Gordon Willis: Shining a light on Hollywood's 'Prince of Darkness'

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Often called “The Prince of Darkness” for his tendency to artfully cloak onscreen characters in ominous shadows, cinematographer Gordon Willis was the closest thing Hollywood had to a Rembrandt. His playful visual style, daring use of chiaroscuro, and seemingly effortless ability to conjure a mood of unsettling paranoia made him the ideal Director of Photography for the 1970s — a glorious filmmaking decade when Technicolor artifice was swept aside for New Hollywood naturalism.

Whether working with Francis Ford Coppola on The Godfather saga, Alan J. Pakula on his dizzying Watergate-era conspiracy thrillers All The President’s Men and The Parallax View, or Woody Allen in his delirious run of romantic comedies like Annie Hall, Manhattan, and The Purple Rose of Cairo, Willis, who died on May 18 at age 82, not only pushed the boundaries on how movies could look, but also how we, as moviegoers, looked at them.

Willis was born into the movies in 1931: His father was a make-up artist at Warner Bros. And while serving in the Air Force during the Korean War, Willis worked in motion picture unit before entering the Mad Men-era world of advertising and documentary filmmaking. His career as a cinematographer began with 1970’s End of the Road and ran through 1997’s The Devil’s Own, packing a staggering number of unforgettable and undisputed classics between those two bookends. Looking at his resume today, at all of those years choreographing the delicate dance of light and shadow, it’s shocking — almost perverse really — that he was only nominated for an Oscar twice (for Woody Allen’s 1984 newsreel lark Zelig and 1991’s Corleone coda The Godfather: Part III). The Academy, no doubt making up for its repeated sins of omission, handed him an honorary Oscar in 2010.

My first exposure to Willis was going to see 1976’s All the President’s Men with my parents in Boston. I was only seven at the time — too young to keep track of all of the shady characters, Nixonian dirty tricks, and dead-end leads pursued by the bloodhound reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. But even then, I knew that this was a film that didn’t look like anything I’d seen before. (My parents took me to the movies early and often, and regarded the MPAA rating system as a suggestion to be ignored rather than a rule to be followed.) The movie opened my eyes and dared me not to blink for fear of missing some hypnotic Dutch Master image, like the barely-lit sequence in a D.C. parking garage when Robert Redford’s Woodward meets up with his cloak-and-dagger source, Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook).

Only later, during one of several future dates with the film, would I get what Willis was subconsciously forcing me to see with his jeweler’s eye. How the Washington Post newsroom was antiseptically bright (the truth) and the corridors of power so gloomy and dark (all the better for lies to flourish). Willis would shoot Woodward and Bernstein from afar, framing them as small specks against the emblems of Big Government, subtly evoking the David-vs.-Goliath struggle in the film. By casting the movie’s scenes in darkness, he was forcing the audience to squint and strain their eyes, making them complicit in the search for elusive clues.

Willis’ other films with Pakula from that era — 1971’s Klute and 1974’s The Parallax View — have a style that’s hard to mistake today. And to this movie lover, that style is as perfect as a rock snob gazing upon Jimi Hendrix’s white Fender Stratocaster or a car enthusiast looking at a Mercedes 300 SL Gullwing. Both are flawless films that convey a palpable sense of anxiety and unease. Willis was the Maestro of Malaise. The lighting of one particular scene in The Parallax View, to me, remains a master class in suspense and dread.

It occurs after Warren Beatty’s muckraking reporter, who’s uncovered something much bigger than he is, meets with his kindly old editor, played by Hume Cronyn. By confiding in Cronyn, he’s put him in jeopardy too. And there’s a sequence when Cronyn has a sandwich delivered to his office late at night that feels as tense as something out of Hitchcock. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but just watch how Willis lights Cronyn’s office — and what he chooses not to show the viewer. No one who’s ever made a career looking through a viewfinder has ever told as much by showing so little.

In 1972, Willis was tapped by a young, mostly unproven director named Francis Ford Coppola to shoot The Godfather. The film was more ambitious than anything either had attempted before. Willis’ brassy look for the mafia epic remains as singular today as it was then, and he caught a lot of flack for the way he lit the film — especially the fact that you couldn’t see star Marlon Brando’s eyes.

But it’s Coppola’s sequel, 1974’s The Godfather: Part II, where Willis pushed the visual envelope further than he ever had before — and maybe ever would again. The flashback scenes to the young Vito Corleone (played by Robert De Niro) on New York’s Lower East Side look like sepia-tinted photographs. They seem to be lit by kerosene lamps. In contrast, the scenes in the present (or at least the late 1950s present tense of the film) are the Prince’s darkest. Take the scenes at the Corleone Lake Tahoe compound, where Michael (Al Pacino) seems to be constantly shrouded in gloomy shadow, mirroring the darkening rot of his soul. In the wonderful 1992 documentary Visions of Light, Willis admits that he may have gone a bit too far with underexposure in those scenes. Then he adds, laughing, “I think Rembrandt went too far a couple of times.” Over and over again, Willis was lucky to work with directors who shared his willingness to flirt with the dark side. Directors knew enough to trust him.

In other films, like 1973’s The Paper Chase, Willis seemed to have an almost clinical phobia of artificial lighting. But it’s unfair to think of Willis just as a creature of the dark. His cinematography for Herbert Ross’ 1981 musical Pennies From Heaven couldn’t be more vibrant. It’s like a lost Busby Berkeley film. Still, his most famous images probably resulted from his collaboration with Woody Allen. Their first film together was 1977’s Annie Hall (which ended up winning Best Picture, even though Willis wasn’t even nominated for his work on the other side of the view finder), followed by one of the most sumptuous black-and-white films of the color era, 1979’s Manhattan.

Just mentioning that film, you can’t help but be flooded with indelible swirls of hallucinatory shots — such as the opening montage of New York City set to Gershwin, which managed to romanticize a city that, at the time, most people had written off as a trash-and-graffiti-strewn combat zone. And then there was the shot of Allen and Diane Keaton sitting on a bench at sunrise, gazing at the Queensboro Bridge. This isn’t just filmmaking: This is cultural iconography, the definition of romance writ large. Few DPs ever capture one image that striking. Willis has reels and reels of them.

Willis and Allen worked hand in glove throughout the remainder of the ’70s and into the ’80s, with films like Stardust Memories, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Each has a unique look, and each matches its subject matter flawlessly. I love all of them. But the one that remains the most singular to me is Zelig — a stunt of a film about a human chameleon told through faux March of Time-style newsreels, much like the opening moments of Citizen Kane. Allen and Willis must have had a blast making the film, achieving its nostalgic look, scratching up the negative to make it look old-timey. The film has a merry prankster feel to it and you can’t help but imagine Allen and Willis sitting behind the camera scheming like a pair of mischievous school kids.

When I interviewed Allen in 2011, he recalled, “When we were making Zelig, we were taking the film from the editing room and bringing it to the bathroom and holding it under the shower to make it look worn. It was all done by hand. It was one of the last hand-made products. And what you see on screen is Gordon Willis and all the fun that making movies can be. At least when you’re doing it right.” In other words, even in darkness, there should be light.

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