The man who did more than any other to influence the entire art of cinematography through a single film was Gordon Willis. The Godfather broke every classical “rule” in the book, and much of its impact can be attributed to the unusual but intuitive approach Willis took to photographing the film. In many scenes Willis used as little illumination as possible. In doing so he invited us to lean forward, to peer into the eyes of characters with blackened souls. We may have recoiled when we saw what was truly in the heart of Michael Corleone, but we could never look away. Willis painted with shadow, and for it earned a loving nickname that was better suited to Michael Corleone: the Prince of Darkness.
Now Gordon Willis has died at the age of 82. A cause of death has not been released, but Willis’ passing has been confirmed by American Society of Cinematographers president Richard Crudo.
Other work by Gordon Willis contributed immeasurably to the development of mainstream film in the ’70s, and consequently to the medium of film as a whole in the decades that followed. Thrillers such as Klute, The Parallax View, and All the Presidents Men were all the more effective for his ability to draw us in with heightened storytelling that at first appeared deceptively “natural,” but which was never arbitrary. In All the President’s Men, Willis’ trademark use of shadow was instrumental in creating an indelible image of the informer Deep Throat. If the measure of a scene’s effectiveness is the frequency with which it is copied and parodied, then Willis achieved immortality with scenes such as this:
His cinematography for Woody Allen’s Manhattan redefined how we see New York City; it is difficult to imagine anyone who has seen the film not wanting the city to look in real life as it does on the screen in the astounding black and white tones captured by Willis. Working with Woody Allen, Willis truly showed his range, also shooting films such as Annie Hall, Interiors, Zelig, Stardust Memories, Broadway Danny Rose, and The Purple Rose Of Cairo.
Look at the man’s resume in the ‘70s, which includes an astounding collection of highlights: The Landlord, Klute, The Godfather, The Paper Chase, The Parallax View, The Godfather: Part II, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall, and Manhattan. He did not win an Oscar for any of those films. He wasn’t even nominated for the award until 1984, for Zelig, and did not win until he was given an honorary award “for unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion” in 2010.
There are many interviews with Willis. The film Visions of Light, an excellent documentary on cinematography which is now sadly difficult to find in the US, presented a segment on the man which succinctly summarizes his impact. Here is most of that segment:
And here’s a much more in-depth conversation with Willis, an hour-long talk with the Craft Truck webcast.