Gilbert Taylor, a cinematographer who shot classic films including Dr. Strangelove, Frenzy, A Hard Day’s Night, and Star Wars, died at 99 on Friday. Taylor worked as director of photography on dozens of films over more than 45 years, working with directors including Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, Richard Lester, and Richard Donner.
On Star Wars, he and Lucas frequently disagreed. “George avoided all meetings and contact with me from day one,” Taylor said, “so I read the extra-long script many times and made my own decisions as to how I would shoot the picture.” He and Lucas had a fundamental disagreement about the look of the film—Lucas wanted to use heavy filtration, which Taylor said made everything “mush together,” and the conflict was resolved when 20th Century Fox sided with Taylor.
Movie fans will each have their own favorite shot of Taylor’s. Some will remember most the long opening shot of Star Wars, shot from below, which positions the tiny, fleeing rebel spacecraft against the massive Empire Star Destroyer that chases after. Famously, it takes only this one shot to set the movie up as an underdog story from the beginning.
Others will remember Major Kong riding a warhead into nuclear holocaust in Dr. Strangelove, as the camera, harrowingly, dives with him down into the Earth.
Or the opening shot of A Hard Day’s Night, with the Beatles tumbling over each other towards the camera (to the sound of perhaps rock’s most famous opening chord), as they try to escape their fans.
Or, in the same experimental and playful film, the helicopter shot in the freewheeling “Can’t Buy Me Love” sequence—itself one of the first music videos—that shows the Beatles running silly around the fields of England. (Or, later in the same sequence, the three low-angle shots of John, Paul, and George flying through the sky, before the straight-on shot of Ringo stuck to the ground.)
But perhaps my favorite shot of Taylor’s is the unforgettable long take from Alfred Hitchcock’s Frenzy. It’s one of Hitchcock’s last and most sordid movies, but, when it comes to one of the most brutal killings, the camera pulls away, first down the stairs, and then all the way into the street. It’s almost as if it's out of decency, as if the camera can’t bear to look—or, perhaps, Hitchcock and Taylor know it will be all the worse if they makes us imagine it.