During my LA grad film school days, one of the cinematography instructors at AFI was a then elderly, but distinguished-looking cameraman by the name of Harry Wolf. Wolf was then in his eighties and a somewhat unpredictable curmudgeon who bristled at the fact that half of the class were women. But most of the students respected him--if for no other reason-- for the fact that one of his first credits had been as a camera crew member on Gone With the WInd. His film claim to fame as a Director of Photography, however, had been on a host of popular 1960s and 70s television staples, such as Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies, Barnaby Jones, Columbo, and Baretta. It goes without saying that Wolf was, undeniably, old school. And, he absolutely hated The Godfather. But not for the reasons you might guess.
With the distance of 40 years, the brilliance of The Godfather in every category is unquestioned. However, in 1972, the cinematic territorial jealousies between Los Angeles and New York were apparent and often ugly. Director Francis Ford Coppola shot most of the film on location in the New York area and chose a New York cinematographer, Gordon Willis. Willis' style, although now greatly admired, departed visibly from that of most mainstream LA cinematographers. And, he apparently made no secret of what he thought of the Los Angeles film community. As a result, he was ignored and reviled by west coast cameramen, including Wolf, who dubbed him "the prince of darkness" for his then unorthodox use of extreme shadows, particularly on actors' faces.
Unbelievably, the west coast jealousy was also apparent at Oscar time; Willis never received even a nomination for three films that won Best Picture honors: The Godfather, The Godfather- Part II, and Annie Hall. Willis shot a number of other films for Woody Allen including Manhattan, Stardust Memories, Zelig, and A Midsummer NIght's Sex Comedy.
Video versions of films are often balanced quite differently than the film prints. If you've never seen Gordon Willis' gorgeous work on the big screen, now is your chance. The Godfather is being shown at the Tennessee Theatre this weekend as part of their Summer Movie Magic series--Friday at 8 pm and Sunday afternoon at 2 pm.