The film community lost one of its great masters yesterday. Gordon Willis was the most influential cinematographer of the 1970s, responsible for shooting many classic pictures from that storied decade and pioneering the use of deep, rich black on 35mm film. As frequent readers of my blog may have intuited, cinematography is the aspect of filmmaking I have the least interest in, and I don’t often wax passionately about cameramen, but Willis is one of the ten or twelve true artists of the craft. He was known as The Prince of Darkness, not because of his disposition, but because of how far he pushed the use of shadows and the absence of light. Coming up in an age when studio moguls wanted their stars bathed in glorious illumination, Willis used a far darker palette than most everyone working in celluloid at the time thought was possible or appropriate. His influence can be seen in the work of the great Directors of Photography who followed him: Michael Chapman, John Bailey, Michael Ballhaus, Robbie Muller, Chris Doyle, Harris Savides, and (perhaps his digital heir apparent) Roger Deakins.
Willis will live eternally in the annals of cinema history for shooting the three Godfather films for Francis Ford Coppola (which pushed his absence-of-light style to its extremes), and as Woody Allen’s principle collaborator during his period of greatest development as a filmmaker (shooting Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan, Stardust Memories, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, and The Purple Rose of Cairo). He photographed Hal Ashby’s first feature The Landlord, Herbert Ross’s dreamlike musical Pennies from Heaven, and James Bridges’ pictures The Paper Chase, Perfect, and Bright Lights, Big City. Apart from Allen, the filmmaker Willis was most closely associated with was Alan J. Pakula, for whom he shot Klute, The Parallax View, All the President's Men, Comes a Horseman, Presumed Innocent, and the final film of both men, The Devil's Own.
He shot four of my 100 favorite films so its difficult to pick just one to screen as a tribute to him, but the picture that I feel represents his greatest achievement is All the President's Men. This was the first film that made me aware of how effective cinematography can be, not only at creating atmosphere and striking, thematically relevant images, but also more visceral sensations like suspense, intrigue, and even fear.
Click the image or title below to read my 100 favorites essay about All the President's Men.
director Alan J. Pakula, producer Walter Coblenz, writer William Goldman
with Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards, Jane Alexander, Meredith Baxter, Ned Beatty, Stephen Collins, Penny Fuller, Robert Walden, Frank Will, Dominic Chianese, Polly Holliday, Basil Hoffman, and F. Murray Abraham.