Guy Green directed a number of efficient films, including the controversial story of a wildcat strike The Angry Silence, but it was his earlier work as a cinematographer that was truly distinguished and that makes him an important part of British cinema history.
Tall and good-looking, with a diffident manner and appealing sense of humour, he photographed such landmarks as Carol Reed's The Way Ahead and several films for David Lean, including Great Expectations and Oliver Twist. He was the first British director of photography to receive an Oscar, and, though he was regarded as one of the world's finest black-and-white photographers for a decade from the mid-Forties, he also brought sumptuous flare to one of Britain's most ravishing colour movies, Blanche Fury. Together with Freddie Young and Jack Cardiff, he founded the British Society of Cinematographers. Richard Attenborough, with whom he worked several times, said,
Guy was a leading figure in cinema both in the UK and in the United States for over 40 years. I had the most profound respect for his remarkable talent.
Born in Frome, Somerset, in 1913, he entered the film industry as a camera assistant at Shepperton Studios after having worked as a projectionist on an ocean liner, a portrait photographer and an assistant cameraman for an advertising agency. In 1933 he was assistant camera operator on John Baxter's Song of the Plough, the tale of a farmer saved from financial ruin when his sheepdog wins in the trials. Critics agreed that the film's saving grace was its beautiful countryside photography. Green was also a camera operator on Radio Parade of 1935 (1934), with an impressive line-up of entertainers and a finale filmed in Dufaycolour, and a screen version of Ivor Novello's operetta Glamorous Night (1937), starring Mary Ellis.
In 1941 he graduated to such major works as Leslie Howard's Pimpernel Smith (1941), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942), and David Lean's In Which We Serve (1942) and This Happy Breed (1944). It was Lean who suggested to Carol Reed that he give Green a chance as director of photography on The Way Ahead (1944), a witty and warm account of civilians called up for war service and adapting to military life. Green said, "I'll never forget Raymond Huntley on that film. He was marvellous."
Compared to the gently lit, comfortable look of the domestic sequences in The Way Ahead, those for the brooding tragedy Carnival (1946), were given a more sombre presence. Between these films he worked as second-unit cameraman, shooting mainly exterior footage, on Anthony Asquith's classic story of an RAF squadron The Way to the Stars (1945).
Other films he photographed included Take My Life (1947), an underrated British film noir, and in the same year he won an Oscar for his brilliantly atmospheric depiction of Dickensian England in Great Expectations. The opening sequence, with the mist-shrouded moors masking a hidden terror, was unforgettable. Green said of his award,
It's done me an awful lot of good, really. People often deride the Oscars, but when you have one you become important! It is still respected.
Describing the lighting of one of many beautiful sequences, Green explained,
When Estella comes to meet Pip when they are children, she has a candle and she takes him through the house and up the stairs. It took me a whole day to arrange the lighting of that. It was a tracking shot and I tried to imitate what a candle would do all the way along. I did it by rehearsing a squad of electricians with dimmers and so on. It was great fun to do and I was allowed to take my time to do it.
The sharp contrasts he brought to Lean's Oliver Twist the following year were equally impressive. Green recalled,
David said, "I love it because you put light on the actors and you can see them properly." It was true; in half the movies I see today I can't see the actors' faces and it drives me up the wall.
The director then trusted Green to light his wife, Ann Todd, to her best advantage in both The Passionate Friends (1948) and Madeleine (1949):
I found the kind of light that suited her and, contrary to my usual practice of sticking to the realistic look, I would fit the lighting of the set around the lights that suited her. That made David happy and it made her happy.
He used softer tones for the romantic comedy Adam and Evelyne (1949), a slight tale given added resonance by the chemistry between its two young stars, Jean Simmons and Stewart Granger, themselves in the early stages of their real-life love affair.
Other films that benefited from his cinematography included Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951), The Story of Robin Hood (1952), The Beggar's Opera (1952), which starred a singing Laurence Olivier, and I Am a Camera (1955). Gregory Peck, who starred as Hornblower, was described by Green as
one of the easiest actors I've ever had to photograph. It didn't matter where you put the light on him, he'd look good. One thing it has to do with is having a very small nose; big noses are a problem because they cast shadows.
His first film as a director was a modest but well-executed thriller, Night Beat (1954), starring John Bentley and American actress Phyllis Kirk, and he followed it with another low-budget film, Portrait of Alison (1955) that neatly transcribed to film a typically convoluted Francis Durbridge radio serial. The first major film he directed is one of his best, Lost (1956), an engrossing story of a child's kidnapping which made sterling use of London locales, photographed in glowing colour, and a strong supporting cast of character players.
Sea of Sand (1958) was a fast-paced, involving war film starring Michael Craig, Richard Attenborough and John Gregson: "It was while making Sea of Sand that Craig, Attenborough and I talked about making The Angry Silence." The controversial movie starred Attenborough as a worker who refuses to join striking colleagues:
There was a lot of fuss from the unions about the film, threatening to ban it, even though they'd not seen it. I don't think I'd feel any different today about the issues it raised. Those issues still remain - a man's right not to be pushed around because other people don't agree with him.
Green used the film to experiment with some innovative techniques for scene transitions:
There is a scene with Dickie in his young son's bedroom, when the boy has been told that his father is a scab. We cut to a shot of Dick being shocked by this, then pull back from the close-up and he is in the canteen, reacting to all the noises around him. There are no mechanical devices, just a straight cut, and people weren't used to that kind of thing in those days.
The Angry Silence (1960) was Britain's first entry at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the International Critics' Award.
Green courted more controversy with his film The Mark (1961), about a child molester, after which he accepted an offer from Hollywood ("That's where the jobs were") to direct Light in the Piazza (1962), a delicately handled tale, based on Elizabeth Spencer's novel, of a beautiful but mentally retarded young woman who finds romance when on an Italian holiday with her mother. (A musical version of the story is currently a hit on Broadway.)
He then directed Diamond Head (1962), an over-heated yet dull tale of bigotry in Hawaii, starring Charlton Heston, who wrote in his diary, "We had a very good English director, Guy Green, who had just done an admirable small film, Light in the Piazza." When, a few months later, Nicholas Ray collapsed while directing 55 Days at Peking, Heston suggested that Green be called in to direct the remaining scenes involving Heston and Ava Gardner.
Though Green remained in the US, his work there was less satisfactory than it had been in the UK, though he won accolades for the drama A Patch of Blue (1965), which he both wrote and directed. It received five Oscar nominations, and Shelley Winters won as Best Supporting Actress for her role as mother of a young blind girl (Elizabeth Hartman) who falls in love with a black man (Sidney Poitier).
Green also directed the 1973 screen version of John Osborne's play Luther, with Stacy Keach and Judi Dench, but several of his films were over sentimental or pretentious, lacking the economy and swift-paced storytelling of his British work. Titles included The Magus (1969), A Walk in the Spring Rain (1970) and Once is Not Enough (1975). He later made television movies, his last being Strong Medicine (1986).
In 1992 Green told the historian Brian McFarlane that he considered being a cameraman an excellent preparation for directing because
you then have no fear of the mechanics of it. A camera can be terrifying to someone who doesn't know about where to put it or what lens to use. A lot of directors come from the acting side and they know nothing about it.
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