Christopher Challis, cinematographer
Born: 18 March, 1919, in London. Died: 31 May, 2012, in Bristol, aged 93
Christopher Challis is a name that will not mean much to the general public, but within the film industry he was a legend.
He was the man the behind the camera on dozens of great British films from the 1940s through to the 1980s, including Genevieve, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Mary Queen of Scots and many of the films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
“It is not possible even to begin to take the full measure of the greatness of British filmmaking without thinking of Chris Challis,” Martin Scorsese said in a message he sent to a Bafta tribute event in Challis’s honour last year.
“Chris Challis brought a vibrancy to the celluloid palette that was entirely his own, and which helped make Britain a leader in that long, glorious period of classic world cinema,” Scorsese said.
Challis worked with such lauded directors as Billy Wilder and Stanley Donen and stars of the calibre of Audrey Hepburn, Rock Hudson, Richard Burton and Cary Grant, who he considered very vain.
What was striking at the Bafta tribute event was Challis’s own modesty. He seemed happy enough to let the directors take the credit and was clearly never overawed by big names in front of the camera either. And neither, it seems, was his late wife Peggy.
Professing a passion for anecdotes, Challis recalled being on location in Oban with Kirk Douglas for the 1971 film Catch Me a Spy.
“We were staying in this rather grotty hotel,” he said. “My wife was alone in the dining room, or more or less alone, having breakfast. And Kirk Douglas appeared in the doorway of the restaurant, bedecked in a high degree of tartan – he was obviously susceptible to the atmosphere.
“He walked over to Peggy and said, ‘Do you mind if I join you?’ And she said ‘No, of course not, please do.’ And so he sat down and surveyed her more or less in silence for half a minute and he said, ‘Who are you?’ And she said, ‘I’m Chris Challis’s wife. Who are you?’”
Born Christopher George Joseph Challis, he left school in his mid-teens and worked as a focus-puller on the Indian adventure film The Drum, with Sabu, and gained experience on Gaumont-British newsreels.
During the Second World War he worked as a cameraman for the RAF’s film and photographic unit. He began his long association with Powell and Pressburger on their classic film A Matter of Life and Death (also called Stairway to Heaven) with David Niven.
Powell could be a difficult man to get on with and early on in production he challenged Challis on the way he was doing something.
Challis told him that if he did not like it, he should do it himself. After this exchange they got on very well and A Matter of Life and Death was the first of 13 films Challis made with Powell and Pressburger.
Jack Cardiff was their regular director of photography at that time, but Challis was promoted to the top job on the drama The End of the River, which was made by their production company The Archers.
It reunited him with Sabu and they travelled hundreds of miles up the Amazon on what had been a Mersey ferry boat.
In the late 1940s he took over from Cardiff on the films that Powell and Pressburger wrote and directed and was responsible for the cinematography on The Small Back Room, in which an alcoholic scientist is menaced in one scene by a giant whisky bottle.
Powell compared Challis’s lighting of the sequence to the German expressionist silent masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
He worked with Powell and Pressburger again on Gone to Earth, capturing the melodrama of the plot in his vivid Technicolor photography in, The Elusive Pimpernel, The Battle of the River Plate, Ill Met by Moonlight and other later films.
Cahllius quickly established his reputation within the industry and found his services in demand from other directors too. Genevieve, the classic comedy about the London-Brighton veteran car rally, marked him out as a cinematographer who was at ease capturing vehicles on the move.
He worked with an old car again on Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, old planes on Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines and a small boat on the period thriller The Riddle of the Sands.
It helped that he was himself an accomplished yachtsman. With little room on deck for camera equipment or crew, he met the challenge with men and equipment suspended in the rigging.
He worked in Scotland on several occasions and filmed a key sequences of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes at Loch Ness. Mary Queen of Scots filmed at Hermitage Castle, near Hawick, but most of it was shot in England. Challis won a British Academy Award for the 1966 thriller Arabesque with Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren.
In later years he worked on several big international films. The poignant bitter-sweet drama Two for the Road, shot in France with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney. This was one of several films he made with director Stanley Donen. The adaptation of Robert Benchley’s The Deep – best remembered for his shots of Jacqueline Bisset’s wet T-shirt – took him to the Caribbean.
His other films include The Spanish Gardener, with Dirk Bogarde and controversial themes of homosexuality and blackmail; Sink the Bismarck!; the Pink Panther sequel A Shot in the Dark; Force 10 from Navarone; the Agatha Christie adaptations The Mirror Crack’d and Evil Under the Sun; and the spy spoof Top Secret!.
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