Several weeks ago, Vittorio Storaro was shooting a new Woody Allen film in a townhouse in the West 50s of Manhattan. Knowing that I was in New York City for an Academy reception for new members, Bobby Mancuso, my longtime camera assistant, texted me to come by the set for a visit. I had not seen Vittorio for several years, and I’d not seen Bobby for even longer — since my ill-fated venture on The Producers. Though my visit had to be brief, I always welcome any chance to see Vittorio. Beyond the fact that he is one of the greatest artists of the camera, the simple truth is that it was because of Vittorio that I became a cinematographer.
When Bernardo Bertolucci’s Il Conformista was released, in late I970, I had not yet fully committed to a career at the camera. The allure of writing about film, its history and aesthetics, lingered deep in my literary-bent soul, but the promise of an emerging American New Wave became a reality with the summer 1969 release of Easy Rider. Such a new cinema would need its own André Bazin, and I felt sanguine, though cautious, about taking the call. Already well steeped in the glorious high points of 1960s European cinema — Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, Olmi, Godard, Truffaut, Varda, Demy, Rivette, Forman, Bresson, Rohmer and Malle (what an amazing epoch) — I was eager to see the new Bertolucci film, Il Conformista, adapted from the Moravia novel of the same title. Bertolucci was already being called the new Godard, the re-born Welles — any deft label easily tagged onto the latest Wunderkind of cinema.
One day, I had an early wrap on a commercial I was doing with cameraman Jimmy Dickson, my mentor who had helped me gain entry to the union after many futile efforts on my part. I decided to catch a late afternoon screening of Conformista at a Laemmle theater in Westwood. For a young cineaste like me, the unexpected dramatic intensity of the plot and the aesthetic/technical mastery of this film were overwhelming. The rush of philosophical ideas in the scene of Plato’s Cave, the austere impersonality and foreboding presence of empty fascist architecture, the suave sexual longeurs of Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli, and the rudderless louche passivity of Jean-Louis Trintignant gave me a cinematic frisson unlike any of the great movies I had seen in the previous decade.
I decided to stay and watch Conformista a second time. I phoned Jimmy at home during the middle of his dinner and implored him to come see the film. Somehow, I convinced him to drive from Burbank to Westwood for the last screening at 9 p.m. I went back inside for a second viewing and was swept away by the lush score of Georges Delerue and the impeccable art deco sets of Nando Scarfiotti. Everywhere I looked, all the elements that create a great movie seemed to have reached a perfect aesthetic and dramatic critical mass in this single work.
Jimmy arrived, and we both sat spellbound watching the film — for me, the third time in a single day. Driving home that evening in my beat-up Mercury Cougar convertible, which dripped chrome strips onto the street every time it hit a bump, I knew the course of my career was set. Two years later, I crashed a party for Storaro at the Chateau Marmont, and we met. I was still a camera assistant, but I never looked back. Today, nearly 50 years on, this movie continues to define for me everything that makes the movies the greatest art form of our time.
Here is an insightful discussion with Bertolucci and Storaro that features carefully selected clips from Conformista. Sadly, Scarfiotti was deceased when the interviews were shot.
Mishima at Camerimage 2017