Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Heller, Otto (1896-1970)


Main image of Heller, Otto (1896-1970)

Otto Heller began his career while serving in the Austrian Army, when in 1916 he shot the funeral of Emperor Franz Josef. He worked professionally in his native Czechoslovakia from 1918 on dozens of films before shuttling between the production centres of Prague, Berlin, Paris and London. In 1940 he moved to Britain on a more permanent basis and became a British subject in 1945. An instinctive rather than a technically motivated cameraman, Heller was initially assigned to small independent features, including several for the Warner Bros British studio, before making his mark in the late 1940s with two very different productions.

Cavalcanti's They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), one of the 'spiv cycle' of films of the late 1940s which drew a barrage of criticism for their portrayal of sordidness, violence and corruption, was made at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith for Warners. While the direction is taut and the performances impressive, it is Heller's noir lighting which gives the film much of its atmospheric power. Walter Lassally was a young camera assistant on the film and recalls Heller's approach as "a good contrasty, gutsy look which is all about contrast, separation, tonal range and so on". His camera angles are frequently low, with the light coming from either high or low sources, creating sinister highlights and shadows in the faces.

Thorold Dickinson's Queen of Spades (1948). on the other hand, was made at Welwvn Studios for Associated British Pictures. Adapted from the story by Pushkin, it was produced by Anatole de Grunwald, who worked with Heller on several occasions during the late 1940s, and features Anton Walbrook and Edith Evans. As Jeffrey Richards notes, Heller used a variety of wide-angle lenses to suggest space and width where the small sets could not accommodate it. Dickinson was full of praise for his cameraman's contribution:

Many have remarked about the style of the film, how continental the picture seems.... When the story went out of doors [the film was shot entirely indoors], there was always a wind blowing. Mist was dense, snow abundant, tobacco smoke almost impenetrable, artificial lighting by candles was always apparently from below unless chandeliers were visible. The tempest evoked by the ghost of the countess nearly blew the camera and its crew off the rostrum. Dust was thick as after a sandstorm. Gems and silks glittered, rags and sores looked stinking. And Otto Heller's camera captured it all while his camera operator Gus Drisse traced camera movements of outlandish and intricate composition.

Heller's lighting in the film has a wonderfully Gothic sensibility and at times resembles the kind of lighting used in the great Universal Studios horror films of the 1930s. Shadows loom in interiors lit with simulated candlelight, and the flashback story of how the young countess sold her soul is particularly atmospheric, the Gothic lighting complementing Oliver Messel's elaborate designs. There are also numerous bravura moments - the face of the statue of the Virgin going dark as the countess prays for forgiveness, the baleful, wrinkled face of the old countess (Evans) reminiscent of a corpse or a mummy, the shock cut to the massive close-up of the dead countess's staring eyes, the spinning light signifying the spirit of the countess entering the room. The Queen of Spades remains a masterpiece of British horror, for its cinematic inventiveness, to say nothing of genuine scariness. Created on a restricted budget, the film has few rivals, and much of the credit for this must go to Heller and his crew.

During the 1950s Heller proved as adept an exponent of colour as he was a master of black and white. This is demonstrated across three key films of the period. His lighting and camera angles on the three-strip production of The Ladykillers (1955), directed by Alexander Mackendrick, owe more to They Made Me a Fugitive than to Ealing studio orthodoxy, allowing an expressionistic use of colour which aids and abets Mackendrick's desire to lampoon the film noir genre. The arrival of the mysterious Professor Marcus (Alec Guinness) at the home of Mrs Wilherforce (Katy Johnson) even evokes The Lodger (d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1926), his shadow first being cast on a tobacconist's notice board advertising rooms to let, followed by his silhouette at the old lady's door.

Heller followed this with Laurence Olivier's Richard III (1955), photographed in VistaVision. Working closely with production designer Roger purse and art director Carmen Dillon, Heller adopted a stylised approach, complementing the deliberately artificial sets and studio exteriors, which he described as "a kind of Eastman Color effect with Technicolor".

