One of the most joyous sequences in American film is the opening of Woody Allen's “Manhattan.” As Allen's character Isaac speaks in voice-over, Gershwin's remarkable “Rhapsody In Blue” plays.
“Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion. No, make that… he romanticized it all out of proportion. Better. To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin. Mm. No. Let me start this over.”
Don't bother, Woody. You got it right the first time, and to provide that black-and-white counterpoint to the soaring sounds of Gershwin, cinematographer Gordon Willis shot some of the greatest images of New York City ever burned onto celluloid. Black-and-white felt like a perfect form of expression for Willis, who was referred to by many filmmakers as “The Prince Of Darkness,” and “Manhattan” is not just Woody Allen's best looking film… it may be one of the best looking films of all time.
Amazingly, it would have to fight for that title with several other films also shot by Willis, who was a remarkable creative partner for directors like Alan J. Pakula, Francis Ford Coppola, and Allen at a time when those filmmakers were at the peak of their artistic powers. While he had not worked since 1997's “The Devil's Own,” Willis had long since secured his place among the ranks of the most gifted artisans to ever work in Hollywood. One of the most amazing credits on his resume came before he was a director of photography, when he was one of the camera men who shot the Beatles concert at Shea Stadium. The man stood right there in the midst of pop history, camera firmly trained on it.
Looking at the films he worked on, there are so many bona fide classics that it's almost hard to believe. “The Landlord” by Hal Ashby. Pakula's “Klute.” All three of the “Godfather” films. “Bad Company.” “The Parallax View.” “All The President's Men.” “Annie Hall.” The gorgeous 1981 version of “Pennies From Heaven.” I remember being dazzled by the way he married real archival footage to material he shot for “Zelig,” and what's most amazing is how well it holds up today visually.
The reason Willis got his nickname was because he believed in using shadows and darkness to highlight the parts of his frame that were fully lit. He had a great sense of mood and atmosphere. When you watch “Klute” or “Parallax” or even “Presumed Innocent,” those shadows are internal as much as external. He used the darkness to hide people's eyes, to mask their thoughts, to show darkness creeping in around them. He was every inch the artist as any of the directors he worked for, and he scared the shit out of more than a few studio executives in his day when they first saw dailies that hadn't been totally color timed, only to deliver images in the end that have been burned onto the brains of film fans for decades now.
I know next to nothing about him personally, and that's fine. I know that he was greatly respected, that the Academy never truly gave him his due, and that the images he helped create will live as long as people are still watching movies. And on a day like this, where we celebrate the amazing mark he left on this art that we all love so much, maybe that's all we need to know.
One thing's for sure… as we move into the digital age, there is no one working today who can even approach the pure sculpting of light that Willis was known for, and our industry is poorer for his loss.
Gordon Wiilis was 82 years old.