The Godfather Explained: How they used shadows to get a very powerful message through to us

Have you noticed how a lot of today’s best movies and television shows are super-dark? Visually, I mean: the scenes literally seem darker than in decades past. That’s because a lot of these shows are also darker thematically, often dealing with good and evil at the same time in the same characters, and their lighting matches this duality.

In the latest video from Screen Prism, it’s argued that the origin point of these dark dramas, at least technically-speaking, is THE GODFATHER, which was shot by revered cinematographer Gordon Willis, or as he was politely-known to his friends and colleagues, “The Prince of Darkness.” Willis earned this moniker for his adept balancing of light and shadow, much like the chiaroscuro style of Film Noir or German Expressionism, only Willis worked in color while the former genres were exclusively black-and-white. By relying on darkness as much as he did light, Willis reflected the internal struggles of THE GODFATHER’s characters, specifically the anti-protagonist Michael Corleone and his conflicted persona as a decent man made to do indecent things by virtue of his bloodline and birth order. As a result, the lighting and cinematography of THE GODFATHER are some of the best routes to understanding the philosophical and thematic undertones of the film, making Willis in many opinions an equal architect of the final product alongside director Francis Ford Coppola and writer Mario Puzo.

By first contrasting Willis’ work against the medium at large in its era — the studio freaked when they saw how dark the first footage was — then moving into how that work came to beget a generation of directors and cinematographers, Screen Prism reveals how this one facet influenced not just one of the greatest movies of all-time, but the entire sphere of cinematic storytelling.

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