Although he had not worked in movies for nearly two decades, the death from cancer last month of Gordon Willis marked the passing of one of the great cinematographers from the modern half of film history. Celebrated for his collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola on the Godfather films, and with Woody Allen, he was dubbed ‘the Prince of darkness’ by Conrad Hall, DP on the Coen brothers’ films, for his bold under-exposing of film stock in scenes such as the Deep Throat garage confrontation in All the President’s Men.
Willis senior had been in films, at Warner Bros, and after service in Korea the young Gordon spent time in various skill-gathering roles in Hollywood. He came to DP positions relatively late in his career, as the seventies dawned and a new generation of directors specialised in morally questioning, politically left-of-centre stories in which public corruption loomed large. Willis worked on all of Pakula’s ‘paranoia trilogy’ – Klute, The Parallax View, All the President’s Men – Arthur Penn’s Bad Company, a realism-inflected tale of juvenile outlaws in the old West, and Coppola’s The Godfather, with its famous closeted-room sequence, in which a top-lit Brando receives gifts and entreaties from guests at his daughter’s wedding.
His contribution to cinema lay in his imaginative close-up compositions and use of colour stock and lighting to produce pictures that advanced the story his director was trying to tell. Remember the snooping, long-lensed shots of Fonda in Klute, or the scenes in the clothing workshop, shot in low light, and backlit by the window through which Charles Cioffi ultimately falls; the amber-lit, magic hour shots in Sicily in The Godfather Part Two or Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy; the scope-formatted, black and white sequence depicting New York City at the opening of Manhattan, or again the juxtaposed left-of-frame/right-of-frame, shallow focus shots of Allen and Hemingway at the end of that movie. Willis was by some accounts a difficult man to work with, but given his head he repaid the freedom a handful of directors gave him by assuring the distinctive look of films that together reaped dozens of Academy Award nominations, even if they never won any for him.
In his later career he continued to work with Pakula, on Comes a Horseman, Presumed Innocent, and Willis’s last film, The Devil’s Own, though his long collaboration with Woody Allen ended after 1985, when the director turned instead to Bergman’s cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. He had little time for digital, or the visual effects-driven movies that necessarily compromised a cinematographer’s control over the look of a movie, but while his oeuvre is not among Hollywood’s most prolific, there is an integrity to his work that surely deserves consideration.