Some of the most memorable films of the 1970s and '80s have a dramatic, distinctive look, giving them an immediacy that resonates for viewers even today. And when you think of that look, you’re probably visualizing the films shot by cinematographer Gordon Willis, who sadly died last Sunday at age 82, marking the end of an era. He worked with some of the top directors of the past five decades, creating visual styles for their films that propelled them to iconic status.
Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971), which won an Academy Award for Jane Fonda, was Willis’ first foray into the low-light moodiness that would characterize his most notable achievements. But on Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), he really let the risky creativity flow. He worked with a high-contrast, yellow color palette, which enhanced the film’s queasy intensity, and he also shrouded star Marlon Brando’s eyes in darkness, a controversial but smart decision that made Don Corleone an inscrutable enigma — and a legendary character.
1974’s Godfather II was the one of the last major American films to have release prints struck in Technicolor’s three-strip IB, or “dye transfer” process, until the end of the century. This process provided the film a lush saturation and gave the sepia flashback scenes a preternatural glow.
Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) was also well-served by the Willis touch. In telling the story of Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) investigating the Watergate scandal, he uses the stark contrast of the brightly-lit, workaday Post newsroom against the dark, secretive corridors of Washington locales where covers-ups and conspiracies are allowed to grow like mold.
Willis became a frequent collaborator with filmmaker Woody Allen, beginning with 1977’s Academy Award-winning Annie Hall. His work on 1979’s Manhattan remains one of the most spectacular pieces of black and white filmmaking since nitrate lent its silver sheen to the silent classics. The opening montage of the city, with its booming Gershwin score and widescreen shots of the magical skyline, is just spectacular. Equally good are the more intimate scenes of the town’s inhabitants and their dwellings. The monochrome photography of the bars, restaurants and museums provides intimacy and evokes a yearning for the Manhattan of a bygone era, even though it was set in the present-day.
1983’s Zelig starred Allen as a chameleonic character with the ability to adapt to his surroundings. For this newsreel-style mockumentary, Willis utilized different stocks, lenses and antique film cameras to reproduce the looks of various eras, even crinkling and scratching the negatives to achieve the desired effect. It's just as much a study in film history as it is a comedy.
The cinematographer’s final credit was 1997’s The Devil’s Own, directed — fittingly — by Pakula. Willis retired because, as he put it, he got “tired of trying to get actors out of trailers, and standing in the rain.” Unbelievably, he was only nominated twice for an Academy Award and was finally presented an honorary Oscar in 2009.
Today’s digital cinematography, with its impossibly fast lenses and a myriad of effects, can achieve an almost limitless variety of looks, but Willis did it all the master’s way — marrying light and celluloid to create a visual language that permanently transformed the industry.