Walter Lassally, BSC (1926-2017)

by Marc Salomon, consulting member of the AFC

La Lettre AFC n°284

[English] [français]

Walter Lassally, BSC passed away on 23 October 2017 at the age of ninety. His death marks the turn of an important page in the history of cinematography, as his career and his work belong to a time that, alas, is definitively over.
Walter Lassally pendant sa retraite en Crète
Walter Lassally pendant sa retraite en Crète


A half-century spent behind the camera, where he had a life full of varied experiences and encounters - from the Free Cinema to the old-fashioned and nostalgic world of James Ivory -, far from the beaten paths and paved highways, without ever worrying about building a career : “My own philosophy has always been to keep away from the dominant current of English and American productions. Of course, sometimes I had cause to regret it, but only fleetingly, as I think that the creative opportunities were always greater at the margins.” He fully inhabited his persona of Itinerant Cameraman (the title of his autobiography), and was always eager to discover new horizons, before retiring in 1998 to Chania in Crete, not far from Stavros Beach, where the famous last scene of Zorba the Greek was filmed, in which Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates danse the sirtaki to Mikos Theodorakis’ original score.

"Zorba le Grec"
"Zorba le Grec"


Born in Berlin on 18 December 1926, to an engineer father who worked in industrial film, and a mother of Polish origin (Born in Łodz), both of whom were considered “non-Aryan” and who had to flee to England in 1939, just before war was declared. Walter left school in 1943, decided to become a cameraman, but the letters he sent to the studios in London never received a reply. He worked for a short while in a photogravure studio, and then in a photography studio, where he was introduced to photojournalism, industrial photography, and portraits. It was only at the end of 1946 that he got a job at Riverside Studios at a time that was economically catastrophic for the cinema industry. “But crisis is the normal condition of the British cinematographic industry,” he later said. Walter Lassally began as a clapper on Dancing With Crime (by John Paddy Carstairs and cinematography by Reg Wyer) and They Made Me A Fugitive, by Alberto Cavalcanti with the talented and prolific Otto Heller behind the camera. He later assisted Gunther Krampf (a German cameraman famous for G.W. Pabst’s 1928 film Loulou) on Tim Whelan’s This Was a Woman. The studio shut down, which forced him to accept odd jobs on documentary film whilst occasionally working as an assistant cameraman on the second camera on films like Jules Dassins’ 1950 film Night and the City (cinematography by Max Greene), but the entire second unit was fired because the cameraman was an alcoholic !

In 1948, Walter Lassally and Derek York founded “Screencraft Productions” and wrote, produced, and filmed together a medium-length film (Saturday Night) with a 35mm Newman Sinclair camera. It was a realistic fiction that sought to formally imitate the work of Ernest Haller in Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945). Lassally garnered a number of proposals but always to film documentaries, and often worked with directors Lindsay Anderson and Tony Simmons. It was only in 1954 that he received his first opportunity to film a feature-length film in Morocco, Another Sky, the only film ever directed by Gavin Lambert, who was chief editor of the publication Sight and Sound. This film was inspired by Paul Bowles’ novel The Sheltering Sky that Bernardo Bertolucci would once again adapt for film in 1990 under the same title.

"Another Sky"
"Another Sky"
"Another Sky"
"Another Sky"

From the middle of the 1950s, Lassally began to travel between Greece and England, thanks to the help of Lindsay Anderson who recommended him to Michael Cacoyannis. Their work together began with A Girl in Black in 1955 (shot on the island of Hydra), followed by A Matter of Dignity in 1957, both starring Ellie Lambeti. The lack of budget was easily compensated for by the director’s visual sense - one with which Lassally felt completely in tune -, as well as by the team’s “unlimited enthusiasm”. The former of the two films is a sunny film, whilst the latter is darker and contains very beautiful shots filmed at dusk or in day-for-night.

"La Fille en noir"
"La Fille en noir"


During that first period, Lassally also distinguished himself in a few medium-length films that founded the Free Cinema movement, with directors Karel Reisz (Momma Don’t Allow, 1955, a 20 minute documentary shot in 16mm “with a Bolex and a ladder” in a London jazz club), Lindsay Anderson (Everyday Except Christmas, 1957, a documentary about the Covent Garden Market), and once again K. Reisz (We Are the Lambeth Boys, 1958, shot in 35mm with an Arri II sound insulated with pieces cut from a sleeping bag in order to allow for direct sound to be recorded on some shots).

