Geoffrey Unsworth - Writer

Cinematographer. Nationality: British. Born: London, 1914. Career: 1932—camera assistant, then camera operator from 1937; 1942—made the documentary Teeth of Steel , followed by others in the mid-1940s, then feature films and international productions; collaborated on several technical innovations, including a special front-projection technique. Awards: British Academy Award for Becket , 1964; 2001: A Space Odyssey , 1968; Cabaret and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland , 1972; A Bridge Too Far , 1977; Tess , 1981; Academy Award for Cabaret , 1972; Tess , 1980. Officer, Order of the British Empire. Died: In Brittany, France, 29 October 1978.

Films as Cameraman:


The Drum ( Drums ) (Z. Korda)


The Four Feathers (Z. Korda)


The Thief of Bagdad (Berger, Powell, and Whelan)


The Great Mr. Handel (Walker); Teeth of Steel (doc); Gardens of England (doc); World Gardens (doc)


The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp ( Colonel Blimp ) (Powell and Pressburger); The People's Land (doc); Power on the Land (doc)


Men of Science (doc)


Make Fruitful the Land (doc)


A Matter of Life and Death ( Stairway to Heaven ) (Powell and Pressburger); Meet the Navy (doc)

Films as Cinematographer:


Jassy (Knowles); Paris on the Seine (doc); The Man Within ( The Smugglers ) (Knowles)


Blanche Fury (M. Allégret) (co)


The Blue Lagoon (Launder); Fools Rush In (Carstairs); Scott of the Antarctic (Frend); The Spider and the Fly (Hamer)


Trio (French); The Clouded Yellow (Thomas); Double Confession (Annakin)


The Planter's Wife ( Outpost in Malaya ) (Annakin); Made in Heaven (Carstairs); The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (Annakin); Penny Princess (Guest)


The Sword and the Rose (Annakin); Turn the Key Softly (Lee); The Million Pound Note ( Man with a Million ) (Neame)


The Purple Plain (Parrish); The Seekers ( Land of Fury ) (Annakin)


Simba (Hurst); Value for Money (Annakin)


A Town Like Alice ( The Rape of Malaya ) (Lee); Jacqueline (Baker)


Eric Winstone's Coach (short); Hell Drivers (Endfield); Dangerous Exile (Hurst)


A Night to Remember (Baker); Bachelor of Hearts (Rilla)


North West Frontier ( Flame over India ) (Lee Thompson); Whirlpool (Allen)


The World of Suzie Wong (Quine)


On the Double (Shavelson); Don't Bother to Knock ( Why Bother to Knock ) (Frankel); The Lion of Sparta ( The Three Hundred Spartans ) (Maté)


The Main Attraction (Petrie); The Playboy of the Western World (Hurst)


An Evening with the Royal Ballet (Havelock-Allan and Asquith); Tamahine (Leacock)


Becket (Glenville)


Genghis Khan (Levin); Pop Gear ( Go Go Mania ) (Goode); You Must Be Joking! (Winner)


Othello (Burge)


Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feelin' So Sad (Quine)


Half a Sixpence (Sidney); The Bliss of Mrs. Blossom (McGrath); 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick); The Dance of Death (Giles)


The Assassination Bureau (Dearden)


Cromwell (Hughes); Goodbye, Gemini (Gibson); The Magic Christian (McGrath); The Three Sisters (Olivier)


Unman, Wittering, and Zigo (MacKenzie)


Cabaret (Fosse); Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (Sterling)


Baxter (Jeffries); Love and Pain and the Whole Darn Thing (Pakula); Zardoz (Boorman)


The Internecine Project (Hughes); The Abdication (Harvey); Murder on the Orient Express (Lumet)


The Return of the Pink Panther (Edwards); Royal Flash (Lester); Lucky Lady (Donen)


A Matter of Time (Minnelli)


A Bridge Too Far (Attenborough)


Superman (Donner)


Tess (Polanski) (co)


Superman II (Lester) (co)


By UNSWORTH: articles—

"The Director of Photography," in Films and Filming (London), April 1957.

Cinema TV Today (London), 15 December 1973.

On The Return of the Pink Panther , in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1975.

On A Bridge Too Far , in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1977.

On UNSWORTH: articles—

Focus on Film (London), October 1971, corrections in December 1971, July 1972, and no. 13, 1973.

Castell, D., on Murder on the Orient Express in Films Illustrated (London), December 1974.

Screen International (London), 18 October 1975.

