| July 5, 2017

Gordon Willis’ work as a director of photography is legendary. His iconic cinematography shaped such classics of the 1970’s as The Godfather (though he shot the whole trilogy), Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), and All the President’s Men (1976). Naming but these few films alone should evidence the import of Willis’ work in the scope of cinema history. I’d even go so far as to say many images the man crafted will be forever etched into the minds of filmmakers and cinephiles alike as integral to our understanding of cinematic language.

Though celebrated historically as a cinematographer, Willis did once set out to direct a film and he did so by helming the 1980 thriller, Windows, a film he also served on as director of photography. (Because who else would Willis have shoot his film?!) It is, however, a film I recommend with some caveats, for reasons that’ll quickly become obvious. To emphasize the film’s positives first, Windows is every bit as beautifully shot as anything else Willis ever served on as director of photography. Willis’ use of negative space, shadows and mise-en-scène encourages viewers’ eyes to appropriately focused on the characters alone when necessary or to actively scan objects and people in frame to instill urgency. All the while, New York City itself serves as both backdrop and character in a way that you need only direct your attention back to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall or Manhattan to understand.

It’s a visually enthralling film throughout and an effectively tense and well-paced little psychological thriller to boot. Unfortunately for Willis as a one-time director, however, Windows earned itself something of a tragic reputation upon its release. Indeed, it might have been celebrated for its artistic achievements and for having told a simple story incredibly well were it not for its negative portrayal of lesbians in particular—though women in general don’t fair too well on the whole either.

Windows, by virtue of including only one lesbian character, ultimately depicts lesbianism as an intrinsically dangerous social malady. Andrea (Elizabeth Ashley), the film’s sole representative of the entire lesbian community, obsesses over protagonist Emily (Talia Shire) to such an extent that she pays someone to sexually assault Emily at knifepoint just to hear what sex with her might be like, and later Andrea even turns to murder in an attempt to get close to Emily. Without any contrasting positive portrayals of lesbianism highlighted in the film, this of course leaves Windows sending a message to viewers that the representation of Andrea as dangerous to herself and others is true of the entire lesbian community.

You can read more about the uproar and negative response to Windows in Vito Russo’s seminal The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, but to make a long story short: Windows was released less than month before another major studio-backed film that linked homosexuality with homicidal tendencies (William Friedkin’s Cruising). With Hollywood consistently refusing to treat homosexuals in film with the same modicum of restraint they did many other minority communities, films like Windows ultimately inspired a whole generation of gay filmmakers determined to tell their own stories. Without films like Windows, we may never have seen the likes of a movement such the New Queer Cinema!

Thus, Windows contributed to a positive trend in film, spurring more diversity behind the scenes as well as on screen, but it sadly only did so by setting a negative example. And it’s a shame, because Windows is otherwise a tight, well-crafted thriller. Just tweak the characters’ sexualities a bit, add in more diversity, and do some work with the gender politics of it all, and you could have a thriller film that tells its story just as thrillingly but without doing any group depicted therein a major cultural disservice.

With all this in mind, though, note that I did mention above how I would still personally recommend watching Gordon Willis’ Windows. It’s in fact one of a shortlist of films released in July by Scream Factory that I recently identified as deserving reevaluation. I think there’s a lot to be learned from the film and the mistakes that Willis made in crafting it, and yet I also find terrific value in the film’s basic construction.

Gorgeous cinematography defines the production at a visual level, the pacing is spot-on, and the narrative structure (minus the reveal of Andrea being responsible for the sexual assault occurring far too early) is something I personally intend to draw on if I ever write a thriller about romantic obsession myself. Plus, the film boasts a score by legendary The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly-composer Ennio Morricone! With that in mind, though, I really only recommend the film to anyone who’s interested in dissecting a masterful thriller, but who also has some strong, positive associations with lesbians and homosexuality in general. After all, if shown to uninformed or impressionable viewers, films like Windows or Cruising can negatively shape audiences’ understanding of the communities depicted.

Windows is indeed currently available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory. The transfer lives up to the standard that Shout!/Scream Factory set for themselves long ago. The clarity, depth of shadows, and respect for the film stock’s grain structures characterizing the transfer provide the ideal showcase for Willis’ cinematography. The disc also includes, by way of special features: trailers/TV spots, a till gallery, and two, brand new, lengthy  interviews with stars Talia Shire and Elizabeth Ashley as well as producer Michael Lobell.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).

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