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Hillier, Erwin (1911-2005)


Main image of Hillier, Erwin (1911-2005)

Erwin Hillier began his career in his native Germany at Ufa studios as an assistant to Fritz Arno Wagner on M (Germany, d. Fritz Lang, 1931) before moving to Britain, where he joined the camera department at Gaumont British in 1933. Despite working on major productions such as The Man Who Knew Too Much (d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1934) and Evergreen (d. Victor Saville, 1934), Hillier was keen to progress and so he took his chance to become an operator at Joe Rock Studios, Elstree making quota quickies. It was during this period he met director Michael Powell on the production of The Man Behind the Mask (1936).

After a period during the early years of the war making documentaries for the Ministry of Information, Hillier photographed The Lady from Lisbon (d. Leslie Hiscott, 1941) at Riverside Studios. This was followed by The Silver Fleet (d. Vernon Sewell, 1943), for Powell and Pressburger's production company. The film, which told the story of a modern Dutch Scarlet Pimpernel played by Ralph Richardson, was shot on a breakneck schedule of five weeks at Denham and on location in Kings Lynne and Liverpool Docks.

On the strength of his work Hillier was invited by Powell to shoot A Canterbury Tale (1944), an atmospheric tale of latter-day pilgrims following in the footsteps of Chaucer. Hillier was delighted to be photographing a production in which landscape played such an important role:

There are so many things in nature which are fascinating. When we used to go out to select locations I would spend hours by myself, not only with a compass watching the sun, I would also pick out certain things early in the morning and then again in the early evening. I used to find out the time when everything looked most fascinating, when it had character and style, rather than shoot in a flat light.

The daylight exteriors of the Kent landscape are consequently bathed in a warm, radiant glow. This contrasts with the arrival of the three latter-day pilgrims in the village of Chillingbourne, which occurs during the blackout, and it is under the cover of darkness that the mysterious 'glueman' strikes, pouring glue on the hair of unsuspecting girls. These sequences are extremely low key, with the characters often just visible by virtue of minimal backlighting, their silhouettes giving them an aura of mystery. Several sequences hinge on an idea of banishing the darkness and letting in the light, of conveying the experience of revelation. Light alternately floods in and is cut out as the blackout curtains are opened and closed during the lecture given by Thomas Culpepper (Erie Portman's squire, who turns out to be the glueman). Culpepper himself is introduced as a silhouette against the light from the slide projector, while in the dim room smoke from dozens of cigarettes and pipes rises, evoking the sequence of the smoking policemen in M. As he begins to evoke the magical powers of the pilgrims' road, his face emerges from the darkness with a striking intensity, as Hillier later explained:

I dimmed up the light just as we moved in on his face. I had a little hit of light for his eyes and the light was dimmed up very slowly so you weren't aware of it, and when he came in you got the expression in his eyes. If you don't capture the eyes you don't capture the mood, the soul of a person.

Hillier's next film for the Archers developed further their romantic ideas of mysticism and the elemental force of landscape. "I Know Where I'm Going!" (1945) is largely set in the Western Isles of Scotland, dominated by the elements at their most powerfully foreboding: dark brooding skies, wild seas, impenetrable fog and lashing rain. These effects were enhanced by some calmer sequences on the quayside shot at the magic hour - the last moments of light before sunset - for which Hillier utilised one small lamp and a graduated filter to cope with the subtle constant changes in the light and atmosphere. The interior lighting in IKWIG bears the hallmarks of expressionism: looming shadows, shafts of light and angular compositions. The darkness finally lifts with the passing of the storm and the realisation by Joan (Wendy Hiller) that her careful life plans must change. The final scenes are shot in a bright sunlight with calm, tranquil skies and seas - a stark contrast to the rest of the film.

A key sequence in which the boat carrying Joan and Torquil (Roger Livesey) is almost wrecked in the Corryvreckan whirlpool is effectively rendered with process shots cut together with some breathtaking live action. Much of this was filmed by Hillier in rather dangerous conditions close to the real whirlpool, operating a Mitchell with a thousand-foot magazine in a small boat. A considerable amount of blue screen was used because Livesey was unable to travel to the locations. The results are mainly very impressive, largely due to the way Hillier approached the problem to enable a close match between background and foreground action:

I suggested that we try deep focus because to shoot in the normal way would be unacceptable as we had to cut from real exteriors to interiors. It had to be a perfect match. Anyway, I had a go and took a hell of a risk as there weren't any light meters and I had to do it all by eye. But having had so much experience as an operator looking through the camera I knew exactly when I stopped down how the exposure would be and how much depth of field I would get.

