For a director who has worked with some of the greatest names in cinematography, it’s relatively unusual to hear Woody Allen‘s films discussed in terms of their photography. With the eternal exception of “Manhattan” there’s often the sense that his talents most clearly come through in the verbal, or performance side of his films: Allen’s movies have won him three screenwriting Oscars and a Best Director statue, and he’s been a veritable farm for Oscar-nominated performances (18 nominations, 7 wins across his filmography). But his films have netted only one sole Oscar nod for cinematography (Gordon Willis, for “Zelig“), and while the famously Oscar-averse Allen himself probably couldn’t give a hoot, it does demonstrate how generally underrated his films are in this arena.
With “Irrational Man” in theaters this weekend (here’s our review), there’s another chance to assess a Woody Allen film on that basis and we’ll leave it up to you to decide if you think Darius Khondji‘s work there deserves a mention on this list. But whether you find this latest entry from Allen a surprise, a disappointment, or more of the same in terms of cinematography, (and here’s our Woody Retrospective Part 1 and Part 2 to leaf through as a refresher) here are the ten Woody Allen films that we think make the best case for him not just being a master of writing and performance, but also an experimental and inventive expert in the use of color, light and darkness, in collaboration with some of the most legendary DPs in history.
“Crimes and Misdemeanors” (1989)
Notorious Bergman-ophile Woody Allen sublimated his desire to work with his hero’s defining DP in 1988 when Sven Nykvist shot “Another Woman” for him. But it was the following year, after also shooting Allen’s segment of “New York Stories” that they’d have the most fruitful of their four collaborations (1998’s “Celebrity” was the last), on Allen’s broody, brilliantly pessimistic morality play “Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Although the Bergmanian themes of mortality and damnation might have seemed a natural fit, reportedly Nykvist, whose influential style was all about simplicity and naturalism, actually found it a strain to deliver the darkness Allen wanted, as well as the warmer-tone interiors that the director preferred. As Allen would say afterwards “That is… my preference, and all the cameramen I work with… try to talk me out of the excessive warmth that I push for. Sven Nykvist used to say, ‘but their faces are like tomatoes.'” But they found an expressive and evocative middle ground, with some scenes, such as Martin Landau gazing into the fire negotiating with the rabbi in his mind while the the shadows of flames flicker across his face, truly searing themselves into Woody Allen’s canon of great shots. And other times, Nykvist’s impulse to keep things clean and simple makes “supernatural” moments feel all the more jaggedly real for seeming relatively prosaic.
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“Sweet & Lowdown” (1999)
If Allen’s defining visual collaboration with “The Godfather” DP Gordon Willis seemed counter-intuitive when it was first established, another choice for a repeat cinematographer was just as much so. Chinese cinematographer Zhao Fei, who would shoot three of Allen’s films in a row, caught Allen’s eye with his lush work on Zhang Yimou‘s “Raise the Red Lantern.” “I don’t know why Woody choose me,” said Zhao at the time.“But I know he is very particular about his light and color. He favors soft and warm lighting; he doesn’t prefer cold. He probably liked the way lighting was embraced in that [‘Red Lantern’]; he likes it very subtle.” And subtle is a good word for the images that Zhao and Allen served up in “Sweet and Lowdown,” Allen’s 1930s-set tale of an aspiring Django Reinhardt-eque guitar player (Sean Penn) who runs afoul of gangsters and falls for a mute (Samantha Morton). Using a restrained palette — pale blues and dove grays and creams — the softness of the lighting gives the excellent 1930s costuming and set dressing a gently lived-in feel, like there’s nothing garish and new here, and everything feels a little worn. This “sweet and lowdown,” low-key effect was so pleasing to Allen, that despite the difficulties of speaking through an interpreter, he’d use Zhao for his next two films — the fun “Small Time Crooks” and the terrible but good-looking “Curse of the Jade Scorpion.“
“Stardust Memories” (1980)
Panned on release and regarded for years as Allen’s first serious misfire, if subsequent decades have been kinder to “Stardust Memories,” it must be partially to do with the timeless black and white Gordon Willis cinematography. But as the fourth consecutive film he shot for Allen, it’s overshadowed even in discussions of visuals, by the previous year’s “Manhattan” which was also shot B/W and remains the pinnacle of Allen’s cinematographic achievement. It’s true that ‘Memories’ does not create the iconic New York that “Manhattan” does, but what it lacks in towering Beaux-Arts architecture it makes up for in Charlotte Rampling‘s cheekbones. Seriously, though while there’s a tricksiness at work throughout ‘Memories’ — a self-awareness that while typical of Allen suddenly seemed offputtingly sour to contemporaries — and Willis does get to have fun with shadows and frames and long takes and faces that swim up out of absolute black, he also finds warmth in his grays that makes the less arch scenes feel real and intimate. The simple mid-range softness of Rampling looking up at the camera, for example, is one of the unsung great visual moments in Allen’s catalogue: there’s nothing showy about it, and yet it thrills: a perfect evocation of how you fall in love in moments and how some moments are magic because they trick you into thinking they’re ordinary, and everything will always be like this.
