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.