The Master of Shadow

The Master of Shadow

Landscape shot at night: a rock in the foreground of a grassy area, the moon low on the horizon.
Still from Manhattan (1979), directed by Woody Allen

“I don’t like tricks, but I like magic. I want magic,” Gordon Willis said to James Stevenson in an October 1978 New Yorker article.1 Magic in a Willis movie is not through fancy effects or vivid colors. It is in his simple but sophisticated approach to the most fundamental elements of photography, light and shadow. Gordon Willis is the author of many classic movies’ aesthetic, including The Godfather series, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Klute, All the Presidents Men, and so on. As a cinematographer, Willis has not only given those movies their beautiful signature looks but also enhances the meaning of the story with his genius visual manipulation.

Willis was born and raised in New York City. He liked to keep life modest, so while not breaking boundaries in Hollywood, Willis spent most of his time in upstate in the Adirondacks, with his wife, taking long walks in nature and watching the heavens. One can also tell that he is a simple man looking at his movies. Lighting and contrast are the main elements to his cinematography. Being called “The Prince of Darkness” by his fellow cinematographer Conrad Hall, Willis’s use of lighting is edgy and succinct.2 He lights what is necessary, which is sometimes very little, therefore brightening essential details in the movie. In fact, he uses all cinematic elements very efficiently. Willis found the perfect amount of each that, once blended together, do not shock or overwhelm, but are real and unforgettable.

No one, after seeing The Godfather, can forget its opening scene. It is iconic for setting the mysterious tone for the rest of the movie and sequence. Due to Marlon Brando’s makeup, Willis had to light him differently, putting the light source right on top of his head.3 However, that created a shadow that covers Brando’s eyes, raising concerns for producers because, at the time, most movies were bright enough to be able to screen at drive-ins.4 But Willis not only stuck with his method but took it another step, opting to use that method throughout the movie. The shadow that hides Brando’s eyes works well with Vito Corleone’s mysteriousness. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then Willis has shut down any pathway into understanding Don Corleone’s mind and dirty work. That is even more emphasized when it is put next to the wedding of the Don’s daughter, which is bright and loud. As Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) gets further into his father’s shady business and falls slowly into the dark side of his soul, the lighting on him slowly darkens as well. Willis’s use of shadows was very bold and risky for his time; no one had ever made a movie that dark, but he knew it was perfect for the story, and he stuck with it. The Godfather became a great money maker and an instant classic. Its unique gritty and mysterious look has changed the way the movie industry approaches gangster movies.

With the success of The Godfather, Willis acquired a reputation for dealing with shady business. That being said, no one could have visualized the perplexing and secretive Watergate scandal better than Willis, as he took on All the Presidents Men working with Alan J. Pakula. The movie follows the story of Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), the two reporters from The Washington Post who investigated Watergate. As they were solving this huge and dangerous puzzle, Willis created a perfect visual for the on-the-edge feeling of both characters. The newsroom of the Washington Post was extremely well lit with a lot of fluorescent lights. The harsh brightness of the room is where truth is found and unravels. In fact, it is the brightest room in the entire movie. When Woodward and Bernstein leave the office into the world to investigate and talk to the President’s men, they are exposed to dishonesty and dark secrets, hence the heavy use of shadow in these scenes. For example, when Woodward goes to see his secret informant, Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), in a parking garage, Willis only uses one florescent light in that huge empty space, where only half of Deep Throat’s face is seen. Because Deep Throat’s identity cannot be revealed, for his safety, but also to visually imply that Woodward is getting himself into an iniquitous affair. Willis’s play with light is not passive but in fact very active because he lets it move. When Woodward and Bernstein are in the car after questioning a very promising informant, as they argue about the facts of the story, Willis flashes dim yellow lights, imitating street lamps moving while driving. Sometimes their faces are completely in the dark, and sometimes only half lit, as the light moves speedily across their faces. The visual here is telling its own story. The investigation keeps going back and forth between truth and lies and the moving light intensifies the paranoia felt at Washington Post and by its reporters. The paranoia is, in fact, the overtone of the whole movie, reflected more than just through lighting, but through Willis’s long zoom-out shots. In the Library of Congress, Woodward and Bernstein are at the beginning of their research, going through thousands of library cards, as the camera zooms out from the top until the two characters are tiny in the huge, beautiful room. The reporters are just looking at the needles in a haystack. Willis did this again when they are in a car, and he zooms out to the aerial view of Washington, DC. It was true that no one could have grasped the size of the scandal of the time. Watergate was extremely shocking and perplexing, and Willis’s cinematography speaks to the event’s magnitude in ways that the film cannot otherwise do directly.

