Conrad L. Hall was beyond simple classification. He’d shoot with piercing light in one film, then natural light the next. His films could have an ice cold palette (the way A Civil Action does), or be bathed in a warm glow (like The Day of the Locust). Hall was nominated 10 times for an Academy Award, winning three for his unparalleled work. He’s also one of those rare artists who delivered some of his finest efforts at the very end of his career. Here’s a look at the work of one of film’s finest cinematographers.
9. Morituri (1965)
The WWII spy movie, Morituri, is just a decent film, but Hall’s work is undoubtedly the best part about it. His use of stark shadows make it one of the finest black and white films Hall ever shot.
8. In Cold Blood (1967)
It’s all about the night of Perry Smith’s hanging. With the rain pouring outside, Hall lit the shot so that it looks like the rain is actually slowly running down Robert Blake’s face, making it appear as if he’s crying. It’s such a telling shot, one that perfectly services what the character is going through at that exact moment.
7. Hell in the Pacific (1968)
If a movie only features two actors stuck on an island (who each speak a language the other does not understand), then you have to rely on other aspects of filmmaking to tell your story. The sound design of John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific is flawless, but that’s cause for another post. Similarly, Hall’s photography is so encompassing, it actually feels like a character within the film.
6. The Day of the Locust (1975)
The Day of the Locust is drenched in lush yellow light, emulating the 1930s Los Angeles depicted within the film. This is one of my favorite looking L.A. films; a movie that somehow manages to turn warm visuals into a cynical nightmare.
5. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)
The vast landscapes are the most obvious thing to praise about Hall’s Oscar-winning work on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But look at the cold, minimal lighting of that night shot. It’s such a startling juxtaposition: the freedom of open beauty in the day, matched with the enclosed, dark fear of the night.
4. Marathon Man (1976)
Notice how Hall used architecture to influence the visual design of Marathon Man. The organic slope of the hallway, the curve of the chain-link fence, the mirrored distance of the bank vault – they all give the frame marvelous depth perception.
3. Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Hall’s photography helped make Cool Hand Luke one of best movies of the 1960s. Rarely has Technicolor popped as vividly as it does in this film. This movie just feels hot.
2. Road to Perdition (2002)
Hall won Oscars for his final two films, and that is for damn good reason. Both Road to Perdition and American Beauty have a “classic cinema” visual design that is immensely compelling. Road to Perdition, uses harsh light to cut through scenes (look how the light pours into that newspaper reading area), and is conscious about capturing much of the film from the low-angle perspective of a young child. Additionally, The silent, rain-soaked assassination of John Rooney’s crew is arguably the single finest scene Conrad L. Hall ever captured. What a sight to behold.
1. American Beauty (1999)
What I meant by “classic cinema” visual design is that American Beauty’s patient, centered photography makes the film feel as though it is (at least) 25 years older than it is. The plot is, of course, modern for when the film was made, but it looks classic. The lighting in the film is also immaculate. Look how the light appears to bend around the wall in Angela Hayes’s bedroom, trapping her in. Or the way that single light above the front read door looks as welcoming as it does haunting. Or that perfectly soft light on Annette Bening’s face as she wallows in self-doubt. Like American Beauty or not, there’s no denying its visual appeal. Masterful. That’s what this film looks like. Masterful.
Other Notable Work
The Professionals (1966)
Electra Glide in Blue (1973)
Black Widow (1987)
Tequila Sunrise (1988)
Jennifer Eight (1992)
Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
Love Affair (1994)
A Civil Action (1998)
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