RIP, Godfather Cinematographer Gordon Willis; the Prince of Darkness was 83

While the Easy Riders and Raging Bulls were transforming Hollywood plots in the 1970s, Gordon Willis was the cinematographer who transformed how their films looked. Dubbed “The Prince of Darkness,” Willis photographed Marlon Brando in menacing pools of black for his first scene in The Godfather, and endured hearing whines from Paramount studio executives that they couldn’t see Brando’s eyes. “I know, that was the idea,” Willis likely told them. He reversed the equation in All the President’s Men, photographing the incredible recreation of the Washington Post’s cavernous newsroom as a giant brilliantly lit white set in contrast to the darkness of the Nixon White House. (Yes, it’s a Manchurian Candidate-level paranoid fiction, especially now that we know that things were awfully murky inside the real-life Post – that Woodstein were being led around by their clip-on ties by disgruntled FBI agent Mark Felt.)


Willis went on to transform Woody Allen’s movies, teaching the Woodman about long fluid takes created by camera blocking and editing scenes in-camera. His cinematography in Annie Hall is effortless; his stylized compositions in Interiors make the Woodman’s glacially-paced first drama (barely) watchable, and his breathtaking cinematography in Manhattan blinded audiences to how awful Woody’s characters were inside of Willis’s knockout compositions.

Last year, Willis spoke with the “Craft Truck” video series for enjoyable deconstruction of his cinematic techniques. Part I is embedded below, Part II is available here. Mild language warning:

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