Remembering Oswald “Ossie” Morris

ImageThey’re a funny bunch, film buffs, but mostly harmless. I count myself among them as a compiler of lists and an aficionado of movie oddments.

Thus it was that I settled into an armchair on Sunday to watch a TV re-run of John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King, a childhood favourite starring Sean Connery and Michael Caine as two rascals of the Raj circa 1880.

It’s because I’m a cinema junkie that I know the film was photographed by Ossie Morris, one of the great post-war British cinematographers. And it was with a sense of genuine sadness that I heard he’d died, aged 98, the very next day.

In pubs all over the country you can hear vigorous debates about football teams, politics, who’s in the news and celebrity gossip. Movies come into it, too. But how often do you hear an argument about the look of a film?

You may not have heard of Ossie Morris but you’ll have seen some of the 50-plus films on which he laboured as cinematographer. They include Huston’s love letter to high adventure – taken from a short story by Rudyard Kipling – as well as The Guns of Navarone, Sleuth, The Hill, The Man with the Golden Gun and, at the very end of his career, The Dark Crystal.

Morris won an Oscar for Fiddler on the Roof and was nominated for Oliver! Both shine brightly in a filmography scattered equally with diamonds, star directors and iconic actors such as Bogart, Mitchum and Olivier.

He was a custodian of some raucously funny stories. One involved Elizabeth Taylor and a pack of pork sausages smuggled onto the Roman set of The Taming of the Shrew. Another focused on Oliver Reed, then an up-and-coming star, on Oliver!

He put some of them into his memoir Huston, We Have a Problem. Having mixed with hellraisers, darlings and divas he could have been cutting, cruel and catty about his million-dollar colleagues.

Yet Morris was as gracious as he was modest and self-effacing. His favourite subject was his work and the places he had visited as an ace director of photography. Aged 93 he reminisced about days long past, admitting “I do like to talk about the old days”.

And he had a memory like a steel trap. Stories, anecdotes and memories came tumbling forth along with an incisive recall of the mechanics of the job and how problems were solved.

In a studio-driven industry in which stars scrabble to remain teetering on the top of the pile it is craftsmen like Ossie Morris who are the secret weapons behind the success of so many pictures.

And whilst filmmakers, writers, composers and even producers often soak up awards and the approbation of audiences it is often the lot of the cinematographer to be overlooked.

Morris, along with his contemporaries Freddie Francis, Chris Challis and Jack Cardiff, who was born 100 years ago this September, deserves to be recalled with warmth. Then again, his response would be simple: never mind me, just watch the films.

Picture: Ossie Morris and director John Huston on location for The Man Who Would be King.

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