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008)
The first of two collaborations with Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (he also shot “Blue Jasmine“), for perhaps his most creatively successful European-set picture (depending on how you feel about “Match Point“), Allen matched one of the most beautiful cities in the world with four of the most beautiful faces (Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz), and turned in one of his most appropriately ravishing films. Aguirresarobe had already shown his versatility working on over 80 titles for directors like Pedro Almodovar (“Talk to Her“), Milos Forman (“Goya’s Ghosts“) and Alejandro Amenabar (“The Others“), but here he again creates a very specific look. Outside, the beauty of the sights is set off by giving everything a golden magic-hour hue, while for the interiors the skin tones and faces of the gorgeous cast work have their own glow, in more frequent close-ups than Allen employs elsewhere. So there’s a sense of romance and intimacy, but there’s also a kind of melancholy, as though, while it’s contemporary, this is all a memory of sunshine. It’s one of the more perfect unions of look and content in late-period Allen, which Aguirresarobe accounted for by saying, “The universe of Woody Allen possesses a very definite visual aesthetic that includes not only the photography but also the wardrobe, the production design, and the color palette. My goal was to comply with this aesthetic universe.”
“The Purple Rose Of Cairo” (1985)
Woody Allen is notoriously dissatisfied with most of his films, but for many years, “The Purple Rose Of Cairo” was the one picture the director cited as a favorite. Perhaps it’s because it allowed him the freedom to explore opposing milieus: the luxuriant Art Deco air of the 1930s champagne comedy and the sepia tones of the film’s more squalid real-life setting in the Great Depression. Featuring a film-within-a-film conceit taken to a magical next level, the comic fantasy centers on a 1930s theater in New Jersey where a movie character walks off the screen and into the arms of a downtrodden waitress seeking refuge in the movies from her loveless marriage. A charming wish-fulfillment love story (with some sideswiping at Hollywood), “The Purple Rose Of Cairo” would be the eighth and final collaboration between Woody Allen and Gordon Willis (he was supposed to shoot “Hannah And Her Sisters,” but went long on another picture). And the great DP also appears to be enjoying going between two worlds, juxtaposing well-lit black-and-white studio comedy with the textured browns and mustards of the dustbowl era (a look sometimes not entirely removed from the contrasty, low-lit patina he draped over “The Godfather”). Duality is everywhere, and if Willis’ work here isn’t hugely showy, it’s how he underscores the contrary aesthetics, and invests each of them with such minute care, that illustrates how a cinematographer can inform a film subconsciously throughout.
Since “Zelig,” we’ve seen Tom Hanks shake JFK’s hand and watched British comedians chat with Marilyn Monroe in commercials to sell After Eights and beer, so it’s maybe difficult to fully appreciate the inventiveness of what Allen and DP Gordon Willis achieved here. Splicing newly shot footage into archive clips and attempting to make it blend seamlessly, it’s a technique that could probably be achieved with a few mouse clicks today. Back then, however, “the movie was a logistical nightmare,” said Willis, necessitating locating old-school lenses, copying, distressing, occasionally even showering with and stomping on the film print (one which would have to be on exactly the same stock as it was originally used) until it achieved a similar quality of grain and wear, before the Zelig character could be spliced in via matte superimposition. Painstaking though it was, it was worth it: the results hold up today — it’s still a thrill to see Adolf Hitler get annoyed at Woody Allen. But the technique and the look has somewhat overshadowed the film in the top-tier of Allen’s canon, which is unfair as it’s one of his freshest, funniest and most psychologically insightful movies to boot. It brought Willis, long overdue even then, the first of two Cinematography Academy Award nominations, though he lost to another collaborator of Allen’s, Sven Nykvist, for his work on Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander.”
“Shadows and Fog” (1992)
Reportedly, Carlo Di Palma‘s favorite of the 12 films he did for Allen was “September,” but Allen himself judged “Shadows and Fog” to be Di Palma’s finest work for him. And indeed the cinematography here really stands out, partly because, in contrast to “Manhattan,” for example, the movie itself is not as good as it looks (though we’re not as condemning of it as many). An overplotted diptych movie in which a Kafka-esque revenge plot reminiscent of Fritz Lang‘s “M” intersects with a circus performer’s quest to find his sword-swallowing girlfriend, really the joy is in seeing how many different styles Allen and Di Palma can lovingly recreate. As well as the dramatic silhouettes and hard directional lights of German Expressionism, there are nods to a more romanced film noir style, shout-outs to the poetic realism of French director Marcel Carne and even flourishes that seem to evoke the neo-realist classics. It’s a one-movie film course in the history of black and white cinematography on both sides of the Atlantic, so that even though elements of the story are a bit off (Allen plays an unusually unlikeable hero, for one thing), it’s never less than wicked fun to look at, and perhaps a rejuvenation for Di Palma who said of it, “I first began in black and white, so it was like going back to when I first began shooting.”
