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Gordon Willis, the Man Who Shot The Godfather

Revered as one of the most artistically inventive and skilled cinematographers of the 1970s and 1980s, Gordon Willis (b. 1931) defined the pervasive anxiety and implacable darkness of the New American Cinema through his now famous collaborations with Francis Ford Coppola, Alan Pakula, Woody Allen and Hal Ashby. Despite the scandalous neglect of the Academy in overlooking Willis, (corrected just before we went to press with the announcement of a much deserved Honorary Oscar to be awarded this November) he has been recognized as one of the postwar American cinema’s great masters by the next generation of cinematographers who learned from his example and especially by those artists, such as Michael Chapman (Raging Bull) and John Bailey (Mishima), who were directly shaped by their experience as his assistant.

An autodidact, Willis received his first camera training making commercials and documentaries before landing a series of feature films in 1970—including the underrated Hal Ashby gem, The Landlord. Willis famously earned the name “Prince of Darkness”- given to him by the great fellow cinematographer Conrad Hall- for daring to use only the minimum of necessary light, frequently allowing backgrounds to go almost completely dark and eschewing the eye lights traditionally used throughout Hollywood cinema to ensure that actors’ eyes—as the supposed windows to the soul—remained always visible. The menacing shadows of Don Corleone’s study crafted by Willis in The Godfather not only embodied the new darkness prevalent throughout Vietnam-era American film but also introduced a sophisticated mode of visual and moral ambiguity that remains one of the most important legacies of the period’s cinema. A master of the long shot, Willis camerawork in films such as The Parallax View and Manhattan bought a richly expressive dimension to both studio sets and actual locations that rewarded the viewer with multi-layered and luminous imagery.

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