2.9.1911 – 10.1.2005
Born in Berlin in 1911, to English and German parents, he studied briefly at art school in the city before joining the famed UFA studios, where the director F.W. Murnau, who had been impressed by his paintings, asked him to be an assistant on Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931 photographed by Floyd Crosby).
Hillier's father forbade him working with Murnau after discovering that the director was homosexual, so then Murnau introduced Hillier to Fritz Lang, who used him as an assistant cameraman on the classic tale of a child murderer, M (1931) photographed by Fritz Arno Wagner. After moving to the UK, he quickly found work as a camera assistant at Gaumont British, where he contributed to films by Alfred Hitchcock and Victor Saville.
He became camera operator on Walter Forde's Jack Ahoy! (1934) photographed by Bernard Knowles, a musical-comedy vehicle for Jack Hulbert, a popular stage star at the time, and he worked in a similar capacity on Forde's Brown on Resolution (1935) again photographed by Bernard Knowles and starring John Mills, plus the "quota quickie" The Man Behind the Mask (1935), which first brought him to the attention of the film's director, Michael Powell. "Ernest Palmer photographed the film," recalled Powell, but operating the camera and influencing every angle and every lighting effect was an almost insanely enthusiastic young man called Erwin Hillier. He was always dreaming up new angles, new points of view for the camera to explore, new movements for the camera to make, which would intensify the atmosphere and the action. He approved of me, because I had seen all the continental films that he had grown up with.”
Hillier was camera operator on Powell's popular and enjoyable espionage tale The Spy in Black (1939), then, with the outbreak of war, he was given the opportunity to be cinematographer on several documentaries for the Ministry of Information, which led to his first feature film as cinematographer, Leslie Hiscott's comedy thriller The Lady from Lisbon (1942).
He then photographed The Silver Fleet (1943) directed by Vernon Sewell, starring and produced by [Sir] Ralph Richardson along with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, who produced Hillier's next film, A Canterbury Tale (1944).
"With this film," wrote Powell in his memoirs, Hillier sprang to the front rank. He had a keen eye for effect and texture . . . Whether in the studio or on location, we decided to go for complete realism, and he never let me down. 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 his 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." This would go on all day. I admired his dedication.
The critic Richard Winnington, praising the film's "pastoral progression", wrote of "the first-rate and refreshing photographic compositions of the Kentish landscape". Pressburger's nephew Kevin Macdonald cites echoes of M in A Canterbury Tale, "in particular the willingness to use almost total darkness throughout the first five minutes of the film".
After a special screening of A Canterbury Tale at the National Film Theatre. Powell wrote to Hillier and said, “On Friday the NFT showed a good copy of "A Canterbury Tale" and I wish you had been there to hear the reactions. It was our first film together and it shows what a mistake it was to break up such a partnership as you, 'Uncle Alfred' (Alfred Junge – production designer), Emeric and myself. … When it is shown on TV (as it will be after this triumphant showing) it will be loved and admired, as it deserves to be, and your wonderful use of light will thrill millions of people. I particularly admired the handling of two and three shots, where each actor stood solid in his own identity and was still part of the whole control; and the more spectacular shots were flawless. The Cathedral …! All my boyhood at Canterbury was in my eyes! The audience were deeply moved and loudly appreciative.
Hillier then photographed one of the most exquisite of Powell-Pressburger movies, I Know Where I'm Going (1945). Powell described the photography, which included close-up shots of a whirlpool taken at some risk to Hillier, as, "inventive, poetic and mysterious", but the association between Powell and Hillier ended when Powell decided to use Jack Cardiff on A Matter of Life and Death (1946).
According to Powell, Hillier refused the offer to work with Cardiff and share the credit, with Hillier's name coming first: He was a proud man and had struggled a long time to reach the top. He couldn't see this suggestion in any other way but a put-down.
Instead, Hillier worked on another Technicolor project, London Town (1946), a notoriously unsuccessful attempt to rival Hollywood's lavish musicals, its pastel photography one of the few elements to win praise.
Hillier's most distinguished work, though, was in black and white. Roy Ward Baker's The October Man (1946), a moody, psychological thriller starring John Mills, benefited greatly from Hillier's superlative use of light and shade, and a similar mastery of chiaroscuro was apparent in such noirish movies as The Mark of Cain (1947) directed by Brian Desmond Hurst and Mr Perrin and Mr Traill (1948) directed by Lawrence Huntington. In contrast, his colour photography for the musical Where's Charley? (1952), directed by David Butler, was appropriately bright and sunny for this light- hearted Oxford-set romp. (Alas, the film is little known today because of copyright restrictions.)
The lively farce Will Any Gentleman . . . ? (1953), began a long association between Hillier and the director Michael Anderson. Their films together included Chase a Crooked Shadow (1957), Shake Hands with the Devil (1959), The Naked Edge (1961), The Quiller Memorandum (1966), Operation Crossbow (1965) and finally Shoes of the Fisherman (1968).
The team's biggest success, though, was another war film, The Dam Busters (1954). Star Richard Todd said, “I think The Dam Busters is the best military war picture ever made. Mickey Anderson deliberately made it in black-and-white for two reasons: one was that we could use a lot of stock shots in black-and-white of the original bombs being tested. Also, he thought that colour would prettify it too much, and I think he was right. Erwin Hillier was the cameraman on it and it was very well photographed. “Hillier's last credit was The Valley of Gwangi (1969) a Ray Harryhausen “puppet-monster” thriller directed by James O’Connolly.