Cinematographer. Nationality: American. Born: Papeete, Tahiti, 1926; son of the writer James Norman Hall. Education: Studied journalism and film (under Slavko Vorkapich), University of Southern California, Los Angeles, graduated 1949. Career: 1949—founder, with Jack C. Couffer and Marvin R. Weinstein, Canyon Films to make advertising films and documentaries; also marketed Arriflex cameras; co-founder, Association of Film Craftsmen; 1956—first film as cinematographer, Edge of Fury ; TV work includes series Stoney Burke and The Outer Limits , 1963; mid-1970s—formed Wexler-Hall Inc., with Haskell Wexler, to make commercials. Awards:
Sea Theme (co, + co-d, co-sc, co-ed—short)
Running Target ( My Brother Down There ) (Weinstein) (uncredited, + co-sc)
The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn (Curtiz); Private Property (Stevens); The Gambler Wore a Gun (Cahn)
Mutiny on the Bounty (Milestone); Pressure Point (Cornfield)
Edge of Fury (Lerner and Gurney)
Fargo ( The Wild Seed ) (Hutton); Morituri ( Saboteur Code Name "Morituri" ) (Wicki); Incubus (Stevens)
Harper ( The Moving Target ) (Smight); The Professionals (R. Brooks)
Rogue's Gallery (Horn); Divorce American Style (Yorkin); Cool Hand Luke (Rosenberg); In Cold Blood (R. Brooks)
Hell in the Pacific (Boorman)
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Hill); The Happy Ending (R. Brooks); Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (Polonsky)
Fat City (Huston)
Electra Glide in Blue (Guercio); Catch My Soul (McGoohan)
The Day of the Locust (Schlesinger); Smile (Ritchie)
It Happened One Christmas (Wrye)
Marathon Man (Schlesinger)
The Rose (Rydell) (co)
Black Widow (Rafelson)
Tequila Sunrise (Towne)
Class Action (Apted)
Jennifer 8 (Robinson)
Searching for Bobby Fischer ( Indecent Moves ) (Zaillian)
Love Affair (Glenn Gordon Caron)
Without Limits (Towne); A Civil Action (Zaillian)
American Beauty (Mendes); Sleepy Hollow (Burton) (ph New York only)
Film Quarterly (Berkeley, California), Spring 1971.
Dialogue on Film (Beverly Hills, California), October 1973.
Filmmakers Newsletter (Ward Hill, Massachusetts), November 1973.
"Photographing The Day of the Locust ," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1975.
Millimeter (New York), July/August 1975.
Modern Photography (Cincinnati, Ohio), February and March 1976.
"The Cinematographer and the Theatre Feature Film," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), August 1976.
In The Art of the Cinematographer , by Leonard Maltin, New York, 1978.
In Masters of Light: Conversations with Contemporary Cinematographers , by Dennis Schaefer and Larry Salvato, Berkeley, California, 1984.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), January 1989.
Lightman, Herb A., on The Professionals in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), February 1967.
On Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), May 1970.
Film Comment (New York), Summer 1972.
Films and Filming (London), July 1972.
Ritchie, M., on Smile in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), October 1975.
Wilson, A., in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), October 1975.
Focus on Film (London), no. 13, 1973.
Cook, B., "Commercials: Another Kind of Filmmaking," in American Film (Washington, D.C.), October 1977.
McGilligan, P., in Take One (Montreal), no. 2, 1978.
Film Comment (New York), March/April 1987.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 75, February 1994.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), vol. 77, November 1996.
Ansen, David, "What 'American' Dream," in Newsweek (New York), 4 October 1999.
Daly, Steve, "Filmography," in Entertainment Weekly (New York), 8 October 1999.
* * *
When Conrad Hall returned to features in 1987 with Rafelson's Black Widow , after a self-imposed hiatus during which he established a production company with Haskell Wexler to make commercials, he was asked whether much had changed in the interim. "There are a few new time-saving innovations, but that's about it," he replied. "The real change is in the audience and the way the studios perceive it. Everything is geared toward people in their mid-twenties, and the prime ingredient in today's movies is violence. That puts me on the outside. I believe in the power of film to do good in the broadest sense of what that implies." The remark is particularly revealing, as is his citing of Boorman ( Hell in the Pacific ) and Richard Brooks ( The Professionals , In Cold Blood , and The Happy Ending ) as the directors with whom he has most enjoyed working.