After these triumphs Hillier suffered a double setback. He was replaced as Powell and Pressburger's regular cameraman by Jack Cardiff when the Archers began shooting in Technicolor. His own debut in colour, the musical London Town (1946), starring the music hall comedian Sid Field, he describes as "one of the worst mistakes I made in my life". The film was made at Shepperton which had just reopened after the war and suffered from a lack of equipment, particularly modern are lamps. While Hillier places much of the blame on director Wesley Ruggles, who envisaged the film as a stage production with little cinematic flair or imagination, it is obvious the cameraman was not comfortable working with Technicolor. The lighting is rather harsh in some sequences, while the 'Germanic' style of diffused close-ups on female performers is rather jarring when cut with the long shots. To top it all the production also went over schedule and failed badly at the box office.

Hillier bounced back, but the rest of his career was dominated by well made but rather minor productions like The October Man (d. Roy Ward Baker, 1947), a psychological thriller starring John Mills, and Mr Perrin and Mr Traill (d. Lawrence Huntington, 1948). He compensated for his earlier problems with colour on Mario Zampi's romantic melodrama Now and Forever (1955), insisting on retaining three-strip Technicolor against the wishes of the ABPC front office, who wanted to use Eastman Color, and subsequently experimenting with muted colour effects:

I was trying to use a diffused light like a painter's north light. So I had some very large spun glass diffusers made up which were placed two or three feet away from the lamps so it wouldn't get scorched ...

In some sequences Hillier used a big arc lamp to cover an entire area which he diffused down, giving what he describes as a more subtle, almost luminous effect. Reflectors provided fill in the shadow areas of the image and reduced the contrast levels even further.

The latter part of Hillier's career is dominated by a series of collaborations with Michael Anderson, beginning with Private Angelo (1949) with Anderson handling much of the directing as the credited director, Peter Ustinov, also played the leading role. Their best known film together is The Dam Busters (1955), the story of the daring raids on Germany using the revolutionary bouncing bomb, which is distinguished by effective day-for-night material and the aerial footage shot by Hillier from the gun turret of a Wellington bomber. By the 1960s Hillier and Anderson were working on bigger international productions such as Operation Crossbow (UK/Italy, 1965), The Quiller Memorandum (1966) and Shoes of the Fisherman (US, 1968), which includes some memorable footage shot in St Peter's, Rome.

Duncan Petrie

This entry is taken from Duncan Petrie's The British Cinematographer (BFI, 1996). Used by permission.

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Thumbnail image of 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945)'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945)

Metaphysical love story, beautifully filmed in the Scottish Hebrides

Thumbnail image of Canterbury Tale, A (1944)Canterbury Tale, A (1944)

Weird and fascinating tale of modern-day pilgrims in WWII

Thumbnail image of Dam Busters, The (1955)Dam Busters, The (1955)

Much-loved World War II classic about the famous bombing raid

Thumbnail image of London Town (1946)London Town (1946)

Notoriously disastrous Technicolor musical extravaganza

Thumbnail image of Long and the Short and the Tall, The (1960)Long and the Short and the Tall, The (1960)

Wartime drama about British soldiers fighting the Japanese - and each other

Thumbnail image of Men of Tomorrow (1942)Men of Tomorrow (1942)

The Boy Scouts' efforts during wartime

Thumbnail image of Quiller Memorandum, The (1966)Quiller Memorandum, The (1966)

Berlin-set spy thriller about a neo-Nazi gang, scripted by Harold Pinter

Thumbnail image of Sammy Going South (1963)Sammy Going South (1963)

Alexander Mackendrick's film of a young boy's epic journey across Africa

Thumbnail image of School for Scoundrels (1959)School for Scoundrels (1959)

Alastair Sim teaches Ian Carmichael how to be a cad like Terry-Thomas.

Thumbnail image of Silver Fleet, The (1943)Silver Fleet, The (1943)

WWII propaganda film set among the Dutch resistance

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Thumbnail image of Anderson, Michael (1920-)Anderson, Michael (1920-)

Director, Producer, Actor