Wednesday, February 29, 2012


The great if unheralded cinematographer Bruce Surtees has died at the age of 74.

His dad was the Golden Age cameraman Robert Surtees, who toiled at MGM at the close of its Dream Factory days, but the son's work would be the polar opposite of the father's easily read Classical Hollywood style.  His most frequent collaborator, Clint Eastwood, dubbed him the Prince Of Darkness for a reason.

After serving as an apprentice to his father and others, Surtees' first film as director of photography was Don Siegel's The Beguiled, the first of several outstanding collaborations, including Dirty Harry, The Shootist and Escape From Alcatraz.  He provided tabloid squalor for Bob Fosse's Lenny, low-key naturalism for Arthur Penn's great Night Moves and a touch of glamour for Stanley Donen's wonderful Movie, Movie.  Why he didn't become one of the superstar cinematographers of the seventies, joining the ranks of Laszlo Kovacs or Vilmos Zsigmond or Gordon Willis, is frankly beyond me.  He could shoot in any style, and it always looked good.

But his preferred style was the underlit naturalism of his work with Eastwood, one of the great director/cameramen collaborations in movie history.  In particular, their work on three great Westerns--High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Pale Rider--feature some absolutely stunning imagery.

High Plains Drifter has a strange, stylized appearance, its colors just slightly oversaturated.  Pale Rider, by contrast, is almost monochromatic, its overcast skies and drab clothing giving it a feeling of black-and-white in color.  And The Outlaw Josey Wales--well, look, I pretty much consider it as close to perfection as any movie ever made, and Surtees' visuals are surely one of the major reasons for that.  I can't think of any film that so subtly conveys the passing of seasons, the feeling of moving from place to place.  Every frame is gorgeous and gritty in roughly equal measure.

Sadly, Pale Rider would be his last film for Eastwood.  He'd work with other good directors in the eighties, like Sam Fuller and Paul Brickman, but his A-list days were behind him.  He wound down his career toiling away on TV movies obviously unworthy of his talent.  But at least he kept working, a pro to the end.