Remembering Gordon Willis

Gordon Willis (1931-2014), a legendary cinematographer with one of the most impressive résumés of the 1970s and 80s, passed away on May 18. He was the director of photography on all three installments of the Godfather trilogy, as well as on a number of other highly-regarded films like The Landlord, Klute, The Paper Chase, All the President’s Men and Comes a Horseman, but the five films listed below are among my favorites from his oeuvre. (I would also like to point out a post from December that highlights Willis’s great work in September 30, 1955.) Willis’s “unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion,” which earned him an Honorary Academy Award in 2010, will not be forgotten by those who appreciate his contributions to cinema.

The Parallax View (1974, dir. Alan J. Pakula) – The tense opening scene of this paranoid thriller is set on the top of the Space Needle. Those panoramas of Seattle are terrific and the guerrilla-style camera movements following the turmoil after the assassination are balanced by the oddly calm shots taken from the roof.

Annie Hall (1977, dir. Woody Allen) – Willis is well-known for his work with Allen. Diane Keaton’s performance of “Seems Like Old Times” is probably my favorite scene in the film. The camera only has a couple of positions, but I think the stage lighting is perfect.

Manhattan (1979, dir. Woody Allen) – The memorable opening sequence of this ode to New York City is a true marriage of sound and image: the unmistakable strains of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” are matched by the crisp grey shots of the bustling streets and gleaming skyscrapers.

Pennies from Heaven (1981, dir. Herbert Ross) – Willis recreates the classic Astaire & Rogers “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet (1936), rendered beautifully in black-and-white. Elsewhere in the film, the color photography is inspired by paintings of the 1930s, like Edward Hopper’s New York Movie (1939) in the first shot from that clip and Reginald Marsh’s Twenty Cent Movie (1936) in the last shot.

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985, dir. Woody Allen) – In this poignant fantasy, Hollywood dreams blend with reality when a movie character steps off the screen and into the real life of an avid moviegoer. Jeff Daniels steps from the flat black-and-white planes of the film-within-the-film into the rich colors of Mia Farrow’s world, making this bittersweet comedy a lovely experience.

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