Jump to: navigation, search

The Guardian (08/Feb/2005) - Obituary: Erwin Hillier

(c) The Guardian (08/Feb/2005)

Erwin Hillier

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's gifted black-and-white cinematographer

Erwin Hillier, who has died aged 93, directed the celebrated black and white photography of two major films in the canon of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Although by the time he worked for them, he had already had experience in the UFA studios in Germany, working for FW Murnau and Fritz Lang.

Hillier's family was Anglo-German, and he was born and educated in Berlin. He first studied art, but family financial difficulties forced him to leave school. A friend put him in touch with Murnau, who was impressed by his paintings and offered him a job as camera assistant to Floyd Crosby on Tabu (1931).

Hillier, who was involved in the pre-production, was about to leave for the South Seas with the crew when his father forbade him to go, because he had heard rumours of Murnau's promiscuous homosexuality. Murnau took no offence at the slight and introduced Hillier to Lang, about to begin work on his first sound film, M (1931). Hillier was assistant cameraman to Fritz Arno Wagner on this masterpiece of low-key expressionism; some of his use of chiaroscuro found its way later into Hillier's best monochrome work.

After Hillier arrived in England, he became camera operator at Gaumont's Shepherd's Bush studios and worked on two musicals in 1934, Alfred Hitchcock's uncharacteristic Waltzes From Vienna, and Victor Saville's Evergreen, starring Jessie Matthews. In 1935, he was camera operator on The Girl In The Crowd, a "quota quickie" directed by Michael Powell. Powell later remembered him as "an almost insanely enthusiastic young man - always dreaming up new angles, new points of view for the camera to explore, new movements for the camera to make, which would intensify the atmosphere and the action."

Other Powell films on which Hillier was camera operator were The Man Behind The Mask (1936) and The Spy In Black (1939), scripted by Emeric Pressburger. Powell and Pressburger then went on to form their company, the Archers, in 1941, to produce films that were a curious blend of the very British (Powell) and the very Middle European (Pressburger).

They got Hillier as director of photography on their second and third films: A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I'm Going (1945), both distinguished by the monochrome cinematography, evoking the near-mystical landscapes of Southern England and the Hebrides.

"With this film [A Canterbury Tale], Hillier sprang to the front rank," wrote Powell in his memoirs. "He had a keen eye for effect and texture... whether in the studio or on location. The only thing he was a bit loony about was clouds in the sky. He detested a clear sky, and it sometimes seemed to me that he forgot about the story and the actors in order to gratify his passion. 'Meekee, Meekee, please wait another few minutes,' he would plead. There is a little cloud over there and it is coming our way, I'm sure it is.' This would go on all day. I admired his dedication."

But Powell and Pressburger decided to revert to colour expert Jack Cardiff, who had shot their film The Life And Death Of Colonel Blimp (1942), for their next three films, which were to be in Technicolor. Powell offered Hillier the possibility of working with Cardiff as co-DP on A Matter Of Life And Death (1946), but he refused. Hillier never got to work in Technicolor during its greatest decade, 1939-1949, except for the disastrous London Town (1946), Britain's first major Technicolor musical.

Hillier returned to his forte with The October Man (1947), one of the best British attempts at film noir, shot atmospherically in monochrome, reflecting the angst of John Mills as an amnesiac trying to prove that he is not a murderer. With Peter Ustinov's Private Angelo (1949), Hillier began a long association with Michael Anderson, who co-directed the film.

Hillier shot 10 films for Anderson, including Chase A Crooked Shadow (1958) - a good title for a noir cinematographer; Shake Hands With The Devil (1959), starring James Cagney as an IRA man; and, most successfully, The Dam Busters (1955).

It was decided to shoot The Dam Busters in black and white to allow the integration of original footage of the bomb trials, and to preserve a docudrama style. The Ruhr was in flood, which allowed the crew, including Hillier doing much of the aerial photography, to film inundated towns and valleys and incorporate the footage into the closing scenes.

Anderson and Hillier were reunited on Operation Crossbow (1965), another wartime story covering the development of a new type of bomb and using many special effects. For The Quiller Memorandum (1966), Hillier returned to Berlin for an offbeat tale of espionage, scripted by Harold Pinter.

Hillier retired in 1968 after shooting the plodding papal picture, The Shoes Of The Fisherman, for Anderson.

He is survived by his wife and daughter.