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Slocombe, Douglas (1913-)


Main image of Slocombe, Douglas (1913-)

A former photo journalist, Douglas Slocombe inadvertently became a cameraman when he was approached by the American documentarist Herbert Kline to work on Lights Out in Europe (1940). Slocombe subsequently photographed the German invasions of Poland and Holland, before returning to England where, on the suggestion of Alberto Cavalcanti, he worked for the Ministry of Information shooting newsreels and propaganda films. He divided his time between the Fleet Air Arm and Ealing studios, the footage he shot on Atlantic convoys being used by the Ministry and by Ealing as second unit material on films like The Big Blockade (d. Charles Frend, 1941) and San Demetrio London (d. Frend, 1943).

Slocombe camera-operated for Wilkie Cooper on one film, Champagne Charlie (d. Cavalcanti, 1944), rather badly by his own admission, before being given the chance to progress to lighting on the film which more than any other went against the dominant aesthetic trend at Ealing during the period: Dead of Night (d. Cavalcanti/Charles Crichton/Basil Dearden/Robert Hamer, 1945), a portmanteau of ghost stories, photographed by Slocombe and Stan Pavey. Slocombe shot the framing story in which the protagonists recount their experiences of the supernatural. Each time the narrative returns to the linking story the room has grown visibly darker, the lighting more atmospheric and the angles more forced, with the ceiling apparently becoming lower and lower, trapping the characters in the nightmare.

For Robert Hamer's Mirror sequence, featuring Googie Withers and Ralph Michael, Slocombe created an arresting contrast between the bright, sanitised environment inhabited by the characters and the dark, heavy - but quite seductive - atmosphere of the 'other' realm beyond the mirror. By way of contrast, the Golfers sequence, with Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, is lit in an appropriate high key style. Pavey, on the other hand, photographed the darkest episode, featuring a ventriloquist (Michael Redgrave) who is controlled by his own dummy.

Slocornbe rose rapidly to become Ealing's major cameraman, his assignments comprising a characteristic mix of realistic dramas and comedies. While many of these films are representative of the dominant studio style, he was capable of transcending their limitations in the same way that directors like Robert Hamer and Alexander Mackendrick stood out against the studio orthodoxy. Despite his documentary training, Slocombe's ability to use light expressively had been apparent in Dead of Night and his interests lay in creative techniques: "Gregg Toland was my hero, I loved the sharpness and contrast of his work." Slocombe's own versatility is demonstrated across his best work for the studio, from the gritty realism of It Always Rains on Sunday (d. Hamer, 1947), with its memorable nighttime climax in a railway yard, through the romantic high key gloss of Kind Hearts and Coronets (d. Hamer, 1949), to the dark brooding interiors of The Man in the White Suit (d. Mackendrick, 1951). The Gothic style of inventor Sidney Stratton's (Alec Guinness) laboratory owes a lot to the 'mad scientist' genre, but also provides a stark contrast to the luminous white suit which is made for him with the indestructible fibre he has created.

On his first Technicolor film, Saraband for Dead Lovers (d. Dearden, 1948), a big budget production starring Flora Robson, Stewart Granger and Joan Greenwood, Slocombe held out against institutional constraints:

There was the political requirement from the Technicolor front office that you should light with a very low contrast - they didn't like high contrast - and you mustn't leave shadows to go black. I didn't like that idea entirely, so I decided to still go with the full contrast of black and white, but multiplied by the extra light requirements, of course. Because I thought this film needed a lot of shadows and so forth. And I discovered on the first day that of all the colours on the set the black shadows became wonderfully rich and intense - and so I carried on with these contrasts.

The atmosphere demanded by the story, which was set in 17th-century Hanover, was of heavy oppression and intrigue. The castle rooms were to be dimly lit with the street scenes bright by day, but dark and menacing at night. After discussions with Dearden and production designer Michael Relph, Slocombe decided to use low key effects throughout:

The Hanover Palace sets were therefore lit in such a manner as to cast large areas in shadow, usually allowing the ceilings to disappear into inky blackness. This creation of 'atmosphere' by light and shadow... and careful lighting of selected colours in the set and costumes of the artistes helped to add another dimension to the composition of each scene. Some of the Van Dyck paintings at the National Gallery proved, curiously enough, a particularly useful guide to set lighting. I was interested to see how this Dutch master allowed his colours to be picked up by his 'source of light' only (in many cases a solitary window). The rest of his picture area was allowed to shade off into monochromatic darkness. The result is that the observer's eye goes immediately to the focal point the painter desired.

Unfortunately none of Slocombe's subsequent colour films for Ealing, including The Titfield Thunderbolt (d. Crichton, 1953) and Davy (d. Relph, 1957), the first British production photographed in Technirama, matched the bold richness of his debut. When Ealing closed in the late 1950s Slocombe freelanced on a series of routine features before embarking on one of the most innovative periods in his career. On John Huston's Freud (US, 1962), he combined a variety of visual techniques, using different stocks and force developing the film to boost the contrast ratio. The flashbacks were shot through a glass plate designed to fuzz out all the details except those recalled by the patient, while the dream sequences have a high contrast, grainy look created by shooting on positive rather than negative stock and printing from high contrast dupe negatives. Huston produced a four-hour version of Freud which Universal insisted on cutting down to two hours, losing much of Slocombe's work in the process.

