When I think of cinematographer Gordon Willis, I think of “
Quintessential New Yorkers both — Willis born in Queens, Allen in Brooklyn — they treated “Manhattan” like a wanton woman, something to be desired, appreciated but never trusted. That is the way Willis made the pictures speak. Indeed, his way of translating a director’s vision made the films he shot feel of a piece, with each piece distinctive from the next.
Willis must have been, I think, a muse of sorts for the directors he worked with. Whether it was the consistency of his artistry, or some other quality, many of them returned to the well again and again. For more than a decade, Willis seemed to be primarily in the Woody Allen business. It began with "Annie Hall" in 1977, one of the airiest films the DP would shoot, and ended seven films later with "The Purple Rose of Cairo" in 1985.
There were other artistic collaborators in his life, though shooting “
The director of photography would work constantly, mostly in film, starting in 1970 with "End of the Road," a drama about an insane asylum run by
Whether Willis was drawn to the projects for the directors, or the story, or to keep honing the craft he clearly loved, he tended to gravitate to the dark side. Even when it came to comedies. Take “Little Murders,” for example. Alan Arkin directed the adaptation of the Jules Feiffer play, Elliott Gould starred, the romance unfolded against a backdrop of a string of shootings. Once again, Manhattan got its share of beauty shots.
As good as Willis was at cityscapes, he knew how to let the lens savor a face, how to make the most of an actor's particular bone structure, how long to linger on the eyes.
I was reminded of that gift in thinking of another Allen project Willis worked on, “Interiors.” It still stands for me as one of Allen’s best examinations of a deconstructing family. Like “Manhattan,” you can freeze almost any frame, but this time choose a face, any of them will do: