Obituary: Oswald Morris OBE, cinematographer

BORN: 22 November, 1915, in Ruislip, Middlesex. Died: 17 March, 2014, in Fontmell Magna, Dorset, aged 98.

Oswald Morris, left, on the set of The Guns of Navarone.  Picture: Columbia
Oswald Morris, left, on the set of The Guns of Navarone. Picture: Columbia

Oswald Morris was one of Britain’s most distinguished and inventive cinematographers – the guys who are in charge of the cameras and lighting on a film. He won the Bafta for best cinematographer three years in a row in the mid-1960s. And he bagged an Oscar for the 1971 musical Fiddler on the Roof, attracting acclaim and admiration for the slightly earthy, slightly sepia-tinted look of the film.

And the secret of his success? Stockings. He stuck a stocking over the lens and shot through that.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

In a career spanning half a century Morris worked on more than 100 films, encompassing a huge range of subjects and genres, from Shakespeare to James Bond. He was camera operator on David Lean’s Oliver Twist in 1948 and director of photography on Carol Reed’s musical Oliver! 20 years later. He was cinematographer on the 1974 Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun, and he also shot the downbeat drama The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

He “lit” many of the biggest stars and some of the biggest egos of the 20th century – Paul Newman, Peter O’Toole, Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness, Burton and Taylor and Miss Piggy.

The Great Muppet Caper was one of his last films in 1981 and director Jim Henson told him: “I think of Kermit as my leading man and Miss Piggy as my leading lady.” Morris said in one interview: “I lit Miss Piggy just as if she was Greta Garbo or Sophia Loren.”

Over time he learned how to massage the egos. He worked with Jennifer Jones on several films and found her particularly difficult until he discovered her liking for boiled sweets. “I’d have a bag on hand so I could offer her one after a scene,” he said. “It would change her completely.”

He made nine films with John Huston, including The Man Who Would Be King, an adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling yarn set in Afghanistan, starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine as soldiers of fortune, and the 1952 non-musical version of Moulin Rouge, on which he shot through smoke to simulate the style of Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters.

Huston and Morris worked together so often that Morris called his autobiography Huston, We Have a Problem. Promoting the book when it came out in 2006, Morris said: “I did used to go up and say, ‘John, we have a problem.’ And he would always say: ‘Well, kid,’ – he always called me kid – ‘what are you going to do about it?’ And I’d go and find a solution.”

The story speaks volumes about both men.

Oswald Norman Morris was born in Ruislip, Middlesex, in 1915. Known as Ossie or Os to his friends, he entered the film industry as a “clapper-boy” at Wembley Studios in the early 1930s and graduated to camera assistant and then camera operator towards the end of the decade.

He served as a bomber pilot during the Second World War. “One thing I learned from the RAF was leadership,” he said. “I flew the aircraft because I didn’t want some other idiot flying it, being responsible for my neck!”

He had already worked with Ronald Neame before the war, when Neame was a cinematographer. Neame, who went on to become a successful producer and director, “pulled strings” to effect Morris’s early release from the RAF and they worked together on several films, including Oliver Twist, which Neame produced, The Man Who Never Was, Scrooge and the 1974 thriller The Odessa File.

The Odessa File was shot in Hamburg and shortly after arriving there Morris remarked that the last time he had visited the city it was to drop bombs on it.

Morris worked with some of the greatest directors of the time, collaborating with Stanley Kubrick on the controversial film of Nabokov’s Lolita, Rene Clement on Knave of Hearts, Tony Richardson on Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer and Franco Zeffirelli on The Taming of the Shrew.

Huston’s films provided Morris with some of his best opportunities for innovation and he recalls in his memoirs fierce arguments with Technicolor over their experiments on Moulin Rouge.

“This unique use of colour was the best thing about the film,” he wrote. “It was the first picture that succeeded in dominating the colour instead of being dominated by it.”

Subsequently, Morris “desaturated” the colour on Moby Dick in an attempt to simulate old whaling prints.

A film is regarded primarily as the work of its director and Morris always acknowledged he was not there to pursue a personal vision. “I believe you have to have a good script, correctly cast and with a talented director,” he said. “Everything else is in the service of that.” Unlike other top cinematographers, he never directed films.

As well as his Oscar for Fiddler on the Roof, he won Bafta awards for The Pumpkin Eater; The Hill, another classic Connery movie; and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Other notable films as cinematographer include The Guns of Navarone; Goodbye, Mr Chips; Sleuth and Equus.

In 1998 he was made an OBE and in 2009 the new teaching building at the National Film and Television School in Buckinghamshire was named after him. Twice widowed, he is survived by three children. His brother Reginald was also a cinematographer.