“Bullets over Broadway” (1994)
Because the films he worked on comprise most of the accepted pantheon of classics of Allen’s output, Gordon Willis is the name most associated with Allen in terms of cinematography. But while Willis collaborated on 8 Allen films, one-time Antonioni DP Carlo Di Palma (“Blow Up,” “Red Desert“) racked up the longest-lasting Allen partnership, shooting 12 of his mid-period, mid-80s-to-late-90s pictures. Perhaps the most memorable of those in terms of look, though, is Allen’s wonderful send-up of the phoniness and egocentricity of the late-’20s New York theatrical scene. Alternating warm autumnal browns with bursts of saturated pink and red, it might contain the single most striking use of vivid color in Allen’s entire output, in the scene where the Oscar-winning Dianne Wiest and terrific Allen proxy John Cusack sit on a bench in the park with a bank of flowers behind them, their faces almost lost within a ludicrously lush technicolor display. This rich luster was due to the fact that, as Di Palma said, “films of that era were black and white, and color was for the musicals… when one went to watch a stage performance, one would see the colors, the lights, the costumes and it’s a beautiful experience. Woody and I had that in mind when making the film.” The film garnered 7 Oscar nods, including a couple for design (production and costume), but Di Palma went unrecognized.
You might think Sven Nykvist, Ingmar Bergman’s legendary cinematographer, had shot “Interiors,” which is visually and thematically a homage to the Swedish master, and Woody Allen’s first “serious” drama. But while Allen would eventually work with Nykvist, “Interiors” got its distanced, alienated and pensive visuals from the great Gordon Willis. Allen had long yearned to make something more “meaningful” and when the success of “Annie Hall” earned him that right “Interiors” was born. Centering on a family falling apart, painfully, as three neurotic, dysfunctional and resentful sisters find their lives collapsing in the wake of their parents’ unexpected divorce, it was dubbed “Windows” by Allen and Willis, and is indeed full of naturalistic-looking (but meticulously crafted) scenes framed by windowpanes, with Willis’ careful cinematography bringing the entire effort to a devastatingly intimate level. And this is crucial to the film’s (undervalued) strength: characterized by long takes of elaborate conversation with characters walking in and out of frame in an almost Chekovian manner, as the title heavily implies “Interiors” is all about the intimate inner lives of its characters. Nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, the role of the mother here was first offered to Ingrid Bergman, but she was off shooting Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata” — the film “Interiors,” in its emotionally shattering intensity, perhaps most resembles. “Manhattan” may be the film the Allen/Willis collaboration is best known for, but “Interiors” proves Willis’ mastery of many other styles, with his clean, beautiful imagery becoming a crucial part of this underrated all-time great.
“To me, color’s a burden,” said Gordon Willis, despite the fact he’d redefined the American cinematographic landscape with his evocative, moody use of color in the first two ‘Godfather‘ movies. “You constantly have to deal with it. The audience has to deal with it. You can’t be arbitrary.” But that’s not to suggest there’s anything arbitrary about his most famous black and white work — Willis had already shot Allen’s best film (“Annie Hall”) and would now turn in his most beautiful. If it’s unusual to discuss Allen in terms of cinematography it’s because Allen’s dialogue and performances often overshadow his visuals; “Manhattan” is perhaps the only case where the reverse occurs. The film itself is wonderful, with Diane Keaton almost as appealing a character here as in “Annie Hall,” but if asked what you remember about it offhand, it will no doubt be that stunning, breathtakingly romantic image of Keaton and Allen dwarfed in the foreground with the massive Queensboro bridge stretching off against a lightening sky. The film is just delicious to look at throughout, but the intense, piercing romance of this shot encapsulates so much of what Allen was about, that even now it feels like he’ll never fully escape the looming shadow of that iconic New York image. It still makes even this hardened moviegoer swoon: a perfect single image that encapsulates the transitory miracle that is staying up all night for the first time in the embrace of the city you love, with the person who will change your life.
That’s by no means the comprehensive list of famous cinematographers Allen has worked with — he’s also used Vilmos Zsigmond (“Melinda & Melinda,” among others) and Harris Savides (“Whatever Works“) and recently Darius Khondji has been his frequent go-to guy, up to and including this week’s “Irrational Man.” However, the eagle-eyed of you will have noticed that half the above titles were shot by Gordon Willis, and since there really is no escaping the indelible impression this man made on Allen oeuvre, and on cinematography in general, we’ll leave the last word for him, talking about his most iconic Allen collaboration: “I wouldn’t say my style is naturalistic. I would say it’s reconstructed reality that embellishes what is already there. In the case of ‘Manhattan,’ it’s romantic reality. You can make the same thing ugly or beautiful, just by choosing what you shoot…Woody and I both see New York as a black and white town, and I love shooting wide-screen anamorphic. Put the two together and look in the right direction, and you get ‘Manhattan.’”
–with Rodrigo Perez