Gordon Willis: a career in 12 pictures

A dozen beautiful stills from the work of the late cinematographer Gordon Willis, a groundbreaking visual artist famed for his treatment of shadow and darkness on the Godfather trilogy and some of Woody Allen’s best films.

Manhattan (1979)

Woody Allen and Diane Keaton shot in silhouette by Gordon Willis in Allen’s 1979 classic Manhattan, a black-and-white ode to New York City that contains some of Willis’s most indelible images as cinematographer.

Klute (1971)

Willis began a six-film collaboration with director Alan J. Pakula with the 1971 thriller Klute, starring Donald Sutherland as a private detective whose search for a missing man brings him into contact with a New York prostitute played by Jane Fonda.

The Godfather (1972)

It’s difficult to imagine the Godfather trilogy without Willis’s groundbreaking use of low lighting and underexposed film. In The Godfather (1972), as Mafia patriarch Don Corleone, Marlon Brando’s eyes appear hooded in shadow, while his office is a lair of murky morality broken by shafts of light.

The Godfather Part II (1974)

In The Godfather Part II (1974), Willis’s work brought a distinct character to scenes shot in New York, Sicily and Cuba, helping the audience to keep track of an epic narrative that takes in shifting time periods and settings.

All the President’s Men (1976)

Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men (1976) is the story of the uncovering of the Watergate scandal by two Washington Post journalists (played by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford). Willis’s memorable contributions include deep-focus work in the Washington Post newsroom, with its banks of fluorescent lighting, and a celebrated overhead shot of the Library of Congress, in which the camera climbs higher and higher until Redford and Hoffman seem tiny figures lost in a maze.

Annie Hall (1977)

After his work on Annie Hall, Willis became Woody Allen’s favourite cinematographer into the mid-1980s. The sepia-brown flashbacks to Alvy Singer’s (Allen) childhood and the washed out sunlight of Alvy’s trip to California bring an evocative visual texture to Allen’s best picture Oscar winner.

Annie Hall (1977)

In this scene of Annie Hall, split screen is used to compare two comically contrasting visits to their respective analysts by Alvy and his eponymous girlfriend (Diane Keaton).

Manhattan (1979)

An iconic shot of New York’s Queensboro Bridge from Manhattan, with lovers Woody Allen and Diane Keaton watching the dawn break over the city. Willis’s gorgeous shot was used as the film’s poster image.

Stardust Memories (1980)

The Willis-Allen partnership continued with more black-and-white work in 1980’s Stardust Memories, starring Allen as a filmmaker recalling his life and loves (including a young Charlotte Rampling).

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

For Willis’s final collaboration with Allen, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), he brought a nostalgic, soft-focus look to a 1930s romance between cinemagoer Mia Farrow and a dashing Egyptologist (Jeff Daniels) who steps out of the exotic film in which he’s a character and into the Depression-era reality.

Presumed Innocent (1990)

Willis worked less frequently in the 1990s, but was called upon twice by Alan J. Pakula. The first time was for the thriller Presumed Innocent (1990), starring Harrison Ford as a prosecutor charged with the murder of his colleague. The star, director and cinematographer were reunited for 1997’s The Devil’s Own, Willis’s final film.

The Godfather Part III (1990)

Despite his reputation as one of the greatest cinematographers of his time, Willis received only two Oscar nominations, one for Zelig (1983) and the second for his work on The Godfather Part III (1990). Again his work on the Godfather films went unrewarded and he lost out to Dean Semler for Dances with Wolves.

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