Men Who Shot the Movies: Surtees and Stradling

Hollywood is a breeding ground for talent.  So, I guess it is not unusual for sons to follow fathers in the business, but in the field of cinematography, it is less common.  The names Surtees and Stradling are quite famous in the business of photographing the movies.  The combined list of films they worked on is amazing, as is the list of awards they are associated with.  Count the number of Surtees and Stradling films you’ve seen.

In the world of movie making, the role of director of photography or cinematographer is the person who decides what and how the camera photographs the scene.  Lenses, cameras, camera placement, tracking, and all elements of lighting are under the domain of this person.  Directors have some say-so obviously, but the guild has definitions for each function and responsibility and the cinematographer is a big wheel on the movie set.

Robert Surtees began his career as an assistant camera operator in 1931 on a film called The Naughty Flirt, and officially became director of photography in 1943 with Lost Angel.  The next year he would work on Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and spend the rest of the decade perfecting his craft.  The 1950s were important years for Surtees, who would excel in action films like Quo Vadis, Mogambo and Escape From Fort Bravo, before scoring the job of the musical Oklahoma!, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award.  He would close the decade working on Ben Hur, and win an Academy Award for his camera work and color photography. That film had a nine minute chariot scene.

Robert Surtees

The 1960s were an uneven decade for Surtees, he would immediately work on Mutiny on the Bounty, for which he would again be nominated for an Academy Award.  He worked on minor films until 1967, when he is credited with Doctor Doolittle and The Graduate, two films at opposite ends of the spectrum, but he scored Academy Award nominations for both.

In the 1970s, toward the end of his career, he some of his finest work in many very high profile films including: Summer of ’42, The Last Picture Show, The Sting, The Great Waldo Pepper, The Hindenburg, A Star is Born and the Turning Point.  He was nominated for Academy Awards for several of those films.

Surtees worked with some of the cutting edge photographic styles of the era.  Ben Hur was filmed with large screen Camera 65 process with anamorphic lenses.  It is a film that has grandeur and incredible detail.  Oklahoma! was first film shot in 70 mm Todd-AO ultra wide-screen format, and has that rich color from side to side of the screen.  The Last Picture Show is shot in gritty black & white, which feels as windswept as the mesa, and old-fashioned like old Kodak prints.  Summer of ’42 has a dreamlike look, like from a distant memory, and The Sting was filmed with sepia tones, reminiscent of photography of the era the film takes place.  No wonder he was the man who could give you the look you needed.

In the late 1960s, Bruce Surtees, Robert’s son, began work as a camera operator, and developed a relationship with director Don Siegel, and by association, with Clint Eastwood.  Surtees would handle the photography for fourteen Eastwood films and develop the nickname, “The Prince of Darkness” for his use of shadow and low light to evoke mood, especially in his Eastwood collaborations.

Bruce Surtees, right, with Clint Eastwood
Clint Eastwood with Bruce Surtees

His first film as director of photograph was on The Beguiled, followed by Play Misty for Me, Dirty Harry, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid, and then Joe Kidd and High Plains Drifter.  An iconic start for Surtees.  Later in the decade he would work on Lenny (Academy Award nomination), Night Moves, The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Shootist and Escape from Alcatraz.

The 1980s would continue to bring more films with Eastwood and key films like Risky Business, Bad Boys and Beverly Hills Cop.  Toward the end of the decade his career would downshift as he took smaller films and eventually moved into television, before retiring from film to travel.  He and I corresponded in his later years, he sent me a photo of the trailer that he and his wife used to see the country.  After he passed away, the man who bought his trailer got in touch me with and told me that a collage of his career that I had made and sent to Surtees was framed and displayed in his kitchen.  In his email to me, he said that he just lost interest in Hollywood and decided to walk away from movie making.  He was raised in a film family and had experienced much in his career, he was done, and wanted to spend his time traveling the country with his camera.

Harry Stradling, Sr., was nominated for 14 Academy Awards in his long career, winning for The Picture of Dorian Gray and My Fair Lady. He got his start in 1920 working on The Devil’s Garden.  Frustrated with working on only short films, he went to Europe during the 1930s before returning to Hollywood later in the decade as war clouds formed over Europe.

stradling sr
Harry Stradling, Sr.

Back in Hollywood he worked regularly; dramas, comedies, action films, he could photograph anything.  In 1941 he worked with Alfred Hitchcock on Suspicion.   Hitchcock could be a taskmaster, he had detailed storyboards of his movies, first in his head, then as drawings.   In 1951, he went to work on A Street Car Named Desire, and made a classic in its rich black & white photography.  This film was followed by Hans Christian Andersen, Johnny Guitar, Guys and Dolls, A Face in the Crowd, The Pajama Game, The Young Philadelphians, Gypsy, My Fair Lady, Funny Girl, Hello Dolly!, and ended his career with An Owl and the Pussycat.  Stradling helmed films in rich Technicolor and glorious black & white.  His films could be serious and moody, or bright and magnificent.

Harry Stradling, Jr., overlapped his father’s career in big studio films, but cut his teeth in television Westerns (Gunsmoke, Cimarron Strip) in the 1960s.  Many of his early films were Westerns (Welcome to Hard Times, Support Your Local Gunfighter, Dirty Dingus McGee, Little Big Man, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing).  In addition to more Westerns

stradling jr
Dustin Hoffman with Harry Stradling, Jr.

(Bite the Bullet), he mixed in war films (Midway, Go Tell the Spartans), love stories (The Way We Were), musicals (1776), comedies (Buddy Buddy, SOB, Blind Date) and action films (Convoy).  Stradling, like his father, had the sensitivity to work effectively in different genres. His films do not seem to have a predominant style but his early work in television seems to have provided him an efficiency but not at the expense of quality. If you look at his 1970s work, there is a richness of color and lighting tone that seems fresh more than 40 years later. The Stradling family tree continues: his sons, John and Bob are camera operators in the film industry.

both stradlings
Harry Jr. and Harry Sr.


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