Film and TV Technician (London), December 1978.

MacDonald, Peter, on Superman in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), January 1979.

Cinématographe (Paris), July-August 1979.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), May 1981.

* * *

When Geoffrey Unsworth died in 1978, the film industry lost one of its best-loved and most accomplished cinematographers. Although his work was renowned for its lush qualities, it was his versatility and craftsmanship, rather than any distinctive personal style, which elevated him to the top ranks of his profession. Unsworth was an artistic chameleon, capable of adapting to a wide range of directors, genres, and environmental conditions, and of evoking radically different cinematic moods. Ambitious, expensively budgeted costume dramas such as Cromwell , and intimate, modestly financed films such as The Three Sisters , might pose different technical and aesthetic challenges, but variations in scale had no bearing on the amount of professionalism and enthusiasm which Unsworth invested. He enjoyed making period films such as Becket because they provided him with opportunities to use cinematography's basic grammar to establish ambience and verisimilitude. Yet he was equally adept at creating visual moods appropriate to films set in our own time, such as The Return of the Pink Panther . Although he learned his craft in the artificial and malleable context of studio production, he proved capable of superior work in the intractable and unpredictable conditions of location filmmaking, as A Bridge Too Far amply demonstrated.

Unsworth's career began in 1932 when he joined Gaumont British as a camera apprentice. In time he was promoted to camera operator, and, after moving to Technicolor, worked with such luminaries as Georges Périnal on The Drum , The Four Feathers , and The Thief of Bagdad , and Jack Cardiff on Colonel Blimp and A Matter of Life and Death ( Stairway to Heaven ). He joined the Rank Organization in 1946, and remained there as a director of photography for 13 years, working frequently with the directors Ken Annakin and Roy Baker. His reputation established, Unsworth turned freelance in 1959, and soon became a highly sought-after director both in his native England and in America.

His best work was realized in the 1960s and 1970s. The frosty magnificence of 2001: A Space Odyssey , the elegance of Murder on the Orient Express , the chimerical aura of Zardoz , the ethereal and comic-book elements of Superman , and grandeur of Becket and Cromwell , and the softened representation of war in A Bridge Too Far , all owe a great deal to Unsworth's work. His finest accomplishment, however, was undoubtedly Cabaret . The grotesquerie of the Kit Kat Klub, and the decaying fabric of pre-Second World War Germany are impeccably rendered by Unsworth's expressionistic camerawork. The effort to draw the cinema audience into the mood of the nightclub by aligning its visual perspective with that of the clientele is highly successful. One of the most interesting aspects of Unsworth's work on Cabaret is that it proved he had no lack of imagination when it came to translating theatre into cinema. Not too many years earlier, he had been castigated by the critics for excessive deference to theatrical conventions in his photography of plays performed by Britain's National Theatre ( Othello , The Three Sisters , and The Dance of Death ). Cabaret , however, with its fluid camera movements, varied angles, and stunning lighting effects, was one of the most successful attempts ever to adapt a theatrical work for the film medium.

Cabaret earned Unsworth his first Academy Award. His second was for Tess , a movie which failed to satisfy Hardy purists but whose visual poetry seemed to strike a chord among cinema audiences. Unsworth died during the making of Tess ; principal photography was completed by Ghislain Cloquet, who shared the Oscar.

Unsworth enjoyed a harmonious and unusually long partnership with his camera assistant and operator Peter MacDonald. Their association spanned two decades and about 30 features. MacDonald describes Unsworth as an "impressionist," and has said that he was an intuitive, as opposed to a technical, cameraman who preferred to be guided by his instincts rather than by elaborate advance planning in the selection of lighting, angles, and composition. He was not renowned as an innovator, but he was always willing to experiment. If called upon to execute a particularly difficult shot, he would respond by searching for a solution rather than by dismissing the idea as technically impossible. Indeed, as director of photography on 2001: A Space Odyssey , he was a key member of the team which applied advanced technology towards the realization of the director Stanley Kubrick's highly complex vision of the future. Unsworth's cinematography, coupled with Douglas Trumbull's pioneering special effects, helped to create the film's documentary feel as well as its exceptional visual clarity.

Unsworth was committed to the principle that the cameraman's input should be unobtrusive. He believed that cinematography should not call attention to itself but support directorial intent and the flow of the action. Yet, even though he believed that his contribution should be imperceptible, there is little doubt that his craftsmanship and artistry have left an indelible impression on modern cinema.

—Fiona Valentine

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