Douglas Slocombe - Writer

Cinematographer. Nationality: British. Born: London, 10 February 1913. Education: Attended school in Paris. Career: Journalist and feature writer, then photo-journalist for Life , Paris-Match , and other magazines; footage used in the American documentary Lights Out in

Douglas Slocombe
Douglas Slocombe
Europe , and, after he joined Ealing Studios and was attached to the military services during World War II, in such films as Ships with Wings , The Big Blockade , Find, Fix, and Strike , San Demetrio London , and Greek Testament ; 1945—first film as cinematographer, Dead of Night . Awards: British Academy Award for The Servant , 1963; The Great Gatsby , 1974; Julia , 1978.

Films as Cinematographer:


Dead of Night (Crichton, Dearden, and Hamer)


The Captive Heart (Dearden)


Hue and Cry (Crichton) (co); The Loves of Joanna Godden (Frend); It Always Rains on Sunday (Hamer)


Saraband for Dead Lovers ( Saraband ) (Dearden and Relph); Another Shore (Crichton)


Kind Hearts and Coronets (Hamer); A Run for Your Money (Frend)


Dance Hall (Crichton); Cage of Gold (Dearden)


The Lavender Hill Mob (Crichton); The Man in the White Suit (Mackendrick); His Excellency (Hamer)


Mandy ( The Story of Mandy ; Crash of Silence ) (Mackendrick)


The Titfield Thunderbolt (Crichton); The Love Lottery (Crichton)


Lease of Life (Frend); Ludwig II (Käutner)


Touch and Go ( The Light Touch ) (Truman)


Sailor Beware! (Barry); The Man in the Sky (Crichton); Heaven and Earth (Brook)


The Smallest Show on Earth ( Big Time Operators ) (Dearden); Davy (Relph); Barnacle Bill (Frend)


Tread Softly Stranger (Parry)


Circus of Horrors (Hayers); The Boy Who Stole a Million (Crichton)


The Mark (Green); Taste of Fear ( Scream of Fear ) (Holt); The Young Ones ( Wonderful to Be Young ) (Furie)


Freud: The Secret Passion (Huston); The L-Shaped Room (Forbes)


The Servant (Losey); The Third Secret (Crichton)


Guns at Batasi (Guillermin); A High Wind in Jamaica (Mackendrick)


Promise Her Anything (Hiller)


The Blue Max (Guillermin)


Dance of the Vampires ( The Fearless Vampire Killers ) (Polanski)


Boom (Losey); The Lion in Winter (Harvey)


The Italian Job (Collinson)


The Buttercup Chain (Miller)


The Music Lovers (Russell); Murphy's War (Yates)


Travels with My Aunt (Cukor)


Jesus Christ Superstar (Jewison)


The Great Gatsby (Clayton); The Marseille Contract ( The Destructors ) (Parrish)


Rollerball (Jewison); Love among the Ruins (Cukor); The Maids (Miles); Hedda (Nunn)


The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (Carlino); Nasty Habits (Lindsay-Hogg)


Julia (Zinnemann); Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Spielberg) (co)


Caravans (Fargo)


Lost and Found (Frank); The Lady Vanishes (Page); The Corn Is Green (Cukor)


Nijinsky (Ross)


Raiders of the Lost Ark (Spielberg)


The Pirates of Penzance (Leach); Never Say Never Again (Kershner)


Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Spielberg)


Water (Clement)


Lady Jane (Nunn)


Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Spielberg)


By SLOCOMBE: articles—

Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1940.

Sight and Sound (London), Summer 1965.

Image et Son (Paris), May 1969.

Film Making (London), June 1976.

On Julia in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), March 1978.

Cinématographe (Paris), July 1981.

Positif (Paris), September 1981.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), November 1981.

On Raiders of the Lost Ark in American Cinematographer (Hollywood), May 1982.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), June 1989.

On SLOCOMBE: articles—

Monthly Film Bulletin (London), 1965.

Focus on Film (London), no. 13, 1973.

Screen International (London), 17 January 1976.

American Cinematographer (Hollywood), May 1978.

* * *

Douglas Slocombe's career remains indelibly associated with his work at Ealing Studios and especially with its most radical and enduringly relevant films. It is impossible to think of Kind Hearts and Coronets , or Man in the White Suit , or Mandy aside from their particular look, the precision and integrity of their black-and-white cinematography, the "real blacks and pure whites" that Slocombe mentions in interview, the subtlety of their shading, all are as much part of their meaning as the performances or direction.