Walter Lassally et Karel Reisz sur le tournage de "We Are the Lambeth Boys", en 1959
Walter Lassally et Karel Reisz sur le tournage de "We Are the Lambeth Boys", en 1959

Lassally always loved working on documentaries : “In my mind, working on documentaries and on films has always meant a difference in genre, but not in quality or status,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I appreciate the crosspollination of ideas and techniques that that combination affords.” On fictions, he frequently used a technique that was more usual on documentaries, which was a hand-held camera (Arri II) in order to steal shots of actors drowned in the temporarily undifferentiated crowd. In a similar way, he would often shoot fictions with limited technical means and other constraints, like in Pakistan in 1958 with The Day Shall Dawn, filmed with five different negatives (Kodak, Dupont, Ferrania, etc.).

Whilst back in England, Lassally worked with Terrence Young (As Dark as the Night) but, because of his lack of experience, he botched a transparency shot that had to be reshot by Georges Périnal. He also shot with Edmond T. Gréville (Beat Girl, 1959) a little film that obtained cult status about British youth at the dawn of the 60s and the Beatnik movement. Continuing to travel back and forth to Greece, he shot three more mainstream films starring Aliki Vougiouklaki (nicknamed “the Greek Bardot”) including Aliki in the Navyu, a singing and colourful comedy, one of the first Greek films in colour (processed in Paris). Then he once again worked with M. Cacoyannis in 1961 on Electra, which he considered one of his best films. This tragedy by Euripides, starring Irene Papas, was formally extremely beautiful, with its rigorously staged shots and its night-for-day, its black silhouettes and well-lit faces that stand out against a background of the setting sun, was shot with a red filter (#25) in order to create contrast and to densify the skies : “Greek tragedies are better in black-and-white because in colour, they look like vulgar costume dramas.”

"Electra"
"Electra"
"Electra"
"Electra"
"Electra"
"Electra"

The years 1961 and 1962 were marked by his collaboration with Tony Richardson. Lassally considered A Taste of Honey to be his real début in English cinema, which, until then, had not been kind to him. Although he had been expected to shoot Time Without Pity, by Joseph Losey, actress Ann Todd forced the choice of a more experienced cameraman (Freddie Francis). Similarly, for Tony Richardson’s Look Back in Anger, starring Richard Burton and Claire Bloom, the producer insisted on Ossie Morris. An emblematic film of the Free Cinema movement, A Taste of Honey renewed a genre that was in fashion at the time, the “kitchen sink drama”, and was entirely shot on location in London and Manchester with three Ilford negatives including the new sensitive HPS (400 ISO), which was the same film stock Raoul Coutard used for Breathless. Lassally’s flexibility and light-handed technique were perfectly matched with the director’s desire to film in a more free way, having gotten rid of the constraints of traditional filming, with the possibility of occasionally improvising with the camera held in the hand and to film during overcast conditions.

"Un goût de miel"
"Un goût de miel"
"Un goût de miel"
"Un goût de miel"
"Un goût de miel"
"Un goût de miel"
"Un goût de miel"
"Un goût de miel"
Tournage d’"Un goût de miel" : W. Lassally assis à gauche, T. Richardson debout au centre
Tournage d’"Un goût de miel" : W. Lassally assis à gauche, T. Richardson debout au centre

The following year, Tony Richardson wanted to once again shoot with the same freedom and flexibility, but this time in colour and with costumes : the film would be Tom Jones. At first, Lassally refused, anticipating a large-budget production for an epic film with costumes an in colour, which was the antithesis of the intimate black-and-white arthouse films he had shot previously. Shooting began with Ossie Morris, who was a worthy representative of the English style of cinematography descended from the studios, and which was constraining and hard to set up. Morris and Richardson mutually agreed to part ways, and Lassally took over the torch.

