Gordon Willis’ Dark Cinematography will Burn Bright for Decades to Come

by: Jason Koenigsberg

gordon willis

Gordon Willis (1931-2014) was one of the most distinctive directors of cinematography in the history of film. During the 1970’s as Hollywood was redefined by a generation of new auteurs with exciting new visions and screenplays, Willis was the man who got to photograph and light some of the most iconic films of a generation.

He became particularly well known for his masterful use of low-key lighting, hence the nickname he had in Hollywood’s inner circle as the “Prince of Darkness”. He left an unforgettable mark on his pictures by using such dark shadows and warm-toned lights. Gordon Willis did not make that many films during his career as a cinematographer nor do many of the most avid film lovers know him by name but they are all familiar with his work and his indelible style.

Some of his most famous photography came while working with director Francis Ford Coppola. The Coppola/Willis partnership would shoot several films together but none would be more iconic than the first time they teamed up in 1972 to make The Godfather. From its unforgettable opening shot, everyone knew that The Godfather was going to be something unique and groundbreaking. To this day it has some of the most extraordinary low-key lighting and warm colors and has been duplicated by filmmakers at every level a thousand times over. Check out the opening scene and notice how it the mise-en-scene from the dim-lit photography slowly draws you into this underworld of immigrants and criminals.

Gordon Willis would also have a very fruitful collaboration with another of the most prolific filmmakers of the 1970’s, Alan J. Pakula. The two would work almost exclusively together throughout the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s making serious mature films featuring some of the finest actors at the top of their game. Starting with 1971’s Klute, which won Jane Fonda the Academy Award for best actress as a prostitute caught up in a detective’s search for a missing person, all the way up to 1997’s IRA crime-drama The Devil’s Own starring Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt. The latter would be the final film for both Mr. Pakula and Mr. Willis. The best film Alan Pakula made with Gordon Willis’ in my humble opinion was 1976’s All the President’s Men. Tense and timely, All the Presidents Men is adult political-thriller about the true story of Washington D.C. reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman respectively) as they investigate the Watergate incident. Here is one of the best scenes from the film accentuated by Gordon Willis’ masterful use of low-key lighting as Redford’s Bob Woodward speaks to Hal Holbrook as the mysterious “Deep Throat”.

“Follow the Money”, the words are almost as magnetic as the cinematography.

From those scenes you can really tell how Gordon Willis earned his “Prince of Darkness” title. Besides The Godfather, his most recognizable work would actually come from a director known for his work in comedies and especially in how he captured New York City on celluloid. Woody Allen and Gordon Willis would work together on eight films together starting with 1977’s Annie Hall which established Allen as a great director and won the Oscar for Best Picture and ending with 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo a beautiful love letter to cinema and it’s golden days with a quirky romantic fantasy. For what it’s worth, I think that the best film Willis shot for Woody was 1979’s Manhattan. A phenomenal and realistic heartfelt love story set in the big apple and photographed in glorious black and white, it is one of Allen and Willis’ finest achievements in both of their careers. Check out my Woody Allen and His Romaticism of New York article to see Gordon Willis’ genius with a scene from Annie Hall and his loving montage of the City that Never Sleeps from Manhattan.

That bridge scene is one of the most beautiful moments from his career.

Between The Godfather and Woody Allen’s films especially Annie Hall and Manhattan no other cinematographer has captured New York City in such a realistic and romanticized lens. Despite being the DP for three best picture winners, The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and Annie Hall, Willis would only receive two Academy Award nominations for best cinematography, his first for Woody Allen’s Zelig (1983) and The Godfather Part III (1990). In 2010 Gordon Willis was finally honored with an honorary Oscar for his “unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion”. It is a shame that he did not photograph more films for other directors. His legacy will live on for generations to come that watch the classic films he shot and the performances he enhanced with his dark and gorgeous cinematography.

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