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RIP Gordon Willis, Master of Cinematic Chiaroscuro (CLIPS)

by Ryan Lattanzio
May 19, 2014 1:24 PM
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Gordon Willis and Woody Allen
Gordon Willis and Woody Allen

Virtuoso cinematographer Gordon Willis, trailblazer of the New Hollywood who gave us everything from 1920s New York in "The Godfather" to 1970s Manhattan in the films of Woody Allen, has died. He was 82.

The Godfather: Part II
'The Godfather: Part II'

Late DP Conrad L. Hall called Willis, who was born in New York into a show business family, the Prince of Darkness. Beginning in 1970 with four films, including Hal Ashby's "The Landlord," Willis became one of the great maestros of shadow and light. His lensing of Alan J. Pakula's 1971 gritty, paranoid thriller "Klute" -- starring Jane Fonda as a call girl, in an Oscar-winning performance -- paved the way for many auteur collaborations.

The following year, in 1972, Willis shot Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather" -- ultimately going on to film the entire trilogy -- and gave us so many iconic images of of Marlon Brando skulking in the shadows as Don Vito Corleone. Entertainment Weekly's Anthony Breznican likened Willis to "cinema's Caravaggio."

Willis was known for perfectionism, but also found poetry in the cracks and fissures in cinematic imagery and, specifically, celluloid -- and his idiosyncratic techniques yielded innumerable, timeless tableaux. "The lack of perfection, that's the hardest quality of all," he once said. "Because you're fighting your instincts. You're trained to want to do things perfectly."


Willis often worked with underexposed film, and would shoot just before twilight, during the Golden Hour, when the light is warm and whittling into darkness.

One of his landmark achievements was in 1979, with Woody Allen's "Manhattan," one of the great visual symphonies, and tributes to New York, of all time. Willis shot the cityscape in sweeping, 35 mm Panavision, and in a hauntingly romantic B&W of yesteryear. 

Roger Ebert wrote of the film, "All of these locations and all of these songs would not have the effect they do without the widescreen black and white cinematography of Gordon Willis. This is one of the best-photographed movies ever made."

His longterm partnership with Allen, from the Freudian mindscape of "Stardust Memories" to the luminous "Purple Rose of Cairo," ultimately landed Willis his first Oscar nomination in 1984 for the mockumentary "Zelig." (Willis eventually received an Honorary Academy Award in 2010.)

The last film he shot was Alan J. Pakula's "The Devil's Own," in 1997.

Read more touching obits for Willis here, here and here. Watch some of his iconic moments below.


  • Brian | May 19, 2014 2:57 PMReply

    "Willis shot the cityscape in sweeping, 35 mm Panavision, and in a hauntingly romantic B&W of yesteryear. "

    I wouldn't characterize the photography of MANHATTAN that way. It certainly wasn't the "b&w of yesteryear." There was a very modern quality to the b&w of MANHATTAN. It certainly fit Allen's conception of Manhattan as he experienced it in 1979.

  • Ryan Lattanzio | May 19, 2014 3:45 PM

    Allen, himself, has said that his idea for the film's B&W look came from his childhood memories of New York. He was also inspired by "Rhapsody in Blue," which Gershwin composed in 1924.

    It's fair to say that "Manhattan," however rooted in contemporary culture, is a nostalgic film, both visually and thematically.

  • Lawrence Chadbourne | May 19, 2014 1:51 PMReply

    I have a feeling Willis, stickler that he was, would correct your "Cinemascope" on MANHATTAN to Panavision.

  • ryan lattanzio | May 19, 2014 2:12 PM

    Yes, he would be rolling in his, well, you know.

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