Gordon Willis arguably created the “look” of what we now define as the 1970s in movies. At the apex of New Hollywood, that glorious period between Bonnie and Clyde and Star Wars (though Apocalypse Now is perhaps like the epilogue of the era), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather films became simultaneously the most popular films in the world as well as the most critically acclaimed films, which is a difficult feat. A lot of that is thanks to Willis, who created a noir feel using color and darkness working in tandem.
His golden hued photography and penchant for stark-contrast lighting lent an air of classic romanticism to The Godfather trilogy. The opening scene of The Godfather set the tone for the next eight years of American films; the camera is uncomfortably close to the face of an Italian-American man, talking about how he loves America, his skin a sallow glowing patch against a background of black. The camera slowly zooms back, so slowly you almost don’t notice it at first, as the man talks about betrayal, violence, and the corrupt justice system until we arrive beside a powerful silhouette — Marlon Brando’s Don, Vito Corleone. The first man gets up and walks over to Corleone to whisper in his ear, and the camera finally moves, showing us the face of hope, justice, power, and vengeance.
The entire scene unfolds with a sense of grace and elegance that has never been matched. Enveloped in mystery, careful and calculated but not stilted, the scene commands your attention with its quietude and imagery, at once stark and noirish yet somehow soft, like a fever dream of warm colors. Brando is a looming shroud, as much a legend manifested as he is a man; the dark heart of capitalism rendered in flesh. The darkened hollows of his eyes suggest an ineffable emptiness.