With the death of British cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, BSC, who passed away today at the age of 103, the film industry has lost one of its longest-lived DPs. Slocombe got his start in the industry in the run-up to World War II, when he was a newsreel cameraman covering the Nazi invasion of Poland. He fell in with the crew at the storied Ealing Studios, where he shot a number of stone-cold classic British films including Kind Hearts and Coronets, starring Alec Guinness. Younger cinephiles know him for his latter-day efforts, notably the first three Indiana Jones films. (Slocombe was nearly 70 years old when he shot Raiders of the Lost Ark.) You don't put in that many years in this industry without having some great stories to tell. Here are a few key anecdotes spanning his life and work.
Champagne Charlie (1944)
His first day on a big movie set was a bad one.
Slocombe's career in narrative films began at West London's Ealing Studios, where he had been making wartime propaganda films. His first job as camera operator on Alberto Cavalcanti's film Champagne Charlie, with cinematographer Wilkie Cooper, was shooting a stage from the back of a theater set. Unfortunately, according to clapper loader Ken Westbury, Slocombe got the boom operator in the shot, necessitating reshoots the next day. In Robert Sellers' book The Secret Life of Ealing Studios, Westbury recalled the blunder.
The next day in rushes, everyone noticed that the boom swinger was clearly in the shot. There he was, right at the front of the stage. God knows how that happened. He must have just got up at the last minute. Nobody noticed it at the time. Sometimes you do accidentally get a microphone in a shot, but not the operator as well!
He once interrupted a speech by Joseph Goebbels.
Filming in Danzig in 1939 with a Bell & Howell Eyemo camera, Slocombe was capturing footage for a documentary about the prelude to war in Europe. Speaking to BBC News in 2014, he recalled an awkward scene.
The Eyemo was heavy and could be noisy. Once I was in an auditorium filming a speech made by Goebbels when suddenly it decided to emit a huge snarling sound. Goebbels froze and hundreds of uniformed Brownshirts turned and glared at me in anger. It was not a comfortable moment.
Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)
He was a pioneer in color cinematography who rebelled against conventional wisdom.
Slocombe was the DP on Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), the first Technicolor film to come from Ealing. In a research paper titled "Ealing's Colour Aesthetic," film studies lecturer Keith Johnston takes a close look at Slocombe's use of Technicolor, referring to a 1948 book on the film in which Slocombe described Hollywood Technicolor film compositions as like a "child's kaleidoscope shaken up to the tune of a tango." The paper quotes a 1996 interview where Slocombe discussed his thinking:
Technicolor were fairly insistent that one should light fairly flatly … there should be a minimum exposure, certainly in shadow areas and on the whole there should be a fairly low contrast ratio …. I found that this was most unexciting …. The most exciting thing on the Technicolor screen was black … deep shadows and things …. I went out of my way to do that kind of thing.
Some of his best work never saw the light of day.
According to a 2002 article in The Independent, Slocombe himself thought his best work was in the 1962 John Huston film Freud, which starred Montgomery Clift in the title role. Unfortunately, the production was cursed. Clift was in a bad place in his career, having damaged his face in an automobile accident in 1957, and he clashed with Huston, running the fiflm way over schedule and over budget. Slocombe recalled the difficulty of getting Clift in character:
I would light the set for nine o'clock in the morning, and when Monty came in at a quarter past nine, he would say he wan't quite ready. He would just lie on the floor on his tummy and, like a child trying to learn his history, he'd look at his script and silently mouth the words.
The studio responded by drastically cutting Huston's preferred version of the film before release.
He was known for not using a light meter.
One of Slocombe's more widely reported idiosyncracies — at least in later years — is his avoidance of light meters. It seems he just didn't need them. In an interview with David A. Ellis published in the book Conversations with Cinematographers, Slocombe explained himself.
I used a light meter in my early films, but not on the last 20 or 30. I found that as the schedules were getting tighter and tighter I didn't have time. But I found I could automatically give the set the right amount of light. I then realized I didn't need the meter, so I gave it up.
The Music Lovers (1970)
He once fell on top of a nude Glenda Jackson.
Slocombe was shooting The Music Lovers for notoriously outré director Ken Russell when it happened. During a honeymoon scene set on a Moscow-bound train, Jackson is seen rolling around, completely naked, on the floor of a train compartment while the camera peers down from above. Critic Vincent Canby described the scene as "just a little too spectacular, and too undulant." Jackson remembered the moment after the third take when Slocombe fell out of the luggage rack and landed on her in a 2009 BAFTA tribute to Slocombe. As she recalls, he stammered, "I'm a m-married m-man." When Russell asked Slocombe to shoot his follow-up, The Devils, Slocombe demurred, telling Russell, "The cameraman has to look at the scene he's photographing, and some of your stuff is so appalling I can't bring myself to look at it."
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
He never won an Oscar.
He was nominated three times — for Travels with My Aunt (1972), Julia (1977), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). He lost to Geoffrey Unsworth, for Cabaret; to Vilmos Zsigmond, for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and to Vittorio Storaro, for Reds. However, he won three BAFTAS — for Julia, The Great Gatsby (1074) and The Servant (1963) — and was nominated for eight more.
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