decided to leave the unit.
In 1940 Cavalcanti joined Ealing Studios, under the leadership of producer Michael Balcon. He worked as an art editor, producer and director. His most notable works of this period (many of them propaganda films) were Yellow Caesar (1941), Went the Day Well? (1942), Three Songs of Resistance (1943), Champagne Charlie (1944), Dead of Night (as co-director) (1945) and Nicholas Nickleby (1947). In 1946 Cavalcanti left Ealing over a dispute about money. He went on to direct three more films in the UK, before returning to Brazil in 1950.
In Brazil Cavalcanti became head of production for Companhia Cinematográfica Vera Cruz; though the company eventually became insolvent. After being blacklisted as a communist in Brazil, he moved back to Europe. He spent much of the 1960s and 1970s working as an itinerant film maker in various countries, including East Germany, France and Israel.
Cavalcanti died in Paris at the age of 85.
Filmography as director
- 1926 Rien que les heures
- 1927 Le train sans yeux
- 1927 La P'tite Lili
- 1927 En rade
- 1928 Yvette
- 1928 La jalousie du barbouille
- 1928 Captain Fracasse
- 1929 Le petit chaperon rouge
- 1929 Vous verrez la semaine prochaine
- 1930 Toute sa vie
- 1930 A canção do berço
- 1930 À mi-chemin du ciel
- 1931 The Devil's Holiday
- 1931 Dans une ile perdue
- 1932 En lisant le journal
- 1932 Le jour du frotteur
- 1932 Revue Montmartroise
- 1932 Nous ne ferrons jamais du cinéma
- 1932 Le truc du brésilien
- 1933 Le mari garon
- 1933 Plaisirs défendus
- 1933 Coralie et Cie
- 1933 Tour de chant
GPO & Crown Film Units
- 1934 Pett and Pott: A fairy story of the suburbs
- 1934 The glorious Sixth of June: New rates
- 1935 The King's Stamp
- 1935 Coal Face
- 1936 Message from Geneva
- 1937 Line to Tcherva Hut
- 1937 Men of the Alps (co-prod with Switzerland)
- 1937 We Live In Two Worlds
- 1937 Who writes to Switzerland?
- 1937 Four barriers
- 1938 Mony a pickle
- 1938 Happy in the morning: A film fantasy
- 1939 Mid-summer day's work
- 1939 The Chiltern country
- 1940 Alice in Switzerland
- 1940 La cause commune
- 1940 Factory front
- 1940 Mastery of the sea
Ealing and UK
- 1941 Yellow Caesar (short)
- 1942 Went the Day Well?
- 1943 Watertight (short)
- 1943 Three Songs of Resistance
- 1944 Champagne Charlie
- 1945 Dead of Night ('Christmas party' & 'ventriloquist' episodes)
- 1947 Nicholas Nickleby
- 1947 They Made Me a Fugitive
- 1947 The First Gentleman
- 1949 For Them That Trespass
- 1961 The Monster of Highgate Ponds
Brazil and others
- 1950 Caiçara (Brazil)
- 1952 Simão, o caolho (Brazil)
- 1952 Song of the Sea (Brazil)
- 1955 Mulher de verdade (Brazil)
- 1955/60 Herr Puntila and His Servant Matti (Austria/East Germany)
- 1957 Die Windrose (East Germany)
- 1959 Venetian Honeymoon (France/Italy)
- 1967 Thus Spoke Theodore Herzl (Israel)
- 1969 Les empailles (France)
- 1971 La visite de la vieille dame (France)
- 1976 Le voyageur du silence (France)
- 1976 Um homem e o cinema (Brazil)
- "BFI Screenonline: Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982) Biography". www.screenonline.org.uk.
- Jackson, Kevin (July 2, 2010). "Our debt to Alberto Cavalcanti" – via www.theguardian.com.
- Jackson, Kevin (March 3, 2004). Humphrey Jennings. Picador. ISBN 9780330354387 – via Google Books.
- "Alberto Cavalcanti | Brazilian director". Encyclopedia Britannica.
- Rist, Peter H. (May 8, 2014). Historical Dictionary of South American Cinema. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 9780810880368 – via Google Books.
- Rawsthorn, Alice (May 5, 2013). "London Festival Celebrates Role of Design in L'Herbier's Films" – via NYTimes.com.
- "Alberto Cavalcanti | Biography, Movie Highlights and Photos". AllMovie.
- "Alberto Cavalcanti". BFI.
- The Brazilian Road Movie: Journeys of (Self) Discovery. University of Wales Press. June 1, 2013. ISBN 9780708325995 – via Google Books.