Hall is clearly drawn towards directors with something to say—one might also cite Rosenberg ( Cool Hand Luke ), Polonsky ( Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here ), Huston ( Fat City ), Ritchie ( Smile ), and Schlesinger ( The Day of the Locust and Marathon Man )—and it is altogether typical that the chief reason that he went into commercials was to buy himself time and freedom enough to be able to pursue screenwriting as a route into feature direction. In particular he hoped to be able to write and direct a film of Faulkner's "The Wild Palms," a long-cherished project still to see the light of day. As he himself put it "the sixties were very much alive, and I had given nothing to the new sensibilities and the new freedoms that were being staked out. I never threw a brick, I never marched, I never held a flower. I was getting better pictures, making more money, and having a wonderful time, while everyone else was struggling to change society. So, I thought, I'll stop my instrument. I went into retirement to write and to find films to direct that would influence society in a positive way." This is surely a trifle over-modest. As David Engelbach points out in Millimeter , "in the two years following In Cold Blood , Hall shot Stuart Rosenberg's best film Cool Hand Luke and John Boorman's strangely stylized adventure Hell in the Pacific. It was a period of genuine creative growth for American films and Hall was in the center of it. New directors had come along anxious to make critical, imaginative statements and eager to use the medium more imaginatively. During this period, every other interesting movie seemed to be shot by Conrad Hall."
For all his interest in using film as a social medium, Hall is not a cinematographer who tries to put a personal signature on all his films. As he once said "I don't think I have a style. I know I don't want one." Somewhat self-effacingly, Hall chooses the style to suit the material, as Engelbach suggests: "from the slick romanticism of The Day of the Locust to the hard-bitten realism of John Huston's Fat City , he has managed to portray and illuminate, through the visual atmosphere he imparts to a film, the psychological and emotional content of the material which often lies beneath the surface of the written script." If one is looking for stylistic signatures it is certainly possible to detect a preference for widescreen formats, and a gradual move away from the saturated colors which distinguish, for example, The Professionals and Harper. Or there is the more critical line adopted by Take One in its 1979 survey of contemporary cinematographers, which argued that "his work can be too immaculate, and his calculated artiness has helped to embalm such pictures as In Cold Blood and Butch Cassidy. At worst, there is too much sharpness in his imagery, too much deliberation, not enough involvement."
On the other hand, Hall's films can be taken separately and admired for their individual beauties—the soft pastels of Smile , the flashlight murder in In Cold Blood , or the rich tones of Butch Cassidy , which have been described by one critic as "alternately lyrical and foreboding." Equally sumptuous was Day of the Locust , which Hall describes as "a golden picture. I thought that this was a story that involved everything that was golden, not only the times but the money, the sunsets, the era and the idea of the moth drawn to the flame," that is, the losers lured towards destruction by their romantic dreams of fame and fortune. Rather than concentrate on the meagerness of the characters' actual lives Schlesinger and Hall decided that the look of the film should evoke their fantasies. As Hall himself explains: "Karen Black's character, when she's thinking about movies, always sees the glamorous aspect of it and always sees herself in it even though her life is nothing. So the visual approach was one that coincided with her dreams to make it more palatable for the audience. To me the best way to tell that story is to match the despair of it. But then again, if you did it that way, you'd have to somehow make despair palatable at the box office. I think that's possible." Possible or not, this is what Huston and Hall tried to do with Fat City , and what he also achieved with the environmental drama, A Civil Action. Talking about Fat City , Hall put it: "photographically speaking, I tried to make it real. I tried to make it the way it is. I tried not to make it look like a motion picture; I tried to make it look like a social study of down-and-out people rather than a slick way of looking at down-and-out people. I didn't want to beautify it in any way that would make it seem attractive. I made it abrasive; I tried to make the photography abrasive just as their lives were." Hall deliberately goes for an anonymous look to match the anonymity of the characters' lives, simply following the action as opposed to obviously adding anything to it. "If I could've hid the camera, it's what I would have done," adds Hall, a remarkable and revealing statement for one of Hollywood's top cameramen.
The look that Hall managed to create in American Beauty is another example of this idea. In a film narrated by a dead man telling the story of the events leading up to his death, the camera is of necessity hidden behind the point of view of the narrator; the integrity of the narrative depends on the integrity of the images through which it is expressed. Hall captures the superficial lives of the protagonists, emphasizing the garishness of the decorations in unsold houses, for example, or the unreal cleanliness of the expensive fabric on a sofa. Such attention to surfaces is contrasted with the strange beauty captured in the grainy video image of a plastic bag swirling in the wind. Hall won an Oscar for the cinematography in American Beauty , but his experience behind the camera also proved invaluable to first-time film director, Sam Mendes, who with characteristic openness, regularly asked him for advice on the practicalities of shooting a particular scene.
Hall elaborates in the 90-minute American Film Institute documentary Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography on how his dogged pursuit of "the happy accident, the magic moment" has helped shape his 50-year career, and produced some of film history's most memorable images. His status as a cinematographer was officially recognized in 1994 when the American Society of Cinematographers honored him with its Lifetime Achievement Award.
—Julian Petley, updated by Denise Delorey, further updated by Chris Routledge