I caught Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) on TCM last Sunday night and couldn’t help but marvel at the work of cinematographer Bruce Surtees. As the son of three-time Oscar winner Robert Surtees, ASC (Ben Hur, The Graduate, The Last Picture Show, The Sting) and a longtime collaborator of Eastwood’s, he certainly knew his way around a set. But his almost complete disregard of fill light in this movie struck me as one of the most unusual – and ballsiest – choices I’ve seen in a major studio release.
This is no exaggeration! Most of the action is set in high-contrast day\exteriors shot under clear skies with harsh sun and deep shadows. Nonetheless, I don’t think Surtees ever used so much as a bounce card to open up any of the inky blackness that results under those conditions. With the same approach carried into the few nights and interiors, the effect became similar to watching silhouettes executing a shadow play. To be sure, there was nothing wrong with my television’s settings nor the transmission of the image. There was nothing wrong with Surtees’ technique, either. As extreme as it was, it was consistent the whole way through and quickly settled in as a style of its own. I recall seeing TOJW during its initial release and being put off by this treatment. Unlike today, I was too young and unschooled to articulate what I found so unsettling in the photography, and soon moved on to more flatly filled fare.
Can you imagine the chatter among the studio executives in the screening room during the first week’s dailies? It must’ve been scorching, accustomed as they were to key levels of 400 foot candles or more. Gordon Willis, ASC has often been referred to as ‘The Prince of Darkness,’ but Surtees’ work here established a new standard of opacity. God bless him for hanging onto his job, but that’s what having the endorsement of a powerful director\star will do for you. Eastwood has always been a get-to-the-point, first-take-printing type of director, and has successfully followed his instincts for many years. On some level he knew this was the correct vector to follow, and Surtees became his active accomplice.
I can’t claim this sort of photography is completely to my taste, but I do admire it. Surtees took an enormous chance with a palette far more limited than what we have today, yet the narrative holds together perfectly. And when the audience showed up (which they did, in droves), that was the only thing that really mattered, wasn’t it?