Throughout May, the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago will honor all aspects of his legacy with “Haskell Wexler: impact, influence and iconography”, an eight-film retrospective of some of his most notable works (including a few shown in 35mm) to commemorate his centenary. As well as being an ideal introduction to the man and his work, the retrospective also serves as a mini-festival of some of the most important and groundbreaking works of his time.
Wexler was born in Chicago in 1922. After spending a year at the University of California, Berkley, he volunteered to join the Merchant Navy as the United States prepared to enter World War II. After working for the desegregation of his fellow Marines and receiving the Silver Star after his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of South Africa, Wexler returned to Chicago and decided to become a filmmaker. . With his father, Simon, he set up a studio in Des Plaines and made industrial films in local factories. The studio did not last long, but Wexler continued his cinematic ambitions by joining the International Photographers Guild in 1947 and working on films, television shows and television commercials. (He continued to do commercials throughout his career, eventually forming a commercial production company with fellow famed cinematographer Conrad Hall.) Oscar for Best Documentary Short.
In 1958, Wexler made his film debut as a cinematographer with “Stakeout on Dope Street”, beginning an association with up-and-coming filmmaker Irving Kershner which saw them reunite on “The Hoodlum Priest” (1961) and “Face in the Rain”. (1963) and establish a pattern of work several times with certain directors. In 1963, Wexler financed and shot “The Bus” (1965), a documentary that followed a group of Freedom Riders on a trip from San Francisco to Washington D.C., and landed his first job as the director of the still from big budget studio film, Elia Kazan’s acclaimed drama ‘America, America’. Following the success of this film, Wexler began working regularly in Hollywood, filming the political drama “The Best Man” (1964), the dark comedy “The Loved One” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), Mike Nichols’ hugely controversial adaptation of Edward Albee’s play. Although much of the initial publicity attention surrounding the film focused on the script’s then-shocking language, with Mike Nichols making his directorial debut and the presence of co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Wexler’s contributions were also celebrated. Wexler received one of the film’s five eventual Academy Awards for Cinematography – Black and White (the last year for this category before her and the Color category were merged into one).
Wexler’s next project, 1967 “In the heat of the Night” (May 8 and 19), also her first collaboration with director Norman Jewison, was even more meaningful and groundbreaking. The plot concerns Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a black investigator from Philadelphia who teams up with Gillespie (Rod Steiger), the city police chief of Sparta, Mississippi, to solve the murder of a wealthy local industrialist. to open racism. Having a black man at the center of a big Hollywood color production was still an anomaly at the time, and the filmmakers of the time failed to take into account that the standard lighting methods used by most film directors photography did not favor darker-skinned actors, often causing glare that left them slightly less distinct than their white counterparts. Wexler recognized this and took care to light his scenes in a way that addressed this issue. It made Poitier stand out as distinctly as Steiger and the rest of his co-stars, an achievement that not only made Poitier look as good as he ever would on screen, but subtly reinforces the idea. that it was a film about a black man. determined to stand out and do his job no matter what the people around him think. Incredibly, Wexler’s contributions weren’t among the seven Oscar nominations the film received – although it did receive the National Society of Film Critics’ Best Cinematography award – but one could argue that his work here is became the most influential of all his turns for the way he influenced the shooting of black actors.