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Submitted by Terry Hanstock
Obituary in The Scotsman
10 February 2005
Erwin Hillier, Cinematographer
Born: 2 September, 1911, in Berlin.
Died: 2 January, 2005, in London, aged 93.
Erwin Hillier was a cameraman whose work in the black and white era made him a master of the art. He was a superb artist, setting atmosphere and creating tension with incisive and imaginative angles.
Much of his best work was done with the eminent British directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in the 1930s, but in the 1950s Hillier found a renewed fame when he worked on Michael Anderson's The Dam Busters. His camera work drew critical acclaim for its use of authentic shots of the wartime tests on a Scottish loch, and thrilling aerial shots over the original German locations.
Hillier was born into an Anglo-German family. After art school he found work as a camera assistant, notably on Fritz Lang's first sound film, M, in 1931. He then moved to England and worked for Gaumont in the company's Shepherd's Bush studios, contributing to Alfred Hitchcock's 1933 romance, Waltzes from Vienna.
In 1935 he worked with Powell for the first time in a short called The Girl in the Crowd. The director was immediately impressed with Hillier's commitment to his work, describing him as "almost insanely enthusiastic... finding new points of view for the camera to explore, new movements for the camera to make, which would intensify the atmosphere and the action".
During the war years, Hillier was employed by Powell and Pressburger on two of their most memorable films. The wartime propaganda of A Canterbury Tale (1941) was dramatically thin, but Hillier's detailed photography won much praise.
This was followed in 1945 by the Powell/Pressburger classic I Know Where I'm Going, in which a headstrong girl (Wendy Hiller) goes to the Hebrides to marry a wealthy old man and is stranded on Mull. There she meets and marries a younger man (Roger Livesey). Hillier's wonderful photography of the Western Isles reflected the beauty of the area and was acclaimed by critics for its sensitivity and eloquence.
In 1946 Hillier was involved with a musical flop (London Town), perhaps significantly shot in Technicolor - a medium with which Hiller was less than happy. The October Man (1947, starring John Mills) was followed two year later by Private Angelo, directed by Michael Anderson. It was to prove a constructive partnership. Based on a novel by Eric Linklater, and adapted by and starring Peter Ustinov, it was the first of ten films Hillier and Anderson were to make together.
The most successful of these were Shake Hands With the Devil (1959) starring James Cagney as an IRA activist, and, in 1954 The Dam Busters. With a script by RC Sherriff and a rousing musical score by Eric Coates, the movie told of RAF raids on three Ruhr dams in 1943.
Studiously understated, the film gave a realistically exact portrayal of the preparation and drama behind the raids. It was shot in black and white specifically so that the footage of the bouncing bomb's wartime tests on Loch Striven in Argyllshire could be incorporated into the film. The loch was an ideal location for these trials. Its remoteness guaranteed secrecy, and its length of almost ten miles provided ideal conditions for the so-called "high-ball" tests.
For the post-raid shots, Hillier flew over the (by now rebuilt) dams and was surprised to find that incessant rain had flooded the area, recapturing the events of a decade earlier. The Dam Busters is a classic war movie that stands as one of the best examples of the derring-do film. Much of that credit must go to Hillier.
In 1965 Hillier and Anderson teamed up again for Operation Crossbow, a star-packed war yarn that ended in a blood-and-guts shoot-out. The following year they shot the The Quiller Memorandum, with a script by Harold Pinter and a cast led by Alec Guinness and George Segal. In 1968, his final film, The Shoes of the Fisherman, boasted such big names as Olivier and Gielgud, but failed to fire audiences' enthusiasm.
Hillier is survived by his wife, Helen, and their daughter.
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