Gilbert Taylor once accosted Alfred Hitchcock with a pair of scissors.
It wasn’t exactly a “Psycho” moment, but Taylor did manage to pull the master of suspense into a darkened room and snip off the end of his tie. It happened in 1932, while Hitchcock was making “Number Seventeen” at Elstree Studios. Taylor was just a clapper boy at the time and, like most clapper boys, he had suffered the indignation of Hitchcock’s practical jokes a few weeks earlier when the director docked his tie in front of the cast and crew.
But as Hitchcock biographer, Patrick McGilligan says, Taylor was about the only clapper boy to turn around and pull the same stunt on Hitchcock, who was apparently less than happy about it — especially because he never learned Taylor’s name.
So imagine Taylor’s surprise when Hitchcock called him 40 years later. The year was 1972 and “Hitch,” as he was known to colleagues, was in London looking for a d.p. to shoot “Frenzy.” Of course he had no way of knowing that Taylor, who had become one of the most sought after cinematographers in the U.K., was the same kid who “punk’d” him back in ’32.
Taylor got the job and stamped “Frenzy” with a clean, rich aesthetic of pure Hitchcockian perversion, but the film nearly marked the end of both men’s careers: Soon afterward, the then 62-year-old Taylor announced his retirement and moved to a farm in the British countryside (and Hitchcock directed one more feature, 1976’s “Family Plot”). But the announcement turned out to be premature — or wishful thinking — for he continued making films after that, “The Omen” (1976) and “Star Wars” (1977) among them.
On Sunday night, the 92-year-old Taylor is being honored with the ASC’s Intl. Achievement Award, given to d.p.s working primarily outside the U.S.
As Russ Alsobrook, chairman of ASC’s awards committee, says, Taylor’s selection is based on a rich body of work that includes acutely observed character studies, such as “Woman in the Dressing Gown” (1957) and “Repulsion” (1965); the thrillers “Dracula” (1979) and “The Bedroom Window” (1987); groundbreaking comedies like “Hard Days Night” and “Dr. Strangelove,” both released in 1964; and classic war films on the order of “The Dam Busters” (1955).
“He expanded the vocabulary of visual storytelling,” Alsobrook says. “And inspired many.”
Taylor found his calling at age 15, when his neighbor offered him the job of camera assistant to Bill Shenton at Gainsborough Studios. Taylor quickly worked his way to camera operator and eventually cinematographer for John and Roy Boulting, the famous directing duo of the 1930s. He then joined the Royal Air Force reserves in 1939 and spent the next five years as an officer and an operational cameraman, often flying behind enemy lines to shoot footage for Churchill himself.
“You may ask how these experiences helped to prepare me for my film career,” he recently told American Cinematographer. “Well, they certainly made me tougher.”
Perhaps, but what really made him more confident as a cinematographer, was his relationship with the British director J. Lee Thompson. Their partnership began in 1952 with Thompson’s sophomore effort, “The Yellow Balloon,” a film that was so intense, both emotionally and stylistically, that the censors threatened to give it an X rating (a pre-MPAA branding that specifically alluded to sexual content).
Taylor subsequently shot eight more films with Thompson, and during that time he developed many of the techniques he’d use throughout his career, including a pronounced naturalism, an unusual use of bounced light and an uncommon knack for compositional tension.
Just look at Roman Polanski’s British films, “Repulsion” and “Cul-de-sac” for instance, where Polanski’s camera limns a fine line between the sheer insanity of the situation and a clear, concise visual language. And then there’s the sly-but-sinister lighting of Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” and the unmuddied directness of “The Omen.”
“He took me down some interesting roads,” says helmer Richard Donner of his bigscreen debut with “The Omen.” “And he taught me a lot about the motivations of cameras — that you don’t just move a camera arbitrarily. But it was never a lecture. He was just wonderful.”
If you ask Taylor, he’s likely to tell you that his secret lies in the ample use of light. As he recently told American Cinematographer, “I almost always work a little above the average key light because the use of bounced light filled the shadows a bit, just enough so that I could take my key up past the middle of the printer scale.”
Yet that only tells half the story. Curtis Hanson, who collaborated on two films with Taylor, “Losin’ It” (1983) and “The Bedroom Window” (1987), says he was also quite adept at storytelling and understood that the actor must always be at the “center of the movie.” “That’s why the audience is there,” he’d tell Hanson. “To see the actors, so let’s put the light on the money.”
Both Donner and Hanson share another insight to Taylor’s aesthetic. Both remember him with great affection, saying that he was a robust, utterly convivial fellow with exceptional wit and charm. “He had a great appetite for life,” says Hanson, “and I think it’s no accident that he connected with directors of humor.”
And by humor, Hanson explains, he’s not only referring to the loose, life-affirming films of Richard Lester, but the darkly comical sensibilities of Hitchcock, Polanski, Donner, Thompson and others. “He’s a very funny guy,” Hanson says, “and I think that gives him a sensibility to come at scenes in a little different manner.”
Yet he didn’t always connect with his directors. He was less than happy about the way Kubrick subjected him to a battery of technical questions culled from trade publications before the making of “Dr. Strangelove.” “I felt that his hand was on the brush,” Taylor said, “and I was the paint coming off it.”
Worse still was the disconnect he felt from George Lucas during the making of “Star Wars.” Donner remembers the period well. After all, he had not only persuaded Taylor to come out of retirement for “The Omen,” but gave Lucas his recommendation.
“Gil would call me and say, ‘What did you do to me? This is a crazy movie, and these are crazy filmmakers who don’t understand me!’ And I’d say, ‘Gil, you better get used to it, because this is the future.'”