For more than two decades, Walter Lassally, who has died aged 90, was the most influential cinematographer in Britain. The Academy Award-winning cameraman became one of the key figures in the British New Wave Free Cinema movement of the 1950s. Best known for his work on such unconventional working-class films as A Taste of Honey (1961) and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Lassally scored arguably his greatest success with an Oscar award for Zorba the Greek (1964). He worked on more than 50 feature films and countless documentaries as well as TV commercials
Lassally reflected in his autobiography Itinerant Cameraman his vision of becoming one of the world’s leading cinematographers. His destiny was realised years later, when, after his Oscar and BAFTA Film Award for Heat and Dust plus a BSC Award nomination for The Bostonians in 1984, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Cinematographers in 2008.
Born in Berlin, Walter Lassally was the only child of a German father and Polish mother, Protestants with Jewish ancestry. After the Nazi rise to power in 1939, the family sought refuge in England. However, with Britain’s impending war with Germany, his father was arrested and interned on the Isle of Man as a potential German agent, alongside thousands of Jewish refugees. After his release, the family settled in Richmond, London where young Walter — who watched his father make industrial training films — decided at the age of 15 that he wanted to be a film cameraman. Having finished school, he secured his first job as a clapper boy at London’s Riverside Studios .
After the war, Lassally, an enthusiastic follower of the Free Cinema movement, began working as a cameraman on documentary shorts capturing working-class life. By 1954, he was a director of photography on his first feature film, Another Sky, shot on location in Morocco, followed by A Girl in Black (1956) - the first of six films with the legendary Mihalis Kakogiannis. After this came Lindsay Anderson’s portrayal of Covent Garden, Every Day Except Christmas (1957) and Karel Reisz’s We are the Lambeth Boys (1959). Then he graduated to Director of Photography on the gritty British classic A Taste of Honey, starring Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan, which reached a wide audience, shot in the hard-edged monochrome style he had honed in his documentaries. It defined a particular chapter in British social history, winning four BAFTA awards, including best film .
Lassally’s collaboration with the director Tony Richardson consolidated his position in British cinema with The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner followed by Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones, starring Albert Finney, the first film of its size to be shot totally on location and in colour .
However, Lassally’s chef d’oeuvre, Zorba the Greek, was still to come. Filmed in English and set in Crete, again in monochrome, and enhanced by the music of Mikis Theodorakis, Lassally’s skilled photography ranked it among the most stunning ever shot in black-and-white. It starred Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates, who plays a dour Englishman introduced to Greek culture by Quinn as the eponymous hero. It won three Oscars , including Lassally’s award for best black-and-white cinematography, and it had a huge impact on Greek tourism.
During the 1970s and ’80s, Lassally developed a close association with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory with whom he shot three American films: Savages (1972), The Wild Party (1975) and The Bostonians. His two Indian films were Autobiography of a Princess (1975) and Heat and Dust (1982). His last film was The Ballad of the Sad Café (1991).
Lassally also engaged in still photography, and from 1988 – 1992 taught at the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. After his wife Nadia died in 1994 , Lassally settled in Crete – in a villa close to the beach where he shot the Zorba dance scene. He spoke fluent Greek, French and German, which gave him a certain charm as a well-known figure in the surrounding villages of Stavros and Kalathas .
As a tribute, he gave his Oscar to the taverna on the beach where it was put on display — a reminder of the film’s most enduring sequence. Lassally had reflected on life in his autobiography There is only Now. Walter Lassally was just that – a man of action and destiny.
Dr Geoffrey Buchler
Walter Lassally: born December 18, 1926. Died October 23, 2017