Return to Table of Contents
Conrad L. Hall page 2page 3
City of Ghostspage 2page 3
DVDpage 2page 3
American Cinematographer Magazine
 
 
 
Page 2
 

The Professionals (1966), shot in color, earned the cinematographer his second Academy Award nomination. It also marked his first collaboration with director Richard Brooks, with whom he also would shoot In Cold Blood and The Happy Ending. "Richard was an auteur," Hall noted. "He'd had a lot of experience writing and directing, and he was a very strong visualist with firm ideas. He liked to have a very close working relationship with his cinematographer. You lived with him and ate with him, and you were always talking about the story and planning ahead. More likely than not, if you had an idea he'd thought of it already, so it became a matter of making his ideas work rather than coming up with your own. He was very certain about his ideas, very passionate. I loved working with him. We were friends."

Hall's next major success was Cool Hand Luke (1967), an anti-establishment allegory about a resilient rebel (Paul Newman) who is sentenced to a sweaty term on a repressive prison farm in the American South. It was on this project that Hall began experimenting with the art of imperfection. "In the pioneering days of cinematography, the idea was to strive for a kind of visual perfection, a beauty that came from an almost surreal perfection skin that glowed, focus that enhanced the romantic senses, lighting that was always beauteous," Hall said. "Then things began to change. I was part of both eras."

Along with other pioneering cinematographers such as Haskell Wexler, ASC, Hall began breaking away from the beauteous imagery of the past to a grittier, more naturalistic sense of reality, in keeping with the evolving times. Hall used techniques that had previously been perceived as mistakes - an "inappropriate" move, or a flare in the camera lens - to dramatic effect. Indications of this daring strategy appear throughout Cool Hand Luke, particularly during scenes of the chain gang slaving under the blazing sun; Hall allowed the sun's rays to ricochet off the inner lenses of his zoom, creating "zingers" of flare that underscored the misery of the midday heat.

With his next picture, In Cold Blood (1967), Hall was reteamed with his friend Richard Brooks. A triumph on every level, the film is a devastating dramatization of Truman Capote's true-crime story, which details the slaughter of an upstanding Kansas family by a pair of unbalanced drifters. "We decided to shoot in black-and-white because we wanted to make it real; we were filming in the actual locations where the various incidents in the story had taken place, including the actual murder sites, and the use of black-and-white gave the film a heightened sense of truth without making things too lurid."

Hall's work on this film earned him his third Academy Award nomination and the undying admiration of cinematography buffs, who now view In Cold Blood as a nearly flawless achievement. The film offers a dramatic mixture of careful planning and on-the-spot inspiration.

Perhaps the most famous scene in the film presents a final speech by one of the killers (Robert Blake), who confides his feelings to a prison chaplain just minutes before he is executed on a rainy night. Among the many "happy accidents" Hall exploited during his career, this sequence stands alone in its brilliance. As the unemotional murderer reminisces to the chaplain about his unhappy relationship with his father, the drizzling rain outside the cell's window is reflected onto his face, forming a river of symbolic tears.

"It really was raining the night the two killers were hung," Hall recalled. "The warehouse where they were hung and Death Row were two locations in which we weren't allowed to shoot, so we had to recreate them. I wound up lighting this scene of a man about to be hanged, talking to a chaplain as rain was being created outside the window. The light from the prison yard was creating a dim, moody ambiance, and the chaplain was reading from the Bible by the light of a little desk lamp. The outside light was creating the penetration, and we used a wind machine to create some movement in the rain. But the machine blew a mist on the windowpanes, and after a certain point the mist became so heavy that it started to trail down. While I was lighting the scene, I noticed that the light from outside was shining through the water sliding down the window pane and projecting a pattern resembling tears on the face of Robert Blake's stand-in. I brought it to Richard's attention. In the finished scene, the acting, cinematography, direction and writing all come together to create a very memorable moment.

"People think you're a genius for planning something like that, when in reality you were just smart enough to notice it and exploit it," Hall related with characteristic modesty.

One of Hall's next films was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). The cinematographer's careful planning resulted in one of the great chase scenes in the history of Western films. "I love to work with symbolism, because it's very strong visually," he said. "Butch Cassidy is about the idea of people - in this case, bank robbers - being passed over by the advance of technological process. In helping George Roy Hill to visualize the chase scene, I was lucky to have the degree of freedom that he gave me. While shooting the posse, I used very long lenses, creating immediacy without recognition, keeping the reality symbolic. Banks were becoming invincible, and posses more formidable. Therefore, I wanted to keep the posse far away so you couldn't see who they were; I didn't want to humanize them and make them real people. It was an idea that was chasing Butch and Sundance. I usually work very organically and on the fly, but in that instance I had the chance to really sit down and plan things out fully." Hall's work on this film earned him an Academy Award.

After basking in Oscar's spotlight, Hall was given the chance to work in tandem with one of his idols, legendary director John Huston. The two teamed up on Fat City (1972), the tale of a down-and-out boxer (Stacy Keach) who is reminded of his own past promise when he meets a young hopeful (Jeff Bridges). The boxer's attempt to recapture former glories ends in the sad realization that it's too late to turn back the clock. "That was a great experience for me, because when I was in film school John Huston used to come and talk to us. He was like a god; I mean, he had made Treasure of the Sierra Madre! It was unimaginable to me that I would someday be shooting for him."

In an early meeting with Huston and production designer Richard Sylbert, Hall got a personal demonstration of the director's creative intuition. "John asked us to tell him what we thought the film was about. I don't remember what Dick or I said, but I do remember what John said. He told us, 'I think this film is about how your life can run down the rain before you have a chance to put in the plug.' That's a brilliant summation of the concept, and it's something I could hang my whole visual approach on. I always look for those kinds of guiding ideas when I'm shooting.

Page 2

 

 

© 2003 American Cinematographer.