His career falls into three periods: Ealing, to 1959; a free-lance period dominated by work with Losey, John Huston, Mackendrick and Polanski, through the sixties and early seventies; and a final period of work with Steven Spielberg from 1977. In between were a variety of varyingly successful international productions which have left him with a certain scepticism concerning large budgets and bankable names. He works best with directors who have a very intense and personal vision.

Slocombe's early experiences as a news cameraman thrust into the action during the early years of the war in Europe with nothing more than a camera and an instinct for catching the essence of an event, have remained seminal to his mode of work, his enjoyment of cinema and his scepticism concerning received wisdom. It was Cavalcanti, Ealing's "creative catalyst," who invited him to join the studio, after his war footage had been used in several documentaries. He shot exteriors for Crichton's For Those in Peril , and had the briefest initiation to studio work as camera operator on Champagne Charlie , before starting work, without any formal training, as cinematographer. Knowing from his newsreel experience how to shoot in natural light, he now had to learn, on his feet, how to simulate that effect. Even now, he has said, called on to shoot a courtroom scene he thinks not of how such scenes are usually shot but of the very particular needs and opportunities offered by the project in hand. Ealing remains for him a memory of passionate debate and fervent exploration. With Mackendrick, Hamer and Crichton he found directors who in their different ways were similarly working "on the edge" and to an extent against the grain. It is typical that he should solve the technical problem of Alec Guinness's multiple characters in Kind Hearts and Coronets in the camera itself, a solution that demanded absolute preclusion (the camera was nailed to the floor and no one but Slocombe was permitted to rewind the film). Likewise, never having seen anyone shoot a night scene in the studio, he had to improvise from observation and early experience as a photographer.

With Saraband for Dead Lovers , his first colour film, he was determined to bring to it the same scale of contrast as he had used with black-and-white film, rather than follow the rules for shooting with Technicolour, a decision not welcomed at the time. The final effect was romantic and expressive, and despite the film's lack of success, he looks back with affection on the technical complexity of the Technicolour process (it necessitated over printing the separate colours) and relishes the fact that printing from Technicolour negatives remains pure and accurate despite the passage of time. He wrestled with the short-lived Todd-AO, much hyped at the time, and welcomed Eastmancolour's increased subtlety of tone and greater resolution. On Cage of Gold he began working with Chic Waterson, who remained his operator for some twenty-five years. What Slocombe lost in the physicality of handling the camera he made up in accurate awareness of detail in shot.

Both The Servant , a dark look at class and power in sixties Britain, and John Huston's Freud , offered him opportunities to continue and develop explorations in black-and-white cinematography which he had begun at Ealing. Losey required a new intricacy of camera movement and atmospheric lighting, while Huston required the creation of five very different visual styles to signal, narrative, flashback, dream, nightmare and memory. On both films Slocombe exploited negative overexposure in order to emphasise contrast. Elsewhere work for Polanski ( The Fearless Vampire Killers ) and Mackendrick ( A High Wind in Jamaica ) offered opportunities for varyingly ironic and romantic use of colour.

Nothing could be further from the claustrophobia of Losey's The Servant than the expansive world of the Indiana Jones films. After shooting the India footage on Spielberg's earlier Close Encounters of the Third Kind , Slocombe was rehired for Raiders of the Lost Ark and moved from films which might require some 300 setups to ones which could involve some 2,000. Working with a director who was fully conversant with both cinema aesthetics and technical detail offered opportunity for discussion and manoevre. Characteristically Slocombe looked for the simplest solutions. Two shots might be filmed as one. A different lens would obviate the need for a zoom. The key, he has said, is to look for the essential, "for what would catch the imagination," for the simplest way to tell a story, for what would most forcefully embody the drama and carry greatest impact. With all the technical sophistication at hand, that was sometimes simply the face of the actor Harrison Ford itself. Arguably the recourse to these close and medium shots underscores the adventure stories' human scale and deepens their romanticism.

Slocombe's long career has not been free from duds, but in common with the very greatest cinematographers, his best work derives its integrity and precision from its absolute faithfulness to the particular nature of the project in hand, and to the basic physical interaction of camera, light and film.

—Verina Glaessner

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