Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Late Great Douglas Slocombe

Douglas Slocombe, the legendary cinematographer who shot everything from such classic Ealing comedies as Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)  and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) to the first three Indiana Jones movies, died on February 22 2016 at the age of 103.

Douglas Slocombe was born  in London on February 10 1913. His father was the Paris correspondent for the Daily Herald and as a result he spent much of his childhood in France. He attended the Sorbonne in Paris where he received a degree in Mathematics. He returned to the United Kingdom in 1933 where he worked for British Universal Press. With the goal of establishing himself as a photojournalist he went to Danzig where he documented the growing anti-Semitism there. It was his photograph of a synagogue draped in a Nazi flag that caught the attention of American director Henry Kline, who hired him to shoot his documentary short "Lights Out in Europe", which portrayed the events leading up to World War II. Messrs. Kline and Slocombe were in Warsaw, Poland when the German army invaded. The two men escaped by going to Stockholm, Sweden, but were able to document much of the invasion.

It was in 1941 that Douglas Slocombe went to work for Ealing Studios. He shot the films Ships with Wings (1941), Greek Testament (1943), San Demetrio London (1943), and For Those in Peril (1944) before shooting Ealing's legendary horror portmanteau film Dead of Night (1945). Along with Dead of Night the height of Mr. Slocombe's career in the Forties may have been the highly successful Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), in which Sir Alec Guinness played multiple roles. He also shot such Ealing films as Painted Boats (1945), Hue and Cry (1947), It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), A Run for Your Money (1949), and Dance Hall (1950).

Douglas Slocombe began the Fifties shooting the classic Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). In the early Fifties Mr. Slocombe filmed such movies as The Man in the White Suit (1951), Mandy (1952), The Love Lottery (1954), Lease of Life (1954), Ludwig II: Glanz und Ende eines Königs (1955), and Touch and Go (1955). When Ealing Studios closed its doors in 1955 Douglas Slocombe shot such films as Sailor Beware  (1956), The Man in the Sky (1957), Barnacle Bill (1957), Davy (1958), Circus of Horror (1960), and The Boy Who Stole a Million (1960).

The Sixties saw some of Douglas Slocombe's best known works. He shot such famous films as The Young Ones (1961), The L-Shaped Room (1962), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), The Italian Job (1969), and The Music Lovers (1970). He won the BAFTA for Award for Best British Cinematography (Black and White) for his work on The Servant (1963).  He also shot such films as Taste of Fear (1961), The Mark (1961), Guns at Batasi (1964), The Blue Max (1966), Fathom (1967), and Boom (1968).

The Seventies saw Douglas Slocombe receive Oscar nominations for his work on Travels with My Aunt (1972) and Julia (1977). He won BAFTA awards for The Great Gatsby (1974)  and Julia (1977). He shot the hit films Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) and Rollerball (1975), as well as such films as The Return (1973), The Marseille Contract (1974), The Maids (1975), Hedda (1975), The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea (1976), Caravans (1977), The Lady Vanishes (1979), and Nijinsky (1980).

The Eighties saw Douglas Slocombe receive an Oscar nomination for his work on Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). He also shot its first two sequels, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). He also filmed The Pirates of Penzance (1983), Never Say Never Again (1983), and Lady Jane (1986).

Sadly Mr. Slocombe's eyesight had begun to fail in the Eighties. An accident in a jeep on Raiders of the Lost Ark in Tunisia damaged his sight in his left eyes. When he was shooting Pirates of Penzance the retina in his left eye detached entirely. After Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade he retired entirely. Sadly laser surgery on his right eye following his retirement went wrong and he was left nearly blind.

There can be no doubt that Douglas Slocombe was one of the greatest cinematographers of all time. He once said, "A lot of cameramen try to evolve a technique and then apply that to everything, but I suffer from a bad memory and could never remember how I’d done something before, so I could always approach something afresh. I found I was able to change techniques on picture after picture." It was that variation in technique that made Douglas Slocombe such a great cinematographer. He was as comfortable shooing a black and white Ealing comedy set in close confines as he was shooting Jesus Christ Superstar in colour and open spaces. He was a master in the use of light and shadow, and could even simulate natural light on a closed set. In fact, eventually Douglas Slocombe became so good that he could judge light simply by using his own thumb--he didn't need a light meter. Over the years Douglas Slocombe worked on many great films, including Dead of Night; Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Lion in Winter, The Italian Job, and Raiders of the Lost Ark among many others. Much of the reason those films were so great was Douglas Slocombe's sheer talent as a cinematographer.

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