Christopher Challis - Writer

Cinematographer. Nationality: British. Born: London, 18 March 1919. Education: Wimbledon College. Career: Camera assistant on newsreels from late teens; apprentice technician at Technicolor laboratory; second unit cameraman (credits include The Thief of Bagdad 1940); cameraman with the Royal Air Force Film Unit during World War II (credits include Theirs Is the Glory 1945); post-war return to film industry as camera operator (including uncredited work on A Matter of Life and Death 1946), graduating to lighting cameraman in 1947; retired 1985. Address: c/o British Society of Cinematographers, 11 Crost Road, Gerard's Cross, Buckinghamshire SL9 9AE, England.

Films as Cinematographer:


End of the River (+ uncredited assoc d) (Twist)


The Small Back Room ( Hour of Glory ) (Powell/Pressburger)


Gone to Earth ( The Wild Heart ) (Powell/Pressburger) (new scenes for U.S. version uncredited director, Rouben Mamoulian); The Elusive Pimpernel ( The Fighting Pimpernel ) (Powell/Pressburger)


The Tales of Hoffmann (Powell/Pressburger)


Angels One Five (co-ph) (O'Ferrall); Twenty-Four Hours of a Woman's Life (Saville)


Genevieve (Cornelius); Saadia (Lewin); The Story of Gilbert and Sullivan (Gilliat)


Twice Upon a Time (Pressburger); Malaga ( Fire Over Africa ) (Sale); The Flame and the Flesh (Brooks)


The Sorcerer's Apprentice (short) (Powell); Oh Rosalinda! (Powell/Pressburger); Quentin Durward ( The Adventures of Quentin Durward ) (Thorpe); Raising a Riot (Toye); Footsteps in the Fog (Lubin)


The Battle of the River Plate ( The Pursuit of the Graf Spee ) (Powell/Pressburger); Ill Met By Moonlight ( Night Ambush ) (Powell/Pressburger); The Spanish Gardener (Leacock)


Miracle in Soho (Amyes); Windom's Way (Neame)


Floods of Fear (Crichton); Rooney (Pollack); The Captain's Table (Lee)


Blind Date ( Chance Meeting ) (Losey)


Sink the Bismark (Gilbert); The Grass is Greener (Donen); Surprise Package (Donen); Never Let Go (Guillermin)


Flame in the Streets (Baker); Five Golden Hours (Zampi); An Evening With the Royal Ballet (co-ph)


HMS Defiant ( Damn the Defiant ) (Gilbert)


The Long Ships (Cardiff); The Victors (Foreman)


A Shot in the Dark (Edwards); The Americanization of Emily (co-ph) (Hiller)


Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (Annakin); Return from the Ashes (Thompson)


Arabesque (Donen); Kaleidoscope (Smight)


Two for the Road (Donen)


A Dandy in Aspic (Mann & uncredited Laurence Harvey); Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Hughes)


Staircase (Donen)


The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (Wilder)


Villain (Tuchner); Catch Me a Spy (Clement); Mary Queen of Scots (Jarrott)


Follow Me ( The Public Eye ) (Reed); The Boy Who Turned Yellow (Powell/Pressburger)


The Little Prince (Donen)


Mister Quilp ( The Old Curiosity Shop ) (Tuchner)


The Incredible Sarah (Fleischer)


The Deep (Yates)

Christopher Challis
Christopher Challis


Force Ten from Navarone (Hamilton)


The Riddle of the Sands (Maylam)


The Mirror Crack'd (Hamilton)


Evil Under the Sun (Hamilton)


Top Secret! (Abrahams, Zucker, Zucker)


Steaming (Losey)

Other Films:

1948 The Red Shoes (cam op only) (Powell/Pressburger)


On CHALLIS: books—

Powell, Michael, A Life in Movies , London, 1986.

Walker, Alexander, Hollywood, England , London, 1986.

Powell, Michael, Million Dollar Movie , London, 1992.

Macdonald, Kevin, Emeric Pressburger. The Life and Death of a Screenwriter , London, 1994.

Howard, James, Michael Powell , London, 1996.

On CHALLIS: articles—

Watson, John H., "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes and The Curious Case of the Missing Footage," Movie Collector , vol. 1, no. 7, July-August 1994, and vol. 1, no. 8, November/December 1994.

* * *

Christopher Challis belongs to a select group of cameramen who honed their skills in the relatively thriving post-war British film industry, attracting Hollywood interest with a series of impressive credits. Probably best known for his work with the celebrated Powell-Pressburger partnership, The Archers, Challis' career spanned five decades and virtually every film genre, ranging from historical romance ( Mary Queen of Scots ) to Airplane -style comedy ( Top Secret! ). Challis' technical skill was allied to a strong visual sense, both in the studio and on location, most notably in his rich Technicolor photography for the Archers productions Gone to Earth and Tales of Hoffmann. Equally adept with black and white, Challis also adapted successfully to the various widescreen formats, whether Cinemascope, Vistavision, Technirama or Panavision. In demand at home and abroad throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Challis found few projects—or directors—to test his abilities, finally calling it a day after nearly forty years.

