Conrad L. Hall

Active - 1958 - 2010  |   Born - Jun 21, 1926   |   Died - Jan 4, 2003   |   Genres - Drama, Crime

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Biography by Lucia Bozzola

One of the rare cinematographers to achieve name recognition, Conrad L. Hall became one of the most revered lensmen in post-1960 Hollywood for work ranging from In Cold Blood's (1967) stark monochrome to the burnished color reveries of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Day of the Locust (1975), American Beauty's (1999) pristine suburbia, and finally Road to Perdition's (2002) rain-drenched noir. Always aiming to illuminate unspoken emotions with artistry undiminished by age, Hall won Oscars 30 years apart for Butch Cassidy and American Beauty.

The son of a fourth-generation Tahitian mother and Mutiny on the Bounty co-author James Norman Hall, Conrad Hall lived in Tahiti until age eight. Educated in Californian private schools, Hall attended U.S.C. to study journalism. After a poor creative writing grade, however, Hall switched to U.S.C.'s school of cinema and TV in 1947. Having already achieved his first professional credit when his class project, Sea Theme, was sold to TV, Hall and two classmates formed the production company Canyon Films after they graduated in 1949. Though Hall really wanted to direct, he fell into cinematography when he and his colleagues drew jobs out of a hat to decide who would do what on their first (and only) film, My Brother Down There, in 1954. Hall earned his union credentials, however, by shooting documentaries for Walt Disney, including The Living Desert (1953), and by working as a camera operator for such seasoned pros as Robert Surtees and Ernest Haller. Hall honed his craft further with commercials and series TV, including The Outer Limits.

Conrad Hall got his first Hollywood cinematographer credit on the low budget The Wild Seed (1965). Quickly distinguishing himself with his skillful black-and-white photography, Hall garnered his first Oscar nomination for his second film, Morituri (1965). The following year, Hall showed that he was just as adept at landscapes and color, with his first collaboration with Richard Brooks, The Professionals (1966). As one of the new generation of craftsmen entering the industry during the transition from the classical studio system-style to the European-influenced, youth-driven New Hollywood, Hall broke from past conventions by ditching the usual "day for night" and shooting The Professionals' night scenes in actual nocturnal darkness. Hall's next film with Brooks, the adaptation of Truman Capote's bleak docu-novel In Cold Blood, underscored Hall's mastery of light and eloquent visuals. Along with the murder scene shot solely by flashlight, the shadows of rainwater falling like tears down condemned killer Robert Blake's face became one of the film's most celebrated images. Though color project Cool Hand Luke (1967) was more popular, Hall got the Oscar nod for In Cold Blood.

Deriding his work on Luke and the Tahitian-shot Hell in the Pacific (1968) as "too good lookin'," Hall was more in his element with Abraham Polonsky's moody return from the blacklist Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) and the box-office smash Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Breaking classical "rules" by keeping shots with lens flare and deliberately over-exposing the film, Hall gave Butch Cassidy's outlaw exploits a sepia glow, enhancing the image of Paul Newman and Robert Redford as two beautiful dreamers. Though Fran├žois Truffaut had already done it a decade earlier, Hall's freeze-frame ending to Butch Cassidy brought the technique into the Hollywood mainstream; his first Oscar win for the film gave the industry stamp of approval to Hall's iconoclastic style. Having married Butch Cassidy star Katharine Ross in 1969, Hall decided to take time off after his Oscar triumph. The marriage ended in 1975.

Returning to movies with the kind of story about the human condition that he preferred, Hall gave John Huston's boxing drama Fat City (1972) an "anonymous," subtly textured style to match the "ordinary" characters. After crafting a similarly "documentary" look for Michael Ritchie's beauty pageant satire Smile (1975), Hall shifted gears with John Schlesinger's The Day of the Locust. Bathing the story of Hollywood's dark side in romantic amber, Hall signaled the dream factory's simultaneous allure and fatal unreality, climaxing in the ultra-stylized, nightmarish riot. After creating a steely cold world of paranoia in Schlesinger's Marathon Man (1976), Hall retired from features for ten years. Along with forming a commercial production company with Haskell Wexler, Hall turned to screenwriting in hopes of finally becoming a director. His efforts, however, came to naught; he never did get to direct. When a chance meeting with Bob Rafelson led to an invitation to photograph Rafelson's noir Black Widow (1987), Hall accepted.

An Oscar nominee with his next film, Robert Towne's romance Tequila Sunrise (1988), Hall worked regularly as a cinematographer into the early '90s. He won the Academy's attention again by giving visual life to the world of chess in Steven Zaillian's directorial debut Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993). After the American Society of Cinematographers honored Hall in 1994 with a lifetime achievement award, he went into semi-retirement, dividing his time between Los Angeles and his private island off Tahiti. Willing to work with old friends, Hall shot Towne's biopic Without Limits (1998) and earned his eighth Oscar nomination for Zaillian's legal drama, A Civil Action (1998). Recommended to film neophyte Sam Mendes by Without Limits producer Tom Cruise, Hall signed on for Mendes' first feature American Beauty and finally won his second Oscar. Applying what he called his "magic naturalism" style to the suburban satire, Hall helped turn family dinners into theatrical displays of discord, and earned kudos for Kevin Spacey's rose-strewn dreams and Wes Bentley's forays into video. Continuing into the new millennium, Hall worked on his second film with Mendes, and fourth with Paul Newman, with the gangster drama Road to Perdition. Though reviews for the movie were somewhat mixed, critics universally praised Hall's nuanced, shadowy images.

Hall, however, passed away in early 2003, weeks before garnering a tenth Oscar nomination (which would ultimately result in his third Oscar win) and the ASC's prize for Perdition. Hall was survived by his third wife, Susan, and his three children by first wife Virginia, including his cinematographer son, Conrad W. Hall.

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