Like Hamlet (d. Olivier, 1948; shot by Desmond Dickinson), the film was staged and photographed in depth with many long fluid takes, placing great demands on Heller to create atmosphere while maintaining sufficient light levels for deep focus. Appropriately sinister lighting effects enhance the murder of Clarence (John Gielgud) and Richard's dream on the eve of battle when he is visited by the ghosts of his victims. Only one VistaVision camera was available for the battle sequences filmed in Spain, forcing Heller to shoot his coverage on three Arriflex cameras with footage later blown up to VistaVision proportions and printed horizontally.

His third great triumph of the period was Michael Powell's notorious Peeping Tom (1960), part of a series of Eastman Color horrors produced by Anglo-Amalgamated described by David Pirie as "truly Sadian films". Heller's photography makes a virtue of the visual qualities of the Eastman stock, combining the muted tones of the drab London streets with the more expressive blues, reds and yellows in the room where the psychotic Mark Lewis (Karl Boehm) processes and screens the films of the murders he has committed. The horror of this private space is contrasted with the bright normality of the rest of the suburban house.

Heller reverted to high contrast black and white for Basil Dearden and Michael Relph's social problem films Victim (1961) and Life for Ruth (1962), but his most memorable subsequent work is on two films which helped to establish Michael Caine as a major star. Alfie (d. Lewis Gilbert, 1965) is many ways a sexually franker, metropolitan version of the 'kitchen sink' scenario, with its central young man on the make in Swinging London. However, the film has a slightly grubby quality which reflects the exploitative nature of Caine's barrow boy lothario. In the same year Heller shot The Ipcress File for Sidney J. Furie, based on the novel by Len Deighton. Caine was cast as bespectacled Harry Palmer, an unwilling agent who is the antithesis of James Bond. The sets were designed by Ken Adam (far removed from the high-tech stylised interiors of the Bond films), and Heller gives the proceedings a suitably shabby and squalid look. The film also abounds with forced angles - particularly extreme low shots - and tilts., objects frequently obscure the audience's vision of both characters and action. There is an important fight sequence in which the camera never leaves a telephone box. Such techniques serve to underline a world of instability and fragility over which Palmer (unlike Bond) is never able to assert his mastery or control.

Heller was still working professionally when he died in 1970 at the age of 74.

Duncan Petrie

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

More information


From the BFI's filmographic database

Related media

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of I Live in Grosvenor Square (1945)I Live in Grosvenor Square (1945)

Wartime love triangle with Anna Neagle and Rex Harrison

Thumbnail image of Ipcress File, The (1965)Ipcress File, The (1965)

Michael Caine's first outing as Len Deighton's secret agent Harry Palmer

Thumbnail image of Ladykillers, The (1955)Ladykillers, The (1955)

A gang of ruthless criminals meet their match in the elderly Mrs Wilberforce

Thumbnail image of Noose (1948)Noose (1948)

Stylish 'B' thriller in which a fashion journalist takes on a Soho gangster

Thumbnail image of Peeping Tom (1960)Peeping Tom (1960)

Notorious horror film which all but ended Michael Powell's career

Thumbnail image of Queen of Spades, The (1949)Queen of Spades, The (1949)

Darkly stylish adaptation of the Pushkin classic

Thumbnail image of Richard III (1955)Richard III (1955)

Laurence Olivier's definitive version of Shakespeare's great history play

Thumbnail image of Rough and the Smooth, The (1959)Rough and the Smooth, The (1959)

Neglected Brit noir in which a German femme fatale entraps an archeologist

Thumbnail image of Singer Not The Song, The (1961)Singer Not The Song, The (1961)

Dirk Bogarde and John Mills star in a bizarre gay Mexican western

Thumbnail image of Victim (1961)Victim (1961)

Dirk Bogarde stars in the first serious British film about homosexuality

Related collections

Related people and organisations