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Prince of darkness

By STEVE VINEBERG  |  November 18, 2009

Willis shot my favorite Allen comedy, THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (November 23), in 1985, four years after he did PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (November 21) for Herbert Ross. Both take place in the Depression; both include scenes in which the boundary between a member of a moviehouse audience (shot in color) and the back-and-white movie screen disappears. But Purple Rose, a brilliant Pirandellian farce with an undercurrent of melancholy, and Pennies from Heaven, a brilliant Brechtian musical (written by Dennis Potter), could hardly be more different, and despite the common period setting, Willis lights them in distinctly different styles.

The premise of Purple Rose is that the star (Jeff Daniels) of the programmer that the luckless heroine — a movie-struck waitress named Cecilia (Mia Farrow) — watches over and over again in refuge from her unhappy life becomes so impressed by her devotion to the picture that he leaps off the screen and begins to romance her. (Her visit to the other side of the screen comes later.) Willis contrasts the flat (pre-deep-focus) world of the film within the film with the depth of the real world in which Cecilia resides: after she and her fictive swain leave the cinema, Allen cuts to an abandoned amusement park where the horizon beckons distantly. But in Pennies from Heaven, with its re-creations of Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh paintings and Walker Evans photographs, the images are deliberately flattened, and as theatrical as stills from Expressionist plays of the 1920s. I can think of only a handful of musicals that take so daring a visual approach (Cabaret, New York, New York, and Chicago). Pennies from Heaven sank at the box office, but the HFA was smart to recognize that no testimonial to Gordon Willis would be complete without it.

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