Legendary Cinematographer Gordon Willis Passes Away

Cinematography Gordon Willis (The Godfather, All the President’s Men, Manhattan), known as “the prince of darkness,” who best defined the neo-noir look of the ’70s, died Sunday at the age of 82.

Willis typically underexposed light to heighten the mood of a scene and maintained strict control so his films couldn’t be brightened. “The Godfathers were designed to have a kind of classic retrospective look,” Willis told me. “The lighting structure came out of a need to present Marlon Brando properly as an aging, monolithic Don. My choice was to use overhead lighting to enhance Marlon’s make-up; the only thing I wanted to hide on occasion was his eyes. All the lighting came out of Marlon’s need, but it worked extremely well for everything else.”

“We wanted the blacks to be truly black, and the first image of Bonasera [Salvatore Corsitto] was to appear out of that,” added Francis Ford Coppola.

For color, Willis chose an innovative combination of brassy yellow and warm red that he maintained throughout the trilogy. “If you notice,” Willis continued, “I change the visual quality throughout Part II. There’s a clarity in the 1950s that isn’t there in the turn of the century work, which had a softer, more diffused look; keeping the color constant binds the entire tapestry together.”

Fortunately, The Godfather and Part Two were digitally restored several years ago by Robert Harris and Warner Bros. MPI under the guidance of Paramount post-production chief Martin Cohen, and results look stunning, particularly on Blu-ray. Willis provided guidance from his home in Massachusetts while cinematographer Allen Daviau consulted from LA.

The most telling enhancement, oddly enough, was to The Godfather’s pivotal restaurant sequence in which Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) guns down Sollozzo (Al Lettieri) and Captain McCluskey (Sterling Hayden). Due to a printing error, half of it looks like a “Xerox of a Xerox of a Xero,” according to Harris.

“The story behind that scene is quite interesting,” Harris recalled. “When Joanne Lawson, my long-time assistant, and I were going over both recent prints as well as a 1972 print shot by shot and frame by frame, we noted major problems in the sequence––many, many dupes––and called Gordon. We explained what we were seeing, and he became momentarily silent. He then broke into an interesting grouping of expletives, and explained that the shoot had been over two nights. Both were planned to have the dailies pushed by the lab. The first night came back fine, but with the second––which is inclusive of all footage after Al exits the men’s room, as well as the cutaways to Sterling Hayden and a few long shots––the lab forgot to push it, and it came back very, very thin. Gordon switched labs. Technicolor Hollywood did yeoman-like work in producing dupes to attempt to match the footage.”

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in Below the Line, Blu-ray, Cinematography, Movies, Tech, Trailers

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