Bruce Surtees, cinematographer on more than 50 films, including Bob Fosse's "Lenny," for which he Surtees was Oscar nominated, and Clint Eastwood pics "Dirty Harry," "High Plains Drifter," "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and Escape From Alcatraz," died Thursday, Feb. 23. He was 74.
Surtees made 14 films starring Eastwood, most of them directed by Eastwood. They began their association on films directed by Don Siegel including "Coogan's Bluff" (1968) and 1970's "Two Mules for Sister Sara," on which Surtees was the camera operator; "The Beguiled" (1971) (Surtees' first credit as d.p.); and "Dirty Harry" (1971). When Eastwood made his directorial debut in 1971 with "Play Misty for Me," he chose Surtees as cinematographer. They also worked together on "Honkytonk Man," "Firefox," Sudden Impact" and "Pale Rider," all directed and starring Eastwood; "Tightrope," starring Eastwood; and 1995's "The Stars Fell on Henrietta," exec produced by Eastwood.
Left: Bruce Surtees
Left: Bruce Surtees
Surtees, whose propensity for low-ley lighting led to the sobriquet "the prince of darkness," drew an Oscar nomination in 1975 for his work on Bob Fosse's critically hailed Lenny Bruce biopic that starred Dustin Hoffman. The film was shot in black and white.
He was also praised for his work on Arthur Penn's 1975 film "Night Moves" and Gordon Parks' "Leadbelly" (1976). Among his many other film credits were "Risky Business" and "Beverly Hills Cop."Surtees also worked in television and was Emmy nominated in 1999 for his work on the A&E telepic "Dash and Lilly." Other credits included "Murder in a Small Town," "That Championship Season" and "American Tragedy."He was the son of a cinematographer, Robert L. Surtees, who won Oscars for "King Solomon's Mines," "The Bad and the Beautiful" and "Ben Hur" and was nominated a total of 14 times, including four years in a row in the late 1970s. The elder Surtees died in 1985.
Bruce Mohr Powell Surtees was born in Los Angeles and educated at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. He began his career as a technician at Disney and early on worked for his father as camera operator on films including "The Hallelujah Trail" and "The Lost Command."
Surtees is survived by his wife, Carol.
The American cinematographer Bruce Surtees, who has died aged 74, became known as "the prince of darkness" for his muted and often lugubrious style of lighting. However, while Surtees was well-suited to the nocturnal street scenes of Dirty Harry (1971), the Rembrandt-esque arrangements of The Beguiled (1971) and the claustrophobic interiors of Escape from Alcatraz (1979), all directed by Don Siegel, he was also at home with the wide open spaces of the western Joe Kidd (1972) and the surfing movie Big Wednesday (1978).
His deceptively simple black-and-white scheme for Lenny (1974), Bob Fosse's semi-documentary biopic of the comedian Lenny Bruce, earned Surtees an Oscar nomination. The film's compelling stand-up sequences owe almost as much to the expert lighting of the nightclub as they do to Dustin Hoffman's performance. As Hoffman paces the stage, chased by his own shadow, the light captures wisps of cigarette smoke and almost carries the smell of bourbon.
Cinematography was the Surtees family trade. Bruce was born in Los Angeles, where his father, Robert, was starting out as a camera assistant and operator. Robert had worked regularly with the acclaimed cinematographer Hal Mohr, and chose Mohr for one of Bruce's middle names. When Bruce was a teenager, Robert hit his stride as a director of photography, winning his first Oscar for King Solomon's Mines (1950).
Bruce attended the Art Centre College of Design in Pasadena, gained experience as a technician for Disney and assisted his father on films including The Hallelujah Trail (1965). He had proved to be a reliable camera operator – memorably capturing a motorcycle chase in Coogan's Bluff (1968).Above: Bruce Surtees working with Don Siegel on Coogan's Bluff
Siegel gave him the chance to graduate to the role of cinematographer on his US civil war film The Beguiled. In his autobiography, A Siegel Film, the director remembered Surtees's response to this offer: "Bruce's face became flushed, his breathing heavy … Tears appeared in his eyes and he spoke with great difficulty." Surtees rose to the technical challenges of The Beguiled, which starred Clint Eastwood as an injured soldier recuperating in a house full of women whom he seducesWhile many mainstream cinematographers employ three or more principal sources of light in a set-up, Surtees experimented with fewer and used them at lower levels. He achieved increased depth and contrast in the process, as well as creating stronger shadows. For one sequence in The Beguiled, he relied on a solitary bulb to replicate candlelight. Siegel was thrilled: "We didn't care that it was black, that it wouldn't show up on a television screen when the studio sold the picture to some network in a couple of years. Screw them. We liked it. It was exciting."
Surtees's drab palette complemented The Beguiled's gothic tone, Louisiana locations and the montage of sepia war photographs used in its title sequence. The film was a box-office disappointment but ensured his lengthy collaboration with Siegel and Eastwood. In Dirty Harry, a deserted sports stadium was eerily lit and shrouded in mist for the scene in which Eastwood's cop confronts the serial killer Scorpio. Eastwood's directorial debut, Play Misty for Me (1971), was shot around Carmel, California, where the star later became mayor and Surtees's own family also settled. His breezy location photography – including scenes at the Monterey jazz festival – matched the star's freewheeling role as Dave, a late-night DJ, but he introduced heavier shadows as Dave is threatened by his jilted lover. The film was made for a modest cost with a small crew and Surtees's efficiency was valued by Eastwood, who has always prided himself on bringing in films on time and under budget.
For Eastwood's High Plains Drifter (1973), influenced by the star's spaghetti westerns, Surtees favoured a wide aperture to ensure as much light as possible was captured in the Eastern Sierra setting of California. In the opening and closing sequences, he achieved a spectral light as Eastwood's mysterious stranger appears and disappears amid the shimmering desert haze. Eastwood's later westerns The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Pale Rider (1985) were shot in autumn, with Surtees exploiting the softer light and low sun. On Escape from Alcatraz, his last film with Siegel, the minimal lighting matched the grey and blue prison uniforms. After Pale Rider, he was replaced as Eastwood's regular cinematographer by his former camera operator Jack Green.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, Surtees lit leading men such as Gene Hackman (in the noirish Night Moves), John Wayne (in his final role, in The Shootist) and Laurence Olivier (in the much-derided epic Inchon). Major actors were not always pleased with the prospect of languishing in Surtees's signature shadows, but the glossy, bright lighting he provided for Risky Business (co-photographed with Reynaldo Villalobos, 1983) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984) enhanced two of the decade's biggest box-office stars, Tom Cruise and Eddie Murphy. In his later years, Surtees could still be relied upon to give an extra polish to middling material such as The Crush (1993), Corrina, Corrina (1994) and the television film Dash and Lilly (1999), the last of which brought him an Emmy nomination.
Surtees is survived by his wife, Carol, and a daughter, Suzanne, from his first marriage.
Bruce Mohr Powell Surtees, cinematographer, born 3 August 1937; died 23 February 2012