They called cinematographer Gordon Willis “The Prince of Darkness,” but he always resisted the nickname, because he knew the light was just as important. It was the balance between the two — or, more properly, the struggle — that interested him. He called it “visual relativism,” but a moviegoer would recognize it as the gulf between the sunny wedding party in the Corleones’ backyard and the dark deals being struck in the Don’s study, between the bland fluorescent lighting of the Washington Post newsroom and the shadowy parking garage from which Deep Throat speaks the truth.
Willis died last Sunday at 82 at his home in North Falmouth. He hadn’t shot a film since 1997’s “The Devil’s Own,” but his retirement was rich with acknowledgement, including an honorary Oscar in 2009 to make up for the five or six or seven he should have won on merit. The obituaries were many if you think of Willis as “only” a cinematographer; he was just that (and justly proud of his craft) but much more, too.
Simply put, to anyone who watched his movies — meaning all of us — Gordon Willis created the 1970s as we remember them on film. It is he who visually defined the decade’s moral shadings, its psychic spaces, its paranoias and pleasures. “Klute” (1971), “The Godfather” (1972) and its 1974 sequel, “The Parallax View” (1974), “All the President’s Men” (1976), and “Annie Hall” (1977) are not just his best-known works, they are essential to how we “see” the era, visually and culturally. Willis’s “visual relativism,” his canny play of lightness and dark, didn’t just reflect the era’s nagging ambiguities, it helped us frame and grapple with them in ways beyond the reach of words. Willis shaped our shared memory as surely as — and possibly more subtly than — the famous directors whom he served.
That may be why he never really wanted to direct for himself. Willis tried it once and even he admitted the 1980 thriller “Windows” was a terrible movie. As a cinematographer, though, he was a major artist with something to say. He just said it without talking.
This flies in the face of the way we think movies are made. The auteur theory that gobbled up cinema starting in the 1960s decreed that the director is the primary artistic force on a movie, and certainly “The Godfather” belongs to Frances Ford Coppola just as “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” belong to Woody Allen. But the history of film is filled with secret auteurs — screenwriters, editors, soundtrack composers, sometimes even producers — who bend directorial voice to their own inflections. Willis stands near the head of this group.
He was hardly the first director of photography to light from above, or shoot during the “golden hour” before sunset, or use amber tones to connote the past, or let the sun flare in the lens — the latter the visual equivalent of feedback and a classic Hollywood “mistake.” But Willis was arguably the first to link all his techniques to a gestalt of production that amplified and in many cases completed what was in the director’s head.
You see his vision in early gigs like Hal Ashby’s “The Landlord” (1970) or 1971’s anti-western “Bad Company,” but, for my money, Willis’s gift came to an early maturity in “Klute,” Alan J. Pakula’s moody suspense drama about a small-town detective (Donald Sutherland) and a big-city call girl (Oscar winner Jane Fonda). The opening shot fills the screen with a crowded Sunday brunch in front of a sunny picture window, a husband, wife, and their friends all lit by warm natural light. An abrupt cut brings us to that same table at night, some weeks later; the husband has gone missing and the cops are questioning the wife about his seamy sexual habits. Outside looms the Big Dark, while the overhead lighting isolates the characters in their own doubts and suspicions.
Throughout “Klute” and in many other movies, Willis shoots the action against an outside light source, often through a window, sometimes so brightly that the characters become silhouettes. He was a master at devising multiple visual planes, often with the drama unfolding in a murky middle section between a white background and some gently lit details in the foreground.
These aren’t just aesthetic choices but moral ones — responses to the world as a creative person sees and interprets it. The early 1970s were a period of terrible disenchantment, in which the emotional and political terrain seemed increasingly uncertain after the dashed hopes of the 1960s. The shadows that shroud Don Corleone’s eyes — and ultimately his son’s — in “The Godfather” are a curtain that keeps motives private and crimes hidden. Pakula’s “Parallax View,” in which Warren Beatty plays a reporter uncovering an assassination conspiracy, makes the paranoia overt, and Willis fills the screen with great, inky spaces for the hero to get lost in. The movies he shot are hard to see because our way forward was. Willis revealed the darkness within.
An irascible New Yorker born and bred, the cinematographer stayed on the East Coast throughout his life, an outsider with no interest in playing the Hollywood game. (This may partly explain the Oscar snubs.) He was choosy, and he chose well, and in at least one case he boosted a filmmaker to whole new levels of work. The eight movies Willis made with Woody Allen, from “Annie Hall” (1977) to “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985), remain the director’s most cinematic films; they may be the first evidence that Allen even had a visual sensibility. (One of Willis’s peers once noted that you could listen to Woody’s earlier movies on the radio and get the same comic effect.)
The sheer variety of the Allen-Willis partnership is astonishing: the black-and-white widescreen sweep of “Manhattan,” the playfully dingy New York of “Broadway Danny Rose,” the sunny greens and candlelit browns of “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” the dour, underlit interiors of “Interiors,” the b&w movie world and ripely colorful Depression reality of “Purple Rose.”
Then there’s “Zelig,” which is unlike anything else on Allen’s resume and as strong a case for Gordon Willis, auteur, as exists. The film’s a fake documentary about a historical nebbish (Allen) who blended in with every crowd he found. Director and cinematographer re-created newsreels and archival film of the 1920s and ’30s by using period cameras and lenses; they blue-screened Zelig into existing footage and scraped up the negative with dirt. A majestic little movie and even more meaningful in our age of fractured personas, “Zelig” is also a triumph of visual imagination made by a director hardly known for his cinematic eye. You do the math and come up with the answer. Gordon Willis wasn’t just one of the greatest cinematographers of his era. He was one of its greatest filmmakers.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.