"Tom Jones"
"Tom Jones"
"Tom Jones"
"Tom Jones"
"Tom Jones"
"Tom Jones"
"Tom Jones"
"Tom Jones"

In many ways, both formally and fundamentally, this film was a precursor to Barry Lyndon. It required Lassally to overcome three challenges : firstly, he had to adapt to the Eastmancolor 5121 negative’s low sensitivity (50 ISO) without resorting to heavy-duty lighting. In order to do that, he had a couple lightboxes built that contained 6-12 Flood lamps. He then had to create a few day-for-night effects without the usual blue overtones. Remembering the contrast lens that cinematographers use gives a vision of the subject that is both dense and almost monochromatic, he decided to create a filter with the same characteristics, that he would sometimes combine with a polarizing filter in order to darken the skies. Lastly, in order to attenuate the colours, the entire film would be filtered with a set of two frames borrowed from Georges Périnal.

Back in Greece, he joined Cacoyannis for Zorba the Greek, which garnered him an Oscar in 1964 (that year, he was up against the inevitable Gabriel Figueroa with The Night of the Iguana). Lassally chose three Ilford negatives : the Pan F (25 ISO) “which gave excellent results in sunny outdoor scenes with a wide range of tones and magnificent details in bright lighting and superb definition,” the FP3 (100 ISO) and the HP3 (200 ISO). Shooting took place in Crete and mostly on location, with limited means available for lighting : a few Crémer (3x5kW, 3x2kW, a few 1 000W and 200W along with his Flood boxes), but a comfortable 14-week shooting schedule. For a scene shot in day-for-night in front of the widow’s house (played by Irene Papas), he placed a reflector inside the room on the floor above in order to send a refracted sunbeam shooting out of the window, “as though there were a lamp on, because no spot was powerful enough to compete with the sun we were using as moonlight.”

"Zorba le Grec"
"Zorba le Grec"
"Zorba le Grec"
"Zorba le Grec"
"Zorba le Grec"
"Zorba le Grec"

Lassally was very surprised to win an Oscar, and he learned the news while he was shooting a documentary in Canada. He soon received offers to shoot films in the USA with Otto Preminger (Bunny Lake is Missing) and Stanley Donen (Arabesque), but always asked to read the screenplays first : “Since when does a cinematographer read screenplays ?” they replied. He declined those offers, preferring to return to Greece, where he worked with Cacoyannis (The Day the Fish Came Out) and his compatriot Philip Saville who came to Greece to shoot Oedipus Rex in 1967. During that shooting, the April 21 coup-d’état occurred which marked the beginning of the Regime of the Colonels and therefore the end of his adventures in Greece, where he shot 12 films in 12 years, and where he would only return 25 years later.

When he returned to England, the swinging sixties were still ongoing, a period that was bookended by Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up and Jerzy Skolimowski’s Deep End. Lassally contributed to this moment in time with Joanna, one of Michael Sarne’s minor films. He also shot his first three films in the United States (Richard Donner’s Twinky) and in Germany (Harold Prince’s Something for Everyone).

The early 1970s are characterized by his encounter with producer Ismail Merchant and with James Ivory, the most British of American directors, the second most important relationship in his filmography after that of Michael Cacoyannis. As a first example, the 1972 film Savages is an allegory on civilization depicting a primitive tribe that discovers a vast abandoned luxurious home, and returns to life in the forest after having adopted the way of life and the clothing. The film is set over the course of a single day and Bruno Nuytten cited it as a reference in an interview he gave to Cahiers du Cinéma in 1979 ; it allowed Lassally to play with the registers of black and white (Kodak XT-Pan 25 ISO), sepia, and colour (Eastmancolor 5254) in a subtle balancing act between reality and dream.

"Savages"
"Savages"
"Savages"
"Savages"
"Savages"
"Savages"
"Savages"
"Savages"

The Wild Party, in 1974, starring Raquel Welch, was inspired by a 1921 crime in which actor Roscoe Arbuckle was involved in the rape and death of a starlette during an evening party.

"The Wild Party"
"The Wild Party"

During the 1970s and 1980s, Walter Lassally also regularly worked for American television, including Fielder Cook (Too Far to Go in 1978 and Gauguin the Savage in 1979), as well as on several adaptations of novels or short stories by Mark Twain with director Peter H. Hunt.

