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Original at Glasgow University
Erwin Hillier was the most important cinematographer after Jack Cardiff, to be part of the Archers. The company's most famous work, and the productions for which they won Oscars were the colour films released the war, however Hillier's camerawork on A Canterbury Tale remains their most visually acclaimed black and white film.
Like so many of the Archers' collaborators Hillier was continental in origin, born in Germany of English and German parents. A brief spell at art school in Berlin was followed by work as a camera assistant at Ufa.
Originally he slated to work with F W Murnau, who had offered him a job after seeing some of his paintings, Hillier's father had forbidden him to join Murnau's team after finding out the director was a promiscuous homosexual. Murnau generously introduced Hillier to Fritz Lang and he made his debut on Lang's first sound film M. Hillier soon moved to Britain where he worked as a camera assistant at Gaumont for a number of years, being employed by notable directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Victor Saville.
Too ambitious to remain an assistant Hillier took a chance and left Gaumont to work as a camera operator for Joe Rock Studios at Elstree. It was while working on quota quickies there that he met Michael Powell on the 'horrifically bad' The Man Behind the Mask. Years were to pass before they would work again. After the outbreak of the second world war Hillier had photographed some documentaries for the Ministry of information. This led to his first feature film as cinematographer, The Lady of Lisbon. He had worked on the Archers' The Spy in Black but it was after The Lady of Lisbon that Hillier made as cinematographer The Silver Fleet, the only Archers film not directed by Powell and Pressburger, who produced instead. On the strength of this Powell asked Hillier to shoot their next film A Canterbury Tale, which was followed by I Know Where I'm Going. Expecting to get his first attempt at filming in Technicolor on the Archers' following film A Matter of Life and Death, Hillier was disappointed to find he was being asked to share the credit and role of cinematography with the experienced Technicolor cameraman Jack Cardiff. Unwilling to, in effect, take a demotion Hillier then parted company with the Archers.
Of the three films he made with the Archers A Canterbury Tale is the most visually remarkable. I Know Where I'm Going has some celebrated process work, mixing blue screen studio shots of a boat with close-up shots of a dangerous whirlpool (taken at great risk by Hillier), and seemlessly splicing together the male lead Roger Livesey's interiors and close-ups with a double in the exterior and long shots, to achieve which effect convincingly Hillier suggested these sequences be shot in deep focus, so the background focus would not shift between the genuine exteriors and the studio blue screen work.
A Canterbury Tale is an atmospheric tale of latter-day pilgrims who find themselves on the old pilgrim's way to Canterbury on Kent. Hillier 'was delighted to be photographing a production in which landcsape played such an important role'. Hillier's creative role as lighting cameraman on the film was very significant. Powell had noticed his 'insane enthusiasm' as an operator at Joe Rock Studios. With A Canterbury Tale Powell says "He sprang into the front rank of lighting cameramen. He had a keen eye for effect and texture and I gave him ample opportunity to use it. Whether in the studio or on location, we decided to go for complete realism, and he never let me down." Despite Powell's assertion that they strove for 'complete realism' the film is notable for its expressionist features and luminous exteriors. Kevin Macdonald suggests it is tempting to see the echoes of the style of Hillier's first film, Fritz Lang's M, in A Canterbury Tale : "in particular the willingness to use almost total darkness throughout the first five minutes of the film.'
Duncan Petrie also singles out these expressionist elements: "The arrival of the three latter-day pilgrims in the village of Chillingbourne, occurs during the blackout, and it is under the cover of darkness that the mysterious gluemen 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 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 Colpeper (Eric Portman's squire who turns out to be the glueman).
"Colpeper 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 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." Erwin Hillier says of the moment "I dimmed up the light just as we moved in on his face. I had a little bit 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."
The daylight exteriors have a peculiar quality of their own. Michael Powell, in his autobiography A Life in Movies noted his commitment: "The only thing he was a bit loony about was clouds in the sky. He detested a clear sky, and it sometimes seemed to me that he forgot about the story and the actors in order to gratify this passion. 'Meekee, Meekee, please wait another few minutes,' he would plead. 'There is a little cloud over there and it is coming our way, I'm sure it is.' 'Oh, for God's sake, Erwin! It won't make the slightest bit of difference to the actor's performance.' 'Meekee, Meekee, please just five more minutes please!' This would go on all day. I admired his dedication." The effect of such dedication can be seen in the scene where Alison and Colpeper lie in the tall, swaying grass on a hillside, the sky open above them, whisps of cloud passing overhead. The sequence in the film where two gangs of local boys fight a pretend war on the small local river illustrates Hillier's other major contribution to the film, where the screen is filled with a warm, radiant glow.
"There are so many things in nature which are fascinating. When we used to go out and select locations I would spend hours by myself, not only with a compass watching the sun, I would pick out certain things early in the morning and then again in the 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."
In a film which was savaged by the critics and ignored by the public from when it was released in 1944 until it was re-released in 1977, Erwin Hillier's photography was the only element that did then and still does receive universal praise.