In both The L-Shaped Room (d. Bryan Forbes, 1962) and The Servant (d. Joseph Losey, 1963) the action is confined to studio interiors. While the former, set in a rundown London lodging house, is a minor if atmospheric portrait of the experiences of a lonely single woman (Leslie Caron) who falls pregnant, the latter remains one of the classic British films of the 1960s. Losey's masterpiece, from Harold Pinter's screenplay, centres on a modest but fashionable town house occupied by a young aristocrat and his manservant. In keeping with the trends of the period, Slocombe was initially guided by naturalism:

I always like people to feel that it was real, and the whole point was to make it look real. The interiors were sets... but I was very careful to make it look as if daylight was really coming in from the window and everything is lit that way.

However, the framing and fluid camera movement, including some virtuoso handheld shots by Slocombe's operator Chick Waterson, move beyond this surface, delineating the contours of social and psychic conflict which lie at the heart of the film, With regard to the look, Slocombe continued to refine the high contrast technique he had used on Freud. This involved developing the Kodak stock in such a way as to double the approved speed, giving a much greater depth of field:

Losey had scenes in The Servant playing for four minutes or more, with the actors moving about from foreground to background. I could keep them in focus all the time because the speed enabled me to stop right down.

Losey also wanted three visual styles, running into each other as the film progressed. At the beginning the house is empty, so Slocombe shot these sequences with a grey tone revealing the bare bones of the building and its intrinsic coldness. The next phase involved a certain glossy contrast to the sets of the freshly decorated house with its new furniture and fittings. In the third and final phase Slocombe used lighting to accentuate particular details - objects which before had seemed merely pretty or inoffensive had to become sinister. This section also involved a more expressionistic play of light and shade with a looming shadow here and there, and is most effective in the sequences in which Tony (James Fox) and Barratt (Dirk Bogarde), master and servant, play ball on the staircase and later in the climactic highly stylised orgy scene.

During the 1960s Slocombe also signed a contract with 20th Century Fox, which resulted in a series of CinemaScope productions including Alexander Mackendrick's truncated but underrated A High Wind in Jamaica (UK/US, 1965) and John Guillermin's The Blue Max (1966). His colour films from the mid-1960s onwards demonstrate a delicate and sensitive use of soft light, popularised by newcomers like Billy Williams and David Watkin. Among the highlights are Roman Polanski's horror spoof Dance of the Vampires (aka The Fearless Vampire Killers, US/UK, 1967), a sumptuous evocation of Transylvania undercut by the director's somewhat infantile humour; The Lion in Winter (d. Anthony Harvey, 1968); Travels with My Aunt (US, 1972); The Great Gatsby (US, 1974) and Julia (US, 1977), the last distinguished by its low key images and strong blacks which recall Slocombe's first experience with colour 30 years earlier.

In 1977 Slocombe found himself shooting sequences in India on Close Encounters of the Third Kind (US) for Steven Spielberg, who subsequently invited him to photograph Raiders of the Last Ark (US, 1981). This was a new departure for a cameraman more inclined to subtle, literary based projects than full-blown action adventures. However, Slocombe relished the opportunity and subsequently worked on the sequels Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (US, 1984) and Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade (US, 1989).

Duncan Petrie

This entry is taken from Duncan Petrie's The British Cinematographer (BFI, 1996). Used by permission.

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Captive Heart, The (1946)Captive Heart, The (1946)

Ealing POW drama, made only a few months after the end of WWII

Thumbnail image of Circus of Horrors (1960)Circus of Horrors (1960)

Lurid horror about a deranged plastic surgeon

Thumbnail image of Dance Hall (1950)Dance Hall (1950)

Low-key drama about factory workers and their evening escapades

Thumbnail image of Dead of Night (1945)Dead of Night (1945)

Classic Ealing portmanteau film: five tales of the supernatural

Thumbnail image of Hue and Cry (1947)Hue and Cry (1947)

First of the postwar Ealing comedies: a joyous boy's own romp

Thumbnail image of It Always Rains On Sunday (1947)It Always Rains On Sunday (1947)

Robert Hamer's bleak portrait of life in London's East End

Thumbnail image of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Deliciously dark comedy, featuring no fewer than nine Alec Guinnesses

Thumbnail image of L-Shaped Room, The (1962)L-Shaped Room, The (1962)

Leslie Caron plays a pregnant Frenchwoman who starts an affair

Thumbnail image of Lavender Hill Mob, The (1951)Lavender Hill Mob, The (1951)

A group of eccentric Londoners plot the perfect crime

Thumbnail image of Man in the White Suit, The (1951)Man in the White Suit, The (1951)

Ealing classic with naive inventor Alec Guinness up against British industry

Thumbnail image of Mandy (1952)Mandy (1952)

Powerful portrait of a family struggling to cope with a deaf child

Thumbnail image of Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948)

Ealing's first Technicolor film, an uncharacteristic period melodrama

Thumbnail image of Servant, The (1963)Servant, The (1963)

James Fox and Dirk Bogarde's savage attack on the British class system

Thumbnail image of Smallest Show on Earth, The (1957)Smallest Show on Earth, The (1957)

Nostalgic comedy about a couple who inherit a failing cinema

Thumbnail image of Titfield Thunderbolt, The (1953)Titfield Thunderbolt, The (1953)

Ealing comedy in which the villagers of Titfield decide to run their own railway

Thumbnail image of Whisky Galore! (1949)Whisky Galore! (1949)

Gently subversive Ealing comedy about whisky smuggling in the Hebrides

Thumbnail image of Young Ones, The (1961)Young Ones, The (1961)

Exuberant musical in which Cliff Richard and pals fight to save their youth club

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