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Gordon Willis Remembered: A Look Through His Greatest Hits

Image for Gordon Willis Remembered: A Look Through His Greatest Hits

Gordon Willis may have retired from filmmaking in 1997, but he remained a towering figure in the halls of cinematography and an influence on many who followed him. Of all of Gordon Willis’ many talents — and they are considerable — perhaps one of his most unsung gifts was his great taste. Few filmmakers in any discipline have so consistently picked the kind of interesting, quality projects that Willis picked throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s. Working chiefly with Francis Coppola (two of The Godfather trilogy), Alan J. Pakula (four films) and Woody Allen (eight films) but also with the likes of Hal Ashby and Herbert Ross, he created a distinct daring visual style, marked by a minimum of light, pitch black backgrounds and the balls to let the actors eyes — the window of the soul — not always be illuminated. Here are some of his greatest images.

Director: Alan J. Pakula

“There are movies that change the whole way in which films are made, like Klute, where Gordon Willis’s photography on the film is so textured, and, they said, too dark,” says Martin Scorsese about Pakula’s thriller come character study. Interestingly, Willis frames much of the movie through things in the foreground —windows, bars — that make you a figure peering onto the action. A key influence on Fincher’s Seven, Klute was followed by Willis’ equally edgy work on The Parallax View.

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

“I believe in America,” is the opening line of The Godfather. But equally important is the opening image. A close-up of a face pulls out to reveal Don Corleone (Marlon Brando)’s office illuminated by pools of light, a heart of darkness buried in a loving family home. The lighting is warm and subtle, not harsh, but the surrounding blacks are jet-black, the film in a nutshell. While The Godfather is the film that cemented Willis’ reputation as The Prince Of Darkness (given to him by fellow DP Conrad Hall), it is equally interesting for its exterior sequences, a wintry New York at Christmas bereft of festive cheer and colour.

Director: Francis Ford Coppola

Wills continues the amber saturated look of the original — save for the eye-hurting brightness of Cuba — but adds a new feel for the early life of young Vito (Robert De Niro): a bit more open, a bit less stuck in shadow. It still feels the same world as Part 1 but just with slight tweaks in colour and focus, we get a sense of the distinct time period in play.

Director: Alan J. Pakula

For all Willis’ reputation as The Prince Of Darkness, he could also find interest in the bright open spaces of a newsroom, and few films make people on the phone so visually compelling as this riveting telling of the Watergate saga. But the bravura visual sees the sequence where Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) investigate Howard Hunt’s reading material at the Library Of Congress. As they start rifling through index cards, the camera starts on a close-ish shot of hands and pulls up into the roof of the library linked by a series of dissolves. As the view gets ever more dizzying, it only just enhances the hugeness of “Woodstein’s” task.

Director: Woody Allen

Prior to working with Willis, interesting visuals were never really Allen’s strong suit, and his films had the bright high contrast look of most Hollywood comedies. Brought in to match the personal nature of Annie Hall, Willis devised an intimate, natural look with the occasional touch of magic. For the scene where Alvy (Allen) and Annie (Keaton) talk to their shrinks seemingly in split screen, it was Willis who convinced Allen not to do it photographically but to build a set, allowing the actors to perform the scene together.

Director: Woody Allen

“He adored New York,” says Ike Davis at the start of Manhattan. “He idolized it out of all proportion.” Willis’ opening shots of the New York skyline in the opening montage are the visual equivalent of this much-loved voiceover. No city in the world has ever looked this beautiful. But if you want grandiloquent romance, look at the silhouette of Ike (Woody Allen) and Mary (Diane Keaton) on a bench dwarfed by the 59th Bridge. As Ike falls in love with Mary, so we fall in love with Manhattan, the city and the film thanks largely to Willis’ gorgeous imagery.

Director: Woody Allen

Throughout Willis’ career, there had been a lot of talk about the cinematographer as artist, citing painters from Francis Bacon to Edward Hopper as touchstones. But Zelig is the perfect example of cinematographer as technician, creating note-perfect faux documentary footage by combining the old (antique lenses) and the new (bluescreen technology). Predating Forrest Gump by some eleven years, Willis' work is perhaps the primary reason why you buy that Leonard Zelig (Allen) exists, hook, line and sinker.

Director: Woody Allen

Willis’ eighth and final film for Allen pulls together all his strengths in one irresistible package. As the story skews between the hard scrabble of Depression-era New Jersey and the fantastical fictional world of The Purple Rose Of Cairo, so Willis toggles between bleak, dialed down colour for the contemporary scenes and magical, glamorous black and white for the movie within a movie. Always thinking, Willis bathed the places where the two worlds collide — the Jewel movie house — in a warm, eternal, almost ethereal glow.