All This Useful Beauty
Our auteur-obsessed movie culture ensures that film technicians rarely get the credit they deserve. Conrad L. Hall, who died of cancer in Los Angeles at the age of 76 on January 4, was an exception. Over his 40 years as a cinematographer, Hall's involvement in a project came to signify not just its prestige, but also that, no matter how little there might be to engage the imagination, there would always be something compelling, dynamic, and perhaps genuinely stunning to feed the eye.
The Tahitian-born Hall, who was routinely feted by critics and cinematographers, started as a cameraman in the 1950s after graduating from USC. He cut his teeth on commercials, industrial films, and sundry scenes from Disney's The Living Desert, then got his big break in 1963 when he was hired for the moody sci-fi anthology series The Outer Limits. It was here that Hall learned his craft, and the shadowy milieu he helped create is one reason the show remains so memorable.
He shot several low-budget features after leaving TV, eventually working his way up to such oddball A-list films as The Professionals (1966), Cool Hand Luke (1967), and Hell in the Pacific (1968), as well as more conventional fare like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), for which he won an Oscar. It was with these films that he developed the earthy, vibrant, yet subtle approach to color (the 1967 black-and-white throwback In Cold Blood notwithstanding) that became his signature.
After capping this period with the twilit pallor and pitiless close-ups of John Huston's Fat City (1972), and the sun- and spotlight-drenched delirium of John Schlesinger's The Day of the Locust (1975), Hall returned to a darker palette. Marathon Man (1976), Jennifer Eight (1992), and especially A Civil Action (1998) marry the strategic murk of his earlier work with the warmth of his late-'60s color films, and they mark the richest phase of his career. Hall won another Oscar for 1999's American Beauty, and shot last year's Road to Perditiona veritable paean to his singular luminous gloom, and a fitting swan song.
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