Bruce Surtees

In the midst of yesterday’s Oscar hubbub I was alerted (via the Twitter feed of the excellent writer Peter Avellino) to the death of the cinematographer Bruce Surtees. His career was laudable and his passing can’t go unremarked.

Surtees came up in the family business, first working as a camera operator for his father, the great Robert Surtees, then moving into the big chair for Don Siegel on THE BEGUILED – not a bad first show, to say the least.  He’ll be remembered primarily as Clint Eastwood’s trusted collaborator as Eastwood embarked on on his directing career, and he should be; I believe him to be the equal to Leone, Dallamano and Delli Colli in his appraisal of Eastwood’s particular line and angularity.  Eastwood bathed in a Surtees shadow was, is, an evocative and complicated sight.

The compositions in THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID and, of course, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES, are painterly without being fastidious, overstudied. And that quality of light, the cold dawns! The chill of the forests and scrubs in the first half of JOSEY WALES could make you want to throw a blanket over yourself on an an August afternoon.

Surtees was called the Prince of Darkness and, even if one believes that moniker to be now and forever the property of Gordon Willis, one has to see the point of that. But Surtees never lost bodies and faces in murk, as his successor at Eastwood’s right hand, Jack Green, would. Surtees was nothing if not a careful craftsman, one with surpassing sensitivity to the crag and curve of a face. (This fine touch showed in his lighting of black actors, who find themselves having to be constantly watchful of lighting and makeup artists who are not so mindful. Gordon Parks trusted Surtees with the camera for LEADBELLY – enough said.)

His work in LENNY is a high mark of monochrome cinematography in the modern era. The smoke in the spotlights and the like is obviously money, but the present day documentary work, the washed out light, the aged characters, is every bit as good as the dominant chiaroscuro.

Surtees gave us a lot: the varied stagings of performance in LENNY, LEADBELLY, SPARKLE, HONKY TONK MAN and his half of MOVIE MOVIE; the warmth of BLUME IN LOVE; the black waters of NIGHT MOVES; more dawn haze in BIG WEDNESDAY; his collaborations with Paul Brickman on the splendid RISKY BUSINESS and MEN DON’T LEAVE.

Remember Bruce Surtees. Watch the films.

(Two notes regarding the Brickman films: Surtees is co-credited with Rey Villalobos on RISKY BUSINESS. The comings and goings of light in the El scene seem very much like a Surtees thing – if any reader knows otherwise, do please weigh in below. Also, I couldn’t get my hands on a copy of the quite handsomely shot MEN DON’T LEAVE; the provenance of the screen capture above is Ed Copeland’s blog, specifically an awfully thoughtful piece on that film, a piece which I highly recommend.)