1931 - 2014
"How are we going to show this at the drive-ins?"
The story goes that Paramount executives were in a panic the first time they viewed developed footage of Francis Ford Coppola's THE GODFATHER. The film was so unusually dark (at least to their sensibilities) that they believed Coppola and his cinematographer Gordon Willis had made a mistake. They were especially alarmed by Marlon Brando's appearance: Willis's overhead lighting - designed in part to work around Brando's elaborate makeup - often blacked out the actor's eyes, which was a no-no in motion pictures. The eyes, after all, are the actor's primary instrument, and Paramount sure as hell wasn't coughing up five percent of the film (capped at $1.5 million) to Brando so audiences could barely make out his features. The film would have to be brightened - and this would have to be done over Coppola's dead body, as the director knew any alterations to Willis's work would destroy the delicate design scheme that would lend this somber tale of murderers its seductive warmth.
This was one of many battles Coppola fought during the production of THE GODFATHER, but it was easily the most important. Willis's lighting wasn't simply about shadows and underexposure; it was a deeply considered collaboration with the actors, the art director, the costume designer and everyone else who had creative input into the movie. The cinematography was a genuinely emotional response to Coppola's tasteful rendering of Mario Puzo's lurid novel; the studio might've wanted high trash, but they were going to get a commercially accessible Visconti film - and make a killing in the process.
Willis's career did not begin with THE GODFATHER, but his cinematographic rock star legend certainly did. Dubbed the "Prince of Darkness", Willis would team with three of the '70s finest filmmaking talents (Coppola, Alan J. Pakula and Woody Allen) to craft, and this is not hyperbole, six of the greatest movies ever made: THE GODFATHER, THE GODFATHER PART II, THE PARALLAX VIEW, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, ANNIE HALL and MANHATTAN. These are films one can throw on at any moment of the day and immediately become enveloped in their textured visual storytelling. For the most part, Willis worked with directors who placed a high value on an individual shot: perspective, composition, movement, duration - nothing is thrown away. If there's an establishing shot, it's going to accomplish something more than setting the location; when Pakula cuts to the nighttime exterior of the Watergate at the beginning of ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, Willis has his camera set at mid-building level, with the only illumination provided by the distant glow of streetlights and a jostled flashlight. It's at once comic and unnerving - an amused depiction of the bumbling errand that would ultimately bring down the President of the United States.
Willis was probably the first cinematographer whose work I could immediately identify; save for his lovely black-and-white collaborations with Allen (and it must be noted that MANHATTAN features some of the most joyous passages in film history), there was always something autumnal and melancholy about his images. Occasionally this was an evocation of nostalgia (it's impossible to so much as think of THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO without getting misty), but more often there was a sinister undercurrent. It's there in his first and final films with Pakula: KLUTE and THE DEVIL'S OWN. These are movies that are driving toward deadly conclusions, and the horrible inevitability of it all gets in your bones. Willis captured the beauty of this world, but he made us peer through the darkness to see it.
I've read a few appreciations of Willis's work today, and have been disappointed to find so many writers (or editors) using a truncated still of the signature shot from MANHATTAN. This is all wrong. The majestic light of the Brooklyn Bridge isn't quite as bright without the darkness that takes up half the frame.
I can't think of a single image that more emphatically sums up the brilliance of Gordon Willis. It's a knockout.
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