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Hildyard, Jack (1908-1990)


Main image of Hildyard, Jack (1908-1990)

After starting his career as a clapper boy at Elstree in 1932, Jack Hildyard moved to Denham, where he operated for the Hollywood cameraman Harry Stradling on The Divorce of Lady X (d. Tim Whelan, 1938), Pygmalion (d. Anthony Asquith/Leslie Howard, 1938) and Jamaica Inn (d. Alfred Hitchcock, 1939). Continuing to work as an operator during the war years, most notably with Robert Krasker on big Technicolor projects such as Henry V (d. Laurence Olivier, 1944) and the ill-fated Caesar and Cleopatra (d. Gabriel Pascal, 1945), Hildyard was given his break as a fully-fledged cinematographer on School for Secrets (d. Peter Ustinov) in 1946. After moving to Shepperton in the early 1950s, he found himself working with David Lean on The Sound Barrier (1952), which led to three further films with the visually-oriented director, each offering a new opportunity for Hildyard to shine.

Hobson's Choice (d. Lean, 1953), is distinguished by its deep-focus photography, most imaginatively used in the Salford locations with the terraces and long alleyways running between the rows of back-to-back housing. The crisp images effectively capture the 'realism' of an industrial urban space, rather comically in the scene on the banks of the polluted river Irwell where Maggie (Brenda de Banzi) courts the gauche Will Mossop (John Mills). The studio sequences, on the other hand, allow for a more creative use of lighting, most notably the low key expressionism of Hobson's (Charles Laughton) comic nighttime drinking exploits and hallucinations - where he chases the reflection of the moon from puddle to puddle - which recalls the work of Hildyard's mentor Robert Krasker in such films as Odd Man Out (d. Carol Reed, 1947).

Summer Madness (1955), made entirely on location in Venice, benefited greatly from the new single-strip Eastman Color negative which could be used with a regular Mitchell camera. Pictorialism is central to the look of the film, as Michael Anderegg notes:

The Venetian cityscape... serves as much more than a backdrop to the action. Photographed in slightly melancholy, Turneresque tones, Venice contributes a heightened, overripe atmosphere, a twilight world of dawns and sunsets that both feeds and threatens Jane Hudson's [Katharine Hepburn's leading character] hope for romance.

Hildyard's finest hour with Lean, however, is his Academy Award-winning work on The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). The production, financed by Columbia, was shot on location in Sri Lanka, with Hildyard eschewing the overt pictorialism to which a lesser cinematographer might have succumbed. Instead he effectively conveys the searing heat in which the British POWs are forced to work by way of the dazzling light and the glaring white earth against which the actors are framed. This is in marked contrast to the cooler hues and shadows of night in the camp. But, as Anderegg notes, it is the bridge itself which is the true subject and 'star' of the film, and this is reflected in the visual strategies employed, particularly the use of widescreen: "the scope of the film, as well as the 'scope' of the image... lends in turn an epic dimension to the building of the bridge."

The shape and dimensions of the bridge are almost custom made for CinemaScope. In addition, the building of the bridge frequently utilises high-angled shots which render the scale of the operation as well as maintaining a detached point of view.

In addition to his work with Lean, Hildyard consolidated his growing reputation as an assured master of big international widescreen productions beginning with The Deep Blue Sea (1955) and Anastasia (US, 1956), both directed by Anatole Litvak. He started work on the ill-fated Cleopatra (US, 1963) with director Rouben Manioulian when Elizabeth Taylor fell ill. The film was postponed, recast and Mamoulian and Hildyard found themselves replaced by Joseph Mankiewicz and Leon Shamroy respectively. Hilyard bounced back with films like 55 Days at Peking (US, 1963) and Circus World (US, 1964), both for the independent producer Charles Bronston, in 70mm Technirama; and The Battle of the Bulge (US, 1965), filmed in Ultra Panavision.

Hildyard's pictorial abilities are augmented by his reputation as a skilled and sensitive photographer of actresses. As Gerry Fisher, his operator for nearly 10 years, recalls:

He was a cameraman who always paid enormous regard to the lady in the film; everything had to be centred around the best lighting for her. The dramatics were always considered but when it came to the important close-ups it was always arranged that they were favourable for the star. He never allowed anyone to force him into unfavourable lighting on the grounds of dramatic reality.

While Hildyard's character lighting could convey beauty and glamour - among the great stars he photographed are Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Sophia Loren and Monica Vitti - arguably his most powerful character studies are in Joseph Mankiewicz's adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer (UK/US, 1960). The familiar emotional hothouse of Williams' work is conveyed in sharp, high key monochrome, building to an intense exchange between Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift and Katharine Hepburn with Taylor's character recounting the trauma which led to her incarceration in an asylum. This is shot in increasingly large close-ups, Taylor's striking eyes burning with an intensity as we simultaneously see images of her uncle's sado-masochistic demise at the hands of ragged street urchins.

Duncan Petrie

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

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