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Remembering Three-Time Oscar Nominee Douglas Slocombe

Remembering Three-Time Oscar Nominee Douglas Slocombe

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Douglas Slocombe, the English cinematographer distinguished for his depth of field and the breadth of his filmography — 84 films ranging from World War II propaganda to the “Indiana Jones” quartet — died in London Monday, two weeks after his 103rd birthday. Famously, the master of lighting who often used the Old Masters as visual sources on films such as “Saraband for Dead Lovers” and “The Lion in Winter” rarely used a light meter. 

Directors such as Alexander Mackendrick and Steven Spielberg hired the versatile Slocombe not because he had a patented visual style, but because they were confident that he would find the best visual style to tell their particular stories. “I always took everything in my stride…I’d always find a solution for any problem,” Slocombe told Variety in 2002.

He filmed costume melodrama and kitchen-sink realism, thrillers and adventure movies and was the go-to cameraman at Ealing Studios, celebrated for crisp black-and-white comedies such as “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “The Man in the White Suit.”

Raised in Paris by English parents, Slocombe began his professional career in the 1930s as a photojournalist for Life Magazine and Paris Match. His still image impressed American filmmaker Herbert Kline, who tapped Slocombe to be the cameraman on “Lights Out in Europe,” an antiwar documentary chronicling the Nazi invasions of Poland and Holland.

There was the novice cameraman in 1939, in the Polish city of Gdansk (then called Danzig), operating an unwieldy and noisy camera called the Eyemo. While filming a speech by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, “Suddenly [the camera] decided to emit a huge snarling sound,” remembered the understated Slocombe to the BBC. “Goebbels froze and hundreds of uniformed Brownshirts turned and glared at me in anger. It was not a comfortable moment.”  

On Slocombe’s return to England he shot documentaries and propaganda films for the Ministry of Information. Some of the footage he shot made its way into British feature films, as did Slocombe himself in getting hired by Ealing.

The horror anthology “Dead of Night” marked Slocombe’s debut feature. He shot the framing story of the characters sharing their supernatural experiences. Every time the film returns to the room where they recount their stories, the lighting is darker and ceiling lower, creating the effect of the characters being trapped. It was on this rookie feature that Slocombe didn’t have to shoot with available light and first experimented with expressive lighting effects.

“Gregg Toland was my hero,” recalled Slocombe of the American cinematographer known for his deep focus cinematography. “I loved the sharpness ad contrast in his work.”

That contrast is palpable in “The Man in the White Suit,” the sci-fi satire about an inventor (Alec Guinness) whose invention of a radioactive fiber is suppressed. The inventor’s laboratory may be shadow-ridden, yet his optic white suit stands out in high contrast.

As Slocombe’s black-and-white films were distinct from those of his peers, so were his color efforts. The Technicolor corporation dictated low-contrast cinematography, not wanting any moody blacks to eclipse its jewel tones. On “Saraband for Dead Lovers,” however, Slocombe used Van Dyck paintings and their single-source light as his guide, resisting the Technicolor edict and creating painterly images utterly unlike most color work.

When Ealing closed shop in the late 1950’s, job opportunities opened up for Slocombe. He experimented with many techniques and effects on John Huston’s “Freud,” including the use of different film stocks and boosting the contrast ratio. He shot the patient’s “flashbacks” through a glass plate that blurred details except those recalled by the patient.

To show the different colors and textures of 1930’s Hollywood and Europe, Slocombe would again mix film stocks in Fred Zinnemann’s “Julia,” which earned him one of his three Oscar nominations. The others were for “Travels with My Aunt” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

For “Raiders,” set right before World War II, Slocombe highlighted eyes and created threatening long shadows that may have had their origins in his war documentaries.

Slocombe was honored with an O.B.E. and three BAFTA awards. He is survived by his daughter.

But the cinematographer’s legacy unquestionably lives on through his work, and the memories of his many collaborators. At a 2009 tribute to Slocombe, Harrison Ford said that “Dougie” was his own light meter: “He just held out his hand and looked at the shadow on his palm.” 

READ MORE: How I Shot That: High Contrast Lighting in the Sundance Zombie Romance-Comedy ‘Life After Beth’

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