Cinematographer. Nationality: American. Born: Del Rio, Tennessee, 26 May 1905. Education: Attended school in Etowah, Tennessee. Family: Married; two daughters. Career: Worked as messenger boy in a bank then camera assistant for Fox in mid-1920s, and Famous Players-Lasky in late 1920s; 1944—first film as cinematographer, Sailor's Holiday; 1944–66—worked for Columbia; then freelance.
Awards: Academy Award for From Here to Eternity, 1953, and Bonnie and Clyde, 1967. Died: In Goleta, California, 29 May 1983.
Films as Cameraman:
Clive of India (Boleslawsky); The Informer (Ford)
Foreign Correspondent (Hitchcock)
That Hamilton Woman (Lady Hamilton) (A. Korda)
Cover Girl (C. Vidor)
Films as Cinematographer:
Sailor's Holiday (Berke); The Soul of a Monster (Jason); U-Boat Prisoner (Dangerous Mists) (Landers); Kansas City Kitty (Lord); The Unwritten Code (Rotsten); Tahiti Nights (Jason);
Eadie Was a Lady (Dreifuss); I Love a Mystery (Levin); Eve Knew Her Apples (Jaswon); The Fighting Guardsman (Levin); Blonde from Brooklyn (Lord); The Gay Senorita (Dreifuss); The Girl of the Limberlost (M. Ferrer); My Name Is Julia Ross (Lewis)
Meet Me on Broadway (Jason); The Notorious Lone Wolf (Lederman); A Close Call for Boston Blackie (Lady of Mystery) (Landers); Night Editor (The Trespasser) (Levin); Gallant Journey (Wellman); So Dark the Night (Lewis)
Johnny O'Clock (Rossen); Framed (Paula) (Wallace)
To the Ends of the Earth (Stevenson); The Sign of the Ram (J. Sturges); The Gallant Blade (Levin) (co)
Knock on Any Door (Ray); Undercover Man (Lewis); The Reckless Moment (Ophüls); And Baby Makes Three (Levin)
All the King's Men (Rossen); Father Is a Bachelor (Foster and Berlin); Convicted (Levin); In a Lonely Place (Ray); Emergency Wedding (Jealousy) (Buzzell)
Sirocco (Bernhardt); Two of a Kind (Levin); The Family Secret (Levin); Scandal Sheet (The Dark Page) (Karlson); Boots Malone (Dieterle) (2nd unit)
The Sniper (Dmytryk); Assignment Paris (Parrish) (co)
From Here to Eternity (Zinnemann)
Human Desire (F. Lang); Private Hell 36 (Siegel); The Bamboo Prison (Seiler); The Violent Men (Rough Company) (Maté)
Tight Spot (Karlson); Count Three and Pray (G. Sherman); Three Stripes in the Sun (The Gentle Sergeant) (Murphy); Battle Stations (Seiler)
The Harder They Fall (Robson); Storm Center (Taradash); Nightfall (Tourneur)
The Strange One (End as a Man) (Garfein); The Brothers Rico (Karlson); Decision at Sundown (Boetticher); Not One Shall Die (Rich)
The True Story of Lynn Stuart (Seiler); Screaming Mimi (Oswald); Me and the Colonel (Glenville)
Gidget (Wendkos); They Came to Cordura (Seigel); Edge of Eternity (Karlson); Let No Man Write My Epitaph (Leacock)
Cry for Happy (Marshall); Homicidal (Castle); Mr. Sardonicus (Castle)
Birdman of Alcatraz (Frankenheimer); Kid Galahad (Karlson)
Four for Texas (Aldrich) (2nd unit)
Flight from Ashiya (Anderson) (co); Good Neighbor Sam (Swift)
King Rat (Forbes)
The Silencers (Karlson); How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (Swift)
Bonnie and Clyde (Penn); The Ambushers (Levin) (co)
The Split (Fleming)
Where It's At (Kanin); The Learning Tree (Parks); Some Kind of a Nut (Kanin) (co); The Madwoman of Chaillot (Forbes) (co); Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came (Averback)
Halls of Anger (Bogart); The Steagle (Sylbert); The Great White Hope (Ritt)
By GUFFEY: article—
"The Photography of King Rat," in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), December 1965.
On GUFFEY: articles—
Gavin, Arthur, on They Came to Cordura in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1959.
Mitchell, George J., on Hell to Eternity, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), July 1960.
Lightman, Herb A., on Birdman of Alcatraz, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1962.
On Bonnie and Clyde, in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), April 1967.
Monthly Film Bulletin (London), April 1971; August 1971; March 1972; April 1972.
Film Comment (New York), Summer 1972.
Focus on Film (London), no. 13, 1973.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 8 June 1983.
Screen International (London), 13–20 August 1983.
Obituary in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), November 1983.
* * *
Burnett Guffey's reputation and contributions to the art of cinematography rest not so much in what he did with the camera and lights, but in what he chose not to do. The major portion of Guffey's career behind the camera was spent deglamorizing the Hollywood film, a task that takes on mammoth proportions when one realizes that he was most active in the 1940s and 1950s. In a period when Cinemascope, spectacle, and lurid color were the rule, Guffey continued to work in black-and-white, stripping the romance from the world's most romantic form.
Although he was capable of achieving the slick commercial look of the more typical Hollywood film, Guffey's personal style led him to work primarily on rugged action and mystery pictures. For these movies he developed what has been characterized as "flat" photography, a functional rebuttal to the elaborate deep-focus cinematography of Gregg Toland. Using a simple, often single source of light, little or no fill light, and a minimum of camera movement, Guffey provided directors with a naturalistic, gritty look to complement hardboiled stories of criminals, convicts, and men at war. Even for his Academy Award-winning cinematography on Bonnie and Clyde, Guffey succeeded in subduing color, relying on worn hues to produce a common, dreary effect.
Set in the seedy world of boxing, The Harder They Fall, for which Guffey received an Academy Award nomination, stands as a typical example of his flat style. Making use of minimal contrast, Guffey emphasizes gray. Blacks flow into grays which flow into whites, giving the film a truly monotonal effect. Guffey's photography hides nothing, revealing the ugliness of the sport and the flaws of the people who cling to the edges of the ring. Much of the film takes place in the perpetual twilight of gyms and ill-lit hotel rooms and the glamor of professional sports is displaced with images that are harsh, often ugly. Though capable of depth, Guffey's compositions tend to emphasize flatness by placing people against walls or planes of like tone. The grey, monotonal quality of Guffey's work was ideally suited for stories that featured characters of ambiguous morality such as Bogart's gunrunner in Sirocco, the mobsters aiming for respectability in Phil Karlson's The Brothers Rico, and George Segal's P.O.W. camp racketeer in King Rat.
Guffey's tendency toward flat cinematography could be overridden by the potently baroque visuals of a director like Joseph H. Lewis in My Name Is Julia Ross and So Dark the Night. And there was always the danger of the flat cinematography being coupled with dull direction and the lackluster production design of a studio like Columbia to produce deadening visuals. Still, when combined with the proper story and strong direction, Burnett Guffey's flat cinematography provided an alternative aesthetic to the standard studio product.