Obituary: Erwin Hillier

Photographer of `The Dam Busters'

THE GERMAN-BORN cinematographer Erwin Hillier became one of Britain's finest cameramen, described by the film-maker Michael Powell as "almost insanely enthusiastic". Powell and his partner Emeric Pressburger founded Archer Films, and Hillier is considered second only to Jack Cardiff as their most important cameraman. His films included two notable Archers productions, A Canterbury Tale and I Know Where I'm Going, as well as the celebrated war film The Dam Busters and such atmospheric films noirs as The October Man and Chase a Crooked Shadow.

Born in Berlin in 1911, to English and German parents, he studied briefly at art school in the city before joining the famed Ufa studios, where the director F.W. Murnau, who had been impressed by his paintings, asked him to be an assistant on Tabu (1931).

When Hillier's father forbade his working with Murnau after discovering that the director was a promiscuous homosexual, Murnau introduced Hillier to Fritz Lang, who used him as an assistant cameraman on the classic tale of a child murderer, M (1931). At Ufa, he developed an affinity for stark contrast and highly angled compositions, and, after moving to the UK, he quickly found work as a camera assistant at Gaumont, where he contributed to films by Alfred Hitchcock and Victor Saville.

He was camera operator on Walter Forde's Jack Ahoy! (1934), a musical- comedy vehicle for Jack Hulbert, and he worked in a similar capacity on Forde's Brown on Resolution (1935), starring John Mills, and the "quota quickie" The Girl in the Crowd (1935), which first brought him to the attention of the film's director, Michael Powell. "Ernest Palmer photographed the film," recalled Powell,

but operating the camera and influencing every angle and every lighting effect was an almost insanely enthusiastic young man called Erwin Hillier. He was always dreaming up new angles, new points of view for the camera to explore, new movements for the camera to make, which would intensify the atmosphere and the action. He approved of me, because I had seen all the continental films that he had grown up with.

Hillier was camera operator on Powell's popular and enjoyable espionage tale The Spy in Black (1939), then, with the outbreak of war, he was given the opportunity to be cinematographer on several documentaries for the Ministry of Information, which led to his first feature film as cinematographer, Leslie Hiscott's comedy thriller The Lady from Lisbon (1942).

He then photographed The Silver Fleet (1943), starring Ralph Richardson as a Dutch shipping engineer who feigns collaboration with the Nazis as a cover for his guerrilla activities. The film was produced by Richardson, with Powell and Pressburger, who produced Hillier's next film, A Canterbury Tale (1944) - an offbeat drama in which Eric Portman starred as a JP who at nightfall pours glue on to local girls' hair to stop them fraternising with soldiers.

"With this film," wrote Powell in his memoirs,

Hillier sprang to the front rank. He had a keen eye for effect and texture . . . Whether in the studio or on location, we decided to go for complete realism, and he never let me down. The only thing he was a bit loony about was clouds in the sky. He detested a clear sky, and it sometimes seemed to me that he forgot about the story and the actors in order to gratify his passion. "Meekee, Meekee, please wait another few minutes," he would plead. There is a little cloud over there and it is coming our way, I'm sure it is." This would go on all day. I admired his dedication.

The critic Richard Winnington, praising the film's "pastoral progression", wrote of "the first-rate and refreshing photographic compositions of the Kentish landscape". Pressburger's nephew Kevin Macdonald cites echoes of M in A Canterbury Tale, "in particular the willingness to use almost total darkness throughout the first five minutes of the film".

Hillier then photographed one of the most exquisite of Powell-Pressburger movies, I Know Where I'm Going (1945), starring Wendy Hiller as the imperious young woman en route to marry an elderly millionaire in the Hebrides when she meets a darkly romantic naval officer (Roger Livesey). Powell described the photography, which included close-up shots of a whirlpool taken at some risk to Hillier, as, "inventive, poetic and mysterious", but the association between Powell and Hillier ended when Powell decided to use Jack Cardiff on A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

According to Powell, Hillier refused the offer to work with Cardiff and share the credit, with Hillier's name coming first:

He was a proud man and had struggled a long time to reach the top. He couldn't see this suggestion in any other way but a put-down.

Instead, Hillier worked on another Technicolor project, London Town (1946), a notoriously unsuccessful attempt to rival Hollywood's lavish musicals, its pastel photography one of the few elements to win praise.

Hillier's most distinguished work, though, was in black and white. Roy Baker's The October Man (1946), a moody, psychological thriller starring John Mills, benefited greatly from Hillier's superlative use of light and shade, and a similar mastery of chiaroscuro was apparent in such noirish movies as The Mark of Cain (1947) and Mr Perrin and Mr Traill (1948). In contrast, his colour photography for the musical Where's Charley? (1952) was appropriately bright and sunny for this light- hearted Oxford-set romp. (Alas, the film is little known today because of copyright restrictions.)

The lively farce Will Any Gentleman . . . ? (1953) began a long association between Hillier and the director Michael Anderson. Their films together included an excellent mystery with a neat twist ending, Chase a Crooked Shadow (1957), with Anne Baxter as the persecuted heroine, Shake Hands with the Devil (1959), a grim IRA thriller starring James Cagney, and The Naked Edge (1961), Gary Cooper's last film. The Quiller Memorandum (1966), with a script by Harold Pinter, starred George Segal as an agent tracking down a group of murderous neo-Nazis, and Operation Crossbow (1965) dealt with British efforts to find and destroy the Nazi bases for V-1 rockets during the Second World War.

The team's biggest success, though, was another war film, The Dam Busters (1954), an enormous hit starring Michael Redgrave as Barnes Wallis, who invented bouncing mines to destroy enemy dams, and Richard Todd as leader of the squadron that undertakes the ground-breaking mission that necessitates flying suicidally low. Todd said,

I think The Dam Busters is the best military war picture ever made. Mickey Anderson deliberately made it in black-and-white for two reasons: one was that we could use a lot of stock shots in black-and-white of the original bombs being tested. Also, he thought that colour would prettify it too much, and I think he was right. Erwin Hillier was the cameraman on it and it was very well photographed.

Hillier's last two films were made in the United States, Shoes of the Fisherman (1968) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969).

Erwin Hillier, cinematographer: born Berlin 2 September 1911; married Helen Yates-Southgate (one daughter); died London 10 January 2005.

FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
New Articles
i100... she's just started school
New Articles
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
Arts and Entertainment
musicBiographer Hunter Davies has collected nearly a hundred original manuscripts
New Articles
i100... despite rising prices
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam