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Prince of darkness

By STEVE VINEBERG  |  November 18, 2009

Even Willis admits that he may have gone too far in underlighting The Godfather: Part II, in the famous scene between Pacino and Morgana King as Mama Corleone where Michael articulates his fear that he's losing his family. ("You can never lose your family," she assures him, but the darkness in the room, smothering their faces, contradicts her.) But the movie is magnificent to behold, especially the 1910s Little Italy scenes with Robert De Niro as the young Vito, and the contrast between those lustrous, sepia-tinted sections and the images of Nevada in the '50s and '60s, where Michael has relocated, is stunning. Unlike Connie's wedding from the earlier movie, where the expansiveness of the celebration didn't detract from its traditional, home-made quality, Michael's son Anthony's first communion party is spectacular and artificial, the glitz almost upstaging the natural beauty of the landscape.

The HFA series emphasizes Willis's range. THE PARALLAX VIEW (November 22), one of Willis's half-dozen collaborations with director Alan J. Pakula, was released in 1974, the same year as The Godfather:Part II, but it has an abstract, sculpted look. That's appropriate to the movie, a downbeat but effective conspiracy thriller about how a reporter (Warren Beatty) uncovers an organization that trains assassins. In the opening scene, a presidential candidate is shot at a crowded reception in a sky dome; moments before the bullet pierces him, he and his wife already look like ghosts on the far side of a massive picture window. Throughout the film, Pakula and Willis shoot the architecture to accentuate its futuristic chilliness. An escalator slicing the screen and a grid of skylights hovering above a hotel lobby feel sinister, and the escalating darkness in every corridor suggests doom at the end. Most amazing is the repeated image — we get it after each of the two assassinations that bookend the narrative — of the investigative committee (a satire of the Warren Commission) pronouncing its unconvincing findings. Half a dozen men sit before the imposing wall of a government building floating in darkness; until the camera zooms in close enough for you to pick out the backdrop, you might think they're fronting a coffin.

Perhaps the most exquisite of Willis's compositions are in Woody Allen's 1979 MANHATTAN (November 20), which was shot in black and white. One of the great lessons of the French New Wave for American directors and cinematographers was that the focus of a shot could be skewed either by the placement of the camera or by the lighting, and no movie puts that notion to the test more consistently than Manhattan, the third of eight pictures Willis lit for Allen. Even if you don't respond to the material (I find it narcissistic), the images are endlessly fascinating experiments — like Allen descending a circular staircase on the right side of the frame with the light behind him while Mariel Hemingway waits for him on a sofa at the opposite end, lit by a single lamp above her head. The rest of the screen is in darkness, so these two spaces form discrete rectangles.

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