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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Déjà vu: David Tennant returns to familiar territory with Anna Gunn (‘Breaking Bad’)
tvReview: Something is missing in Gracepoint, and it's not just the familiar names
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Accounts Office Administrator

£15000 - £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The ideal candidates will have ...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer

£22000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing boutique prac...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?