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Overview for Robert Surtees
Robert Surtees

Robert Surtees



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Also Known As: Died: January 5, 1985
Born: August 9, 1906 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Covington, Kentucky, USA Profession: Cinematography ... director of photography


One of the most versatile cinematographers in film history, Robert L Surtees came up through the studio system, beginning as an assistant cameraman to Gregg Toland and Joseph Ruttenberg at Universal in the late 1920s before moving to MGM and establishing himself as a top-flight director of photography. Constantly keeping abreast of cutting-edge technology, he came to specialize in lush, vibrant, widescreen color lensing, but he also distinguished himself in black and white, winning his second Academy Award for "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952) and returning triumphantly to it for Peter Bogdanovich's "The Last Picture Show" (1971), capitalizing on a deep focus not permitted by color to make the dusty plains and small town locations seem all the more desolate. Between 1944 and 1978, he received 16 Oscar nominations, twice competing with himself in the same category, and though his three wins came during his tenure at MGM, he enjoyed equal success as a freelance artist, collecting 10 nominations in the employ of other studios.

Surtees' first Oscar-nominated film, Mervyn LeRoy's black-and-white "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" (1944, scripted by Dalton Trumbo), teamed him with producer Sam Zimbalist, later the producer of "King Solomon's Mines" (1950), which brought Surtees his first Academy Award for his superb Technicolor renderings of the steaming jungles, burning deserts and snow-capped mountains of the Dark Continent. The standout sequence was the animal stampede, but the overall beauty of the film convinced the studio to take the precedent-setting step of having no musical score, allowing the sounds and natural rhythms of the jungle to suffice, a decision they repeated for John Ford's "Mogambo" (1953), another Zimbalist-produced picture requiring Surtees to return and photograph Africa's splendor. He also received an Oscar nomination for the Zimbalist-produced "Quo Vadis" (1951), but the high point of their collaboration was undoubtedly William Wyler's "Ben-Hur" (1959). Shooting in the then-new Camera 65 process provided state-of-the-art clarity and color definition in the intimate scenes, not to mention the spectacular sea battle and incomparable chariot race. Its 11 Oscar wins validated Zimbalist who died of a heart attack as the film neared completion.

Though Surtees and director Fred Zinnemann may have been a little tentative in their use of the new Todd-AO widescreen color process when filming the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Oklahoma!" (1955), the panoramic shots against the skyline and the exciting scene where the buggy careened wildly through the countryside behind runaway horses used the medium to maximum effect. Before severing ties with MGM. Surtees also proved a virtuoso at lighting seascapes, particularly at dusk, for the remake of "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1962), picking up yet another Academy Award nomination. In 1967, when rules changed to award a single Oscar for Best Cinematography (instead of one each for color and b&w), Surtees received two nominations ("Doctor Dolittle" and "The Graduate"), a feat he would duplicate in 1971 ("Summer of '42" and "The Last Picture Show"), and for the Oscar-winning Best Picture "The Sting" (1973) he recreated the period by filming in brownish tones, lending a slight rotogravure look to the film. As his career wound down, films like "A Star Is Born" (1976) and "The Turning Point" (1977) continued to win him Oscar nods and reinforce his reputation as arguably the most dynamic, subtle and accomplished cinematographer in the game.

Surtees enjoyed multiple associations with more than a dozen distinguished directors, never aligning himself particularly with any one man's vision. He collaborated most frequently with John Sturges and Richard Mulligan, working on four films with each. Although none of the pictures with Sturges garnered him awards, the first two were robust Westerns ("Escape from Fort Bravo" 1953, The Law and Jake Wade" 1958), followed by the Western satire "The Hallelujah Trail" and the overlooked suspense gem "The Satan Bug" (both 1965), adapted from an Alistair MacLean novel by James Clavell and Edward Anhalt. "Summer of '42" marked his first association with Mulligan, and the soft, poetic Deluxe Color photography for their second teaming, the supernaturally suspenseful "The Other" (1972), once again testified to his ability to shoot superbly in any style. He closed out his career with Mulligan on "Blood Brothers" and "Same Time, Next Year" (both 1978), taking home his final Oscar nomination for the latter. Surtees passed the mantle to his son Bruce, whose resume as a director of photography includes more than a dozen pictures with Clint Eastwood and Oscar-nominated work on "Lenny" (1973).

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