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The Globe and Mail

From Manhattan to The Godfather: How the gift of Gordon Willis changed the way we look at movies

When the eyes of a great image-maker finally close, the world darkens a bit for everyone left behind.

Such was the gift of Gordon Willis, who died at age 82 on Sunday. A meticulous craftsman, perfectionist, scourge of director and actor alike, Willis changed the way both movies look and the way we look at movies. And for three filmmakers whose work has become synonymous with the trailblazing New Hollywood of the 1970s – Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola and Alan J. Pakula – the contribution made by the man they called the Prince of Darkness was so instrumental as to be essential. To picture say, Manhattan, The Godfather or All the President's Men with anyone else behind the lens is to imagine different movies entirely.

A Korean War Air Force movie photographer and ad business veteran, Willis was only 40 years old, and with only four movies on his resumé, when he was hired to shoot the intensely anticipated movie adaptation of Mario Puzo's Mafia pulp blockbuster The Godfather in 1971. It was only one of a series of highly contentious hirings that had the studio heads at Paramount – already on the ropes and praying for box office salvation – chewing fingernails to the quick: first this kid Coppola as director, then the commercially toxic Marlon Brando as Godfather Vito Corleone, then all those unknowns – Al Pacino, Diane Keaton – in key roles, and now a barely known D.O.P. named Gordon Willis behind the camera. Surely doom would follow.

And darned if it didn’t seem so once the Paramount honchos saw Willis’s work. The opening shot especially: a slow backward zoom from darkness in a dim room, pulling away from a middle-aged, heavily-accented Italian man in mid-monologue (“I believe in America...”), eventually revealing not quite the star of the movie and the character who gave it its household name, but his back for cripe’s sake, and even that much Brando out of focus.

As the story goes, the Paramount brass hit the roof. Coppola’s head was called for, and Willis was ordered dropped on the spot. Clearly both were entirely incompetent. What about that original suggestion of opening big – on the wedding outside? What happened to that idea?

Today we gasp at such a thought, for changing the opening of The Godfather now reasonably strikes us as akin to eliminating some of the cuts from the Psycho shower sequence, flattening the depth of focus in Citizen Kane, or goosing the pace of the opening of Once Upon a Time in the West. Something only an idiot or blind man in a suit might do.

What Gordon Willis was doing with that shot – and what he would do subsequently on two more Godfather movies, the greatest films of Alan Pakula and the key transitional films of Woody Allen – was instantly establishing a visual précis for the entire film to come. In this case, the backward zoom through the Godfather’s dark study stands not only for power, ritual, menace and the suggestion of entire worlds that lurk and thrive in shadow, but the very heart of the story about to be told. And that heart was dark, very dark.

Despite the history of verbal violence between him and Willis – who argued so dramatically a thrown chair behind Coppola’s office door was once misheard as a gunshot – the young director went to bat for the young cinematographer, threatening to shut down the whole movie if anybody was fired or the shot was changed.

No, you didn’t go to Gordon Willis if you just wanted your movie illustrated. You went if you wanted it enhanced and enriched, if you wanted the images to speak as forcefully but subtly as the script, actors and directors themselves. Think now of the function played by interior space in All the President’s Men, a movie featuring men beneath fluorescent lights talking mostly into telephones, but which plays like a tingling film noir because of Willis’s attention to the atmosphere of ambient threat.

Or look again at the ravishing opening of Manhattan, a black-and-white symphony set (and equal) to Gershwin, and no small part of the reason why we were ready to take Allen at his word when he told us he wanted to be taken seriously.

Willis was too precise to be prolific (fewer than 40 films in total), and naturally too gifted to be recognized. Although seven Willis-shot films accumulated a total of 39 Oscar wins and nominations between 1971 and 77, he was of course not nominated. I’m sure he wasn’t surprised: for an industry that makes things to look at, Hollywood has never been terribly good at seeing what’s right in front of it.

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