THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS: BRUCE SURTEES

July 28, 2009

I remember one thing I wanted to do is get a shot in darkness illuminated by a single candle. The old way to get a picture of someone walking with a candle was to set up a complicated series of controlled lights, dimmers clicking on, synchronized to the step of the person with the candle. […] I didn’t want that kind of thing again. So I picked young Bruce Surtees, and said, “You’ve got to do it without dimmers.” If I’d said that to an old-timer, he would have said goodbye. But Bruce would try to find a way to do anything I asked him. For that candle scene, he put a little bulb in the base of the candleholder and we shot. It took guts. We realized we might get nothing, and we knew we would have to intensify it, send it through a special lab. When we saw the film, most of the screen was black except for a circle of light showing the girl’s face. 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.’ Don Siegel on The Beguiled [From ‘Don Siegel: Director’ by Stuart M. Kaminsky, 1974.]

This “young” cinematographer Bruce Surtees turned 72 yesterday, and it’s time to celebrate his remarkable career. He’s been on my mind lately, as for much of the last year I’ve been familiarizing myself with the early directorial efforts of Clint Eastwood.  Surtees was his go-to cinematographer from Play Misty For Me (1971) to Pale Rider (1985, see top image from DVD Beaver), where the Malpaso (Eastwood’s production company) house style was established: location shooting draped in deep chiaroscuro blacks paired with hard, desaturated light (plus lots of back-lighting, and no fill lights). It was during this period he was dubbed “The Prince of Darkness.” [Suzi points out that Gordon Willis had the same nickname, but both are worthy!] He did great work with other directors, with Arthur Penn on Night Moves, Bob Fosse on Lenny (which earned him an Oscar nomination) and Sam Fuller on White Dog, but his Clint work is what he’ll forever be associated with.

If Bruce was the Prince of Darkness, then his dad Robert would be one of the Kings of Golden Age Color. He had a dizzying career, acting as an assistant to Gregg Toland before lensing Vicente Minnelli’s operatic satire The Bad and the Beautiful as well the popping colors of Oklahoma! and George Cukor’s Les Girls . He made his name on these latter stunners, later winning an Oscar for Ben-Hur in 1959. He shifted gears in his late period, opting for more intimate dramas and subdued palettes like The Graduate (1967), the 70s dramas of Robert Mulligan (from Summer of ’42 (1971) through Same Time, Next Year (1978)), and the supple B&W of The Last Picture Show (1971).

For his gig on Mark Robson’s Lost Command (1966), Robert hired Bruce as one of his camera operators. Foot firmly in the door, Bruce was then hired on in the same position for Don Siegel, where he worked on Coogan’s Bluff (1968, he’s operating the camera during the motorcycle chase near the Cloisters) and Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970). Eastwood told Michael Henry that on the latter shoot, there were some communication problems with the legendary Mexican DP Gabriel Figueroa, and that Surtees was an invaluable interlocutor. Eastwood and Siegel agreed they would elevate him to DP as soon as they could.

It didn’t take long, and with Siegel’s The Beguiled in 1971, Surtees was hired as director of photography. The opening quote refers to Surtees’ inventive work on this Civil War American gothic. Leeched of color, aside from fetid greens and browns, the palette is close to the sepia tone of Matthew Brady’s photographs, and is loaded with examples of low-key lighting, including the one Siegel emphasizes. It is a tale of barely repressed sexual hysteria, as a Southern female boarding school nurses Clint’s Yank back to health. It looks like Surtees used the candle trick that Siegel discusses multiple times, as various girls sneak into Clint’s room with that one pinprick of light. They are soon enveloped by the deep blacks in Surtees’ photography, subsumed in their awakening sexual desires.

Even early on, Surtees was adept at matching lighting to the emotional tenor of the scene, as his protege (and future Eastwood DP) Jack Green (Unforgiven) can attest. Green was recently profiled in American Cinematographer magazine:

He recalls cinematographer Bruce Surtees (Pale Rider, Tightrope) “standing on a set and giving instructions to the gaffer using his hand as if it were a paintbrush. You would swear there was paint coming out of his fingers! Bruce was a lighting minimalist. If he walked onto a set and saw four lights burning, he’d tell the gaffer to turn one off. I realized the fewer lights you had, the fewer complications there were. It was fascinating to see how Bruce expressed himself to his gaffer and electricians. To this day, I try to duplicate that as best I can.” Green listened to how Surtees and Eastwood would describe lighting in emotional terms. “In Pale Rider, Clint was talking about the scene where the bad guys are standing in the mayor’s house at a fireplace, planning what they’re going to do. He described them as ‘the devil’s advocates,’ and he wanted them surrounded by this boiling firelight. I learned from him and Bruce how to think about lighting in an emotional way.”

He painted with light, as John Alton so poetically phrased it. After crystallizing the hard blue light of Dirty Harry, Surtees would elaborate his gothically dark approach further on Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty For Me. That film, pitched at a similar level of sexual hysteria, etches the phenomenally unhinged performance by Jessica Walter out of backlit shadows and unnaturally hard California light. In ’73, with High Plains Drifter, Surtees shot the landscape with unusually wide apertures, so that, as Ric Gentry puts it in the collected Clint Eastwood Interviews, “everything in the town appears visually scorched by the light, almost flaming.” Appropriate for a town that Eastwood’s ghost rennames HELL.

The Malpaso image doesn’t fully cohere until Outlaw Josey Wales, in 1976. There, with a few more infernal notes, would be the palette Eastwood and his collaborators painted with the rest of their career. Eastwood told Ric Gentry some of the tricks from that film’s particular vision:

“Bruce came up with a suggestion that i thought was very innovative,” Eastwood recalls. “At that time they were going to stop manufacturing a certain film stock, a much slower stock than is used presently. We were scheduled to begin shooting in the fall of the year, which is a great time to shoot a Western because the sun stays low in the sky, though you do run the risk of an early winter setting in. But Bruce said, ‘Why don’t we use this slow stock? We’ll have to use a little more light for certain scenes, but for outdoors it gets richer blacks. The only trouble is they’re running out of it.’

Now, I love rich blacks in a film. I can’t stand it when the blacks go grey and come out milky. In fact, I worked with one cinematographer who wanted to force everything, but I didn’t have the patience for the way the blacks would curdle and go milky. But Bruce doesn’t do that. He has a hard light effect and I wanted to backlight the whole movie. He knew what I liked, the blacks and the contrast, and he wanted to use this stock.”

Eastwood goes on to say that they shot sunsets for sunrises, to “get that very heavy cross light”, and which adds heightened sense of decay in this story of a man haunted and hunted by violence. By the time Pale Rider came around in 1985, Surtees had played around with the dark gleaming surfaces of the surprisingly existential thriller mechanics of Firefox (1982, the sullen physicality of this movie could be called Bressonian), the dusty penumbras of Honkytonk Man (1982), and the moody nightscapes of the severely underrated Dirty Harry vehicle, Sudden Impact (1983, would you believe me if I said it was his Vertigo?). This is without even mentioning his work with other directors, including the epochal fogged Chicago in Risky Business (1983). But with Pale Rider Surtees reached the limit of his style with Eastwood. A self-conscious homage to the Westerns of Boetticher and Leone, it’s perhaps Eastwood’s most stylized work (see the lineup of duster jackets). It has the feel of a summing up, and for Surtees, it was to be his final collaboration with the director. His assistant, Jack Green, would take over up through Space Cowboys in 2000, after which Tom Stern took the helm. There’s an amazing continuity to Eastwood’s production team over the years.

So here’s to you, Prince of Darkness. Happy Birthday.

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