It wasn’t until 1982 that he once again worked with James Ivory on Heat and Dust, shot on location in India near Hyderabad. It earned him a nomination for a BAFTA (the British equivalent of the Oscars) in 1984, but in the end it was won by Sven Nykvist (Fanny and Alexander) : “I didn’t mind losing to him,” he declared. Lassally was sorry that after The Bostonians, James Ivory no longer asked him to work with him.

"Chaleur et poussière" - James Ivory
"Chaleur et poussière" - James Ivory

Of the many collaborations that stud his career, and although we are familiar with only a few of his films, we’d mention the 1975 film Ansichten eines Clowns (based on Heinrich Böll’s The Clown), directed by Czech director Vojtech Jasny, whose film All My Compatriots (shot in 1969 by Jaroslav Kucera) Lassally particularly admired.

Helmut Griem dans "Ansichten eines Clowns"
Helmut Griem dans "Ansichten eines Clowns"

It was whilst shooting that film in Germany that he became an early adopter of the new HMI spots, which were designed by his colleague Jost Vacano, BVK, ASC. Lassally appreciated the opinion of a German critic, who summarized his own conception of cinematography : “Cinematography (very discreet, precise, and without special effects) : Lassally.”

Let’s add Hans Noever’s 1977 The Woman Next Door, David Gladwell’s 1980 Memoirs of a Survivor (science-fiction adapted from a novel by Doris Lessing), as well as two American made-for-TV movies starring Katherine Hepburn and directed by George Schaefer. His last noteworthy feature-length film, The Ballad of the Sad Café, was completed in 1990, and directed by Simon Callow (adapted from the eponymous novel by Carson McCullers), just before he returned to Greece to work with Dinos Dimopoulo on the 1992 film The Little Dolphins.

In 1998, Walter Lassally retired to Crete, to the very place where Zorba the Greek was filmed. He kept his Oscar inside of the “Christiana” restaurant on Stavros beach. The irony of fate was that even though he spent his entire life avoiding mainstream productions and the society that goes along with them, his Oscar was destroyed by a fire that ravaged the restaurant in 2012.

Walter Lassally et son Oscar obtenu en 1964 pour "Zorba le Grec", de Michael Cacoyannis, dans sa taverne crétoise, en 2006
Walter Lassally et son Oscar obtenu en 1964 pour "Zorba le Grec", de Michael Cacoyannis, dans sa taverne crétoise, en 2006


Lastly, in 2013, looking as though he could have been Gordon Willis’ twin brother, he appeared in Before Midnight, a film by Richard Linklater, in which he played the role of an old English writer in whose home Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy spend their summer holidays.

Walter Lassally, Julie Delpy et Ethan Hawke dans "Before Midnight"
Walter Lassally, Julie Delpy et Ethan Hawke dans "Before Midnight"

Selected Bibliography :

Read or reread the interesting and engrossing autobiography published in 1987 : Itinerant Cameraman by W. Lassally (John Murray Publishers).

"Itinerant Cameraman"
"Itinerant Cameraman"

Also, in German : Neue Bilder des Wirklichen - Der Kameramann Walter Lassally, by Gunnar Bolsinger, Andreas Kirchner, Michael Neubauer, and Karl Prümm (Schüren, 2012).

"Nouvelles images du réel" - Walter Lassally
"Nouvelles images du réel" - Walter Lassally

The American Cinematographer dedicated a long article to him in its February 2008 issue : A Cinematic Passport - Influental Cinematographer Walter Lassally, BSC, earns the ASC International Award, by David Heuring.

Lastly, note that at the end of the 1940s, Walter Lassally had personally written a number of articles for the British specialized press (Sight & Sound, Eyepiece, Films and Filming, Film Industry...).

Watch below a video of the conference at the Conservatoire des techniques de la Cinémathèque française entitled “Du Free Cinema à la British New Wave : un moment-clé du cinéma britannique” ("From Free Cinema to the British New Wave : a key moment in British cinema"), in which conference participant Christophe Dupin had invited Walter Lassally to come speak about that time from which he was one of the last still alive.

(Translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe for the AFC)