Willis also worked with Pakula on Klute, a neo-noir film from1971. Klute’s plot surrounds an investigation of a missing man, who two years earlier was involved with Bree Daniels (Jane Fonda), a call girl. Detective John Klute (Donald Sutherland) is hired to follow Bree and eventually develops a romantic relationship with her. Made five years earlier than All the President’s Men, Klute was Willis’s first experimentation with the fascinating cinematic techniques he used in his 1976 movie with Pakula. The most notable scene must be in the beginning of Klute: Willis took a long, medium close-up shot of Bree relaxing in her home wearing a bright red robe in the middle of the dull, empty background of her apartment. Then the scene moves into her bedroom, focusing on Bree’s peaceful sleeping face; the phone rings, but no one is answering on the other end. Bree’s face is filled with fear as Willis zooms out slowly from her face to a dark and eerie apartment. The juxtaposition of close-up shots of Bree and zoom-out shot of empty space reflects an intense feeling of isolation that causes her paranoia. I also love the many scenes in which we see Bree through the windows and in dim lights. That look not only reinforces Bree’s belief that someone is watching her, but also says a lot about Bree’s conflicted feelings of guilt mixing with satisfaction toward her job as a call girl. Willis reveals and enhances Klute’s mysterious plot through many thought-provoking ways of manipulating camera perspective.

Willis said in an interview in the Through the Lens series, that he really enjoyed working with Alan J. Pakula as Pakula give him the freedom and trust explore the plot visually to its full potential.5 Of the six Willis movies I have watched—The Godfather, The Godfather II, All the Presidents Men, Klute, Annie Hall, and Manhattan—All the Presidents Men and Klute, even though they are not his most beautiful movies, are his most well-rounded cinematographic work.

His most beautiful work, in my opinion, must be Manhattan. Gordon Willis believes that color is a burden. With that off his shoulders in Manhattan, Willis let his creativity and artistry run free to take into their own perfect forms of light and shadow. Unlike the gritty and mysterious New York of The Godfather, New York City of Woody Allen’s Manhattan is dreamy and romantic, even more so in black and white. The city is the main character in this movie because there are a lot of times where you can’t even see the actors clearly but only hear their voices, giving screen time for the city to really show its classic beauty. The unforgettable Queensboro Bridge scene is a great example. Isaac (Woody Allen) and Mary (Diane Keaton) are only two tiny silhouettes, while New York scenery shows its charm in the dim light of the bridge, setting the romantic tone for the couple and their story. It is in this scene that their attraction begins to grow. When Isaac and Mary reunite at the planetarium, still as platonic friends before becoming lovers, the cinematography is out of this world. The characters once again take silhouette forms and sometimes only bright outlines of half of their faces are visible. But you can see the moon and Saturn, as the figures sort of glide through the screen among these planets. It is so dreamy that you’d think Isaac and Mary had to fall in love with each other right there. The New York City romance truly shines through with minimal light.

Isaac is also seeing a seventeen-year-old girl, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), who is beautiful, but he finds little in common with her. Willis’s task was set to communicate a space between these two characters.6 As a simple man, he literally put a space between the two in a scene where Tracy stays over with Isaac one night. She appears on the left side of the shot, reading with one light in the living room, and on the right side, Isaac is coming down a spiral staircase with one light on top of the stair. The characters are at each sides of the screen with darkness in between.

Gordon Willis transforms complicated ideas onto screen using minimal imageries. Watching a Willis movie, you will not only be left in awe of beauty, but also deep contemplation of a complex and insightful piece of art. In cinematography, as in any medium of art, it is the perfect balance of richness in substance and control of method that makes a masterpiece.

  1. Stevenson, James. “Cinematographer.” The New Yorker, October 16, 1978.
  2. Visions of Light. Produced by Stuart Samuels. United States: Kino International, 1992. DVD.
  3. Craft Tuck. Through The Lens, Season 1, Episode 9: “Gorton Willis.” YouTube. April 04, 2013. Accessed April 27, 2017.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Craft Tuck. Through The Lens, Season 1, Episode 9: “Gorton Willis.” YouTube. April 04, 2013. Accessed April 27, 2017.
  6. Ibid.
Back to Top