Along with the likes of Ronald Neame, Geoffrey Unsworth, Freddie Francis, and Jack Cardiff, Challis served an invaluable apprenticeship under Powell and Pressburger, making his debut as lighting cameraman on the Archers-produced End of the River , his stylish black and white photography enhancing an otherwise unremarkable effort. Challis hit his stride with The Small Back Room , also in high contrast black and white. A little uncertain in its dramatic effects, this wartime tale of a physically and emotionally crippled bomb disposal expert (David Farrar) has undeniable visual authority. The location work is vivid, taking in the Thames Embankment, Stonehenge, the Welsh countryside, and a windswept seafront, the backdrop for the climactic bomb dismantling. Back in the studio, Powell requested "Caligari lighting" (the use of a shadowy, distorted, nightmarish backdrop to reflect an equally disturbed state of mind typical of 1920s German cinema) for the famous hallucinatory sequence where Farrar imagines himself crushed by a giant whisky bottle, an expressionist touch as striking as it is unsubtle. Other visual highlights include a "sculpted" effect for close-ups of leading lady Kathleen Byron; film noir-style lighting as Farrar and Byron kiss, their faces wreathed in shadow; and shots from underneath a metal walkway, feet passing overhead as blurred shadows. There is even a ripple effect shot from Farrar's point of view as sweat pours down his face during the bomb disposal scene. The Tales of Hoffmann marked the peak of Challis' Technicolor work with The Archers, making ingenious use of gauzes to produce in-camera optical effects. Shooting without sound to a prerecorded score, Challis and his crew dispensed with the cumbersome camera blimp, normally required to muffle motor noise, enabling the newly mobile equipment to be as elaborately "choreographed" as the performers. According to Powell, the Technicolor Company rated the photography in The Archers' films as the best in the world.

Challis became The Archers' regular cameraman at a time when the duo's creative powers were showing signs of decline. Gone to Earth renders the nineteenth century Shropshire landscape in dazzling shades of green and red, yet the story lacks conviction. Ill Met By Moonlight , the last Archers production, was actually criticised for its supposedly murky black and white photography, one reviewer retitling the film 'Ill lit by moonlight'.

Away from The Archers, Challis became a mainstay of the Rank Organisation during the 1950s, lending his talents to the smash hit Genevieve , and worked with leading British directors such as Sidney Gilliat, Lewis Gilbert, Charles Crichton and Roy Ward Baker. Challis' Hollywood credits from this period include the lively medieval swashbuckler Quentin Durward , notable for its vibrant widescreen imagery. Hollywood-backed productions seldom called for the kind of visual imagination evident in the Archers films. A Shot in the Dark , for example, found Challis largely constricted by Blake Edwards' penchant for subdued colour and long, static takes. An elaborate crane shot in the opening sequence, charting multiple amorous liaisons in a French villa, shows what could have been.

Challis' only long-term collaborator after The Archers was choreographer turned director Stanley Donen. In truth, their six films together are largely undistinguished, with the exception of the literate romantic comedy Two for the Road. Stranded with a "problematic" script for the chic thriller Arabesque , Donen went all out for visual dazzle, the disorienting shifts in focus and off-kilter camera angles accentuating rather than disguising the flimsy content.

Unlike fellow Archers graduates Cardiff, Neame, and Francis, Challis never turned to directing. Joining forces with Cardiff for The Long Ships , he probably felt he'd made the right decision. Leaving aside the clumsy dialogue, plodding pace, and questionable casting, this Vikings versus Moors adventure has only moments of visual flair, notably a stylised prologue involving silhouetted figures superimposed against still backdrops of mosaics and engravings.

Ironically, Challis' most impressive film from the latter period of his career, Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes , was one of his least satisfying assignments. While Challis rated both Powell and Donen as great visual directors, he felt Wilder was unable to picture what he wanted in advance, preoccupied with the script and performances. Challis also clashed with production designer Alexander Trauner, claiming that the latter built his intricate sets without regard to the practicalities of filmmaking and showed total ignorance of process shots, flaws evident in the finished film. Nevertheless, Private Life contains some striking imagery: Holmes lurking in shadow operating a remote control pipe with a foot pump; the palatial corridor of the Diogenes Club; a cycle ride by the shores of Loch Ness; Queen Victoria's torch-lit nighttime visit to a secret government base beneath a ruined castle.

For much of the 1970s, Challis lent a glossy veneer to otherwise bland big budget productions, whether biopics, musicals, thrillers or Agatha Christie adaptations. A belated reunion with Powell and Pressburger resulted in The Boy Who Turned Yellow , a modest juvenile fantasy produced for the Rank-backed Children's Film Foundation. Having secured Panavision equipment for this 55 minute epic, Challis captured the locations—the Tower of London, Chalk Farm Underground Station—as effectively as he did for The Small Back Room. Times had changed but Challis remained a true professional.

—Daniel O'Brien

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