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Walter Lassally, 90, Oscar-Winning cinematographer

By Neil Genzlinger New York Times  

Walter Lassally, an Oscar-winning cinematographer whose eye and innovative techniques contributed to the success of films by Tony Richardson, the Merchant Ivory group, and many others, died Monday on the Greek island of Crete, where he had retired. He was 90.

Mr. Lassally won an Academy Award for best cinematography for the 1964 movie “Zorba the Greek,” which was filmed on Crete and featured what Mr. Lassally once called “probably the most difficult scene I have ever had to tackle.” It was a love scene between Irene Papas and Alan Bates that posed all sorts of lighting problems and was shot in a house so rickety that the floors would not support his heaviest cameras, or much of a crew.

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But the movie’s most famous scene was its ending, in which the title character (Anthony Quinn) teaches the uptight Englishman played by Bates to dance on the beach.

That movie was shot in black and white, but Mr. Lassally, who had started in the business making documentary shorts, had already made the move into color and would soon leave black and white behind entirely.

Mr. Lassally worked with director James Ivory on the period dramas that were the signature of Merchant Ivory Productions, like “The Wild Party” (1975), set in Hollywood of the 1920s, and “Heat and Dust” (1983), set partly in India of the 1920s. He shot comedies like “The Great Bank Hoax” (1978). He did the occasional television movie, including “The Man Upstairs,” a 1992 comic drama on CBS that starred Katharine Hepburn and Ryan O’Neal.

He could make even a mundane setting interesting, as Vincent Canby of The New York Times noted in his review of the 1969 film “3 Into 2 Won’t Go.”

“Walter Lassally,” Canby wrote, “who photographed some of Tony Richardson’s best films, must, I assume, receive some of the credit for transforming a suburban house into a locale as fascinating and mysterious and necessary to this film as Monument Valley used to be to John Ford.”

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Mr. Lassally was born on Dec. 18, 1926, in Berlin. His father was an engineer who sometimes used film as an adjunct to his work as he studied mechanical processes.

The family was not Jewish but had Jewish ancestors, making them unwelcome in their own country as the Nazis came to power. In 1939, just before the outbreak of war, they immigrated to England.

His first features as cinematographer, “Another Sky,” set in North Africa, and “Passing Stranger,” a crime film set in a small British town, were both released in 1954.

“He started his career in documentaries and applied some of those techniques to his feature work in groundbreaking ways,” Stephen Pizzello, editor-in-chief and publisher of American Cinematographer magazine, said by email. “The mission of the Free Cinema movement was to produce realistic films about the working class, and its practitioners shot in authentic locations with relatively unknown actors and actresses; they were the guerrilla filmmakers of their day.”

In 1961 Richardson, who died in 1991, asked Mr. Lassally to shoot “A Taste of Honey,” a drama about a pregnant teenager, which Pizzello said was the first major British feature shot entirely on location. The next year the two made “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” about a boy at an English reform school.

In 1963 came “Tom Jones,” a romantic romp, based on the Henry Fielding novel, set in the 18th century. It had a particularly memorable scene involving a stag hunt, which included countless hounds running alongside riders on galloping horses. Mr. Lassally found a thrilling way to render the scene, mixing conventional images with shots taken from a helicopter and a camera mounted so low on a truck that it could look up at the riders’ faces.

In a 2015 interview with Radio Prague, Mr. Lassally summed up the importance of the look of a film.

“To me cinema is visual,” he said. “In a good film, you should be able to turn off the soundtrack and still get the story. Nowadays it’s the other way around. Most of the information tends to be in the dialogue and not in the pictures, and that’s not cinema to me.”