They called him “the Prince of Darkness” for his propensity for low-level lighting, but seriously, how better to convey Vito Corleone’s unfathomable evil than to have him lurk in the shadows, his whiteless eyes a cipher as henchmen pass along in a range of browns, blacks and grays?
Still, in a very real sense Gordon Willis paints less with light than with heat. The moral chill of the Godfather’s den is intensified when intercut with the warmth of his daughter’s wedding reception just past the closed shutters, just as the bleak Gotham midwinter of son Michael’s vengeance gives way to the searing Sicilian glare when he spots his soulmate with a blast of “the thunderbolt.”
Willis expresses ’70s paranoia in every frame of “Klute,” “All the President’s Men” and “The Parallax View,” while “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” define their city for all time. More mind-boggling than all these accomplishments is his Oscar record: two mere nominations with no competitive wins.
But no matter. To see a film photographed by Gordon Willis is to be hit by the thunderbolt.