The cinematographer on “Unforgiven” was Jack N. Green who had previously worked with Eastwood on “Heartbreak Ridge,” “Bird,” “White Hunter, Black Heart,” and “The Rookie.” Eastwood, being such a prolific filmmaker, has worked with multiple talented cinematographers in his directorial career, and a look over his filmography as a whole reveals a gradual visual shift. Eastwood’s earlier movies tend to be more sharply photographed, with clear, bold earth tones. His later films often feature a softly focused, steelier, washed-out aesthetic. “Unforgiven” is perhaps more of the former camp, but marks the beginning of that visual shift.
In a 1992 interview with Cahiers du Cinéma (reprinted in Cinephilia & Beyond), Eastwood acknowledged that, while making a period piece, one might find a natural impulse toward using natural light; a sheen of Hollywood artificiality can be more palatable. He also talked about working with Green to achieve a hazier, more overcast look for “Unforgiven.” Eastwood recalled:
“There are some of my films that I conceive more as brightly lit films, and so you have the lighting I asked Jack for in ‘White Hunter, Black Heart,’ which isn’t a particularly dark film. ‘Unforgiven’ is quite simply a ‘stormy’ film … What you have to remember is that it takes place at a time when people didn’t have much to use for lighting, and the only artificial light came from oil lamps. So if in shooting a night scene we had decided to flood the action with light, people would have done right to ask us where all that light was coming from.”
While “Unforgiven” is not literally stormy, with mostly clear skies throughout, anyone who has seen it can understand the “darker” comment about the quality of the light in the film.
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