Oswald Morris: Cinematographer who developed a fruitful relationship with John Huston and worked on a host of classic films

 

The pioneering British cinematographer Oswald Morris worked with the world’s top film directors, from John Huston and Carol Reed to Stanley Kubrick and Tony Richardson, and helped to shape the evolution of photography, both colour and black and white. He achieved his greatest recognition when he won a Best Cinematography Oscar for Fiddler on the Roof, the 1971 adaptation of the Broadway musical described by its screen director, Norman Jewison, as “the story of a man and his God, and his problems with his five daughters”.

Topol, who had starred in the West End production, was again cast as Tevye, trying to maintain his Jewish traditions in Tsarist Russia while coping with his headstrong offspring. Jewison opted for a realist style of film-making, choosing rural Yugoslavia as the location for shooting the fictional town of Anatevka because its landscape and buildings provided an authentic backdrop to the story.

Morris stuck a nylon stocking over the camera lens to create a sepia effect and continued to argue right until Oscars night that this gave an “earthy” feel to the film that conveyed its simple message – although he was not present at the Academy Awards ceremony because he was shooting Lady Caroline Lamb (1972) in England with writer-director Robert Bolt. His statuette was accepted by Jewison with the words: “It is true he shot the whole picture through a lady’s silk stocking. God bless you, Ossie. You really are a very talented man.”

Morris was born during the First World War in Middlesex, the son of a newsagent who shot amateur films in the family’s garden, and was educated at Bishopshalt School, Hillingdon. With a love of cinema, he worked as a projectionist during summer holidays, before getting his first job in the film industry in 1932 as an unpaid gofer for directors such as Michael Powell at Wembley Studios on “quota quickies” – films made to ensure a minimum number of British productions were seen by audiences.

He was soon a clapper boy, first on the crime drama After Dark (1932), directed by Albert Parker, and then worked his way up to assistant camera operator on films such as Sexton Blake and the Mademoiselle (1935). He graduated to camera operator on the prisoner-of-war drama Who Goes Next? (1938), made by Britain’s most prolific film director, Maurice Elvey. He then filmed one of cinema’s biggest stars, James Stewart, in I Met a Murderer (1939) before war intervened. He served in the RAF as a bomber pilot, before becoming a flight lieutenant and being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Force Cross.

On demob, Morris returned to the film industry, at Pinewood Studios, and learned his craft during the postwar cinema boom alongside two distinguished directors of photography. With Wilkie Cooper he shot Green for Danger (1946), starring Alastair Sim, and Captain Boycott (1947), which starred Stewart Granger. Then Guy Green was his mentor on Blanche Fury (1948) and the David Lean-directed films Oliver Twist (1948) and The Passionate Friends (1949).

The last two were produced by Ronald Neame, who then directed the crime drama Golden Salamander (1950), featuring Trevor Howard, and gave Morris his first outing as director of photography. This began a prolific career of more than 30 years in which he helped to translate the visions of directors on to the screen and evolve new styles of photography.

One of his earliest triumphs was the Toulouse-Lautrec biopic Moulin Rouge (1952), the first of Morris’s eight films with John Huston, who wanted it to look like the French artist had directed it himself. Working against the vividness of the Technicolor technique, Morris innovatively used strong, light-scattering filters to produce muted, soft tones and filmed the sets full of smoke to make the actors stand out from the background.

The director-cinematographer partnership was also responsible for Beat the Devil (1953), starring Humphrey Bogart in a film noir parody that became a cult classic despite being a box-office flop at the time. More rewardingly, they made Moby Dick (1956), with Gregory Peck as the 19th-century ship’s captain in a faithful adaptation of Herman Melville’s novel. Morris visually recreated old etchings and whaling prints through desaturating the film, which also had the effect of conveying the story’s foredoomed bleakness.

Not surprisingly, he was in demand by other directors. Impressed by the grainy black-and-white realism of Knave of Hearts (1954, made by the French film-maker René Clément), Tony Richardson hired him for the screen versions of Look Back in Anger (1959) and The Entertainer (1960). He was with Stanley Kubrick on Lolita (1962), Franco Zeffirelli on The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Carol Reed on the gloriously colourful musical Oliver! (1968, gaining him an Oscar nomination) and Sidney Lumet on Equus (1977). He regarded the last as a “terrible disappointment”, although his lighting of the boy-horse “worshipping” sequences produced a magical effect.

Morris won Bafta Best Cinematography awards for The Pumpkin Eater (1964), The Hill (1965) and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965). His other films included The Guns of Navarone (1961), Goodbye, Mr Chips (1969), Scrooge (1970), The Odessa File (1974), The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) and The Wiz (1978, earning him another Oscar nomination). His final films, for Jim Henson, were The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and The Dark Crystal (1982).

The title of Morris’s 2006 autobiography was Huston, We Have a Problem: A Kaleidoscope of Filmmaking Memories. He was made a Bafta Fellow in 1997 and received the American Society of Cinematographers’ Lifetime Achievement Award three years later. 

Oswald Norman Morris, director of photography: born Ruislip, Middlesex 22 November 1915; OBE 1998; married 1939 Connie Sharp (died 1963; one son, two daughters), 1966 Elaine Shreyeck (died 2003); died Fontmell Magna, Dorset 17 March 2014.

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