Many of the great cinematographers are identifiable by a signature style, whether it be painterly lighting effects or a penchant for epic vistas. Brit lenser Douglas Slocombe is an exception — the roughly 75 features he shot between 1945’s “Dead of Night” and 1989’s “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” are united only in their adaptive commitment to finding each project’s ideal visual language. From his work on nearly all the classic Ealing comedies through a sustained collaboration with Steven Spielberg, Slocombe’s camera has been chameleonic. But its brilliance has seldom gone unnoticed.
Three times nominated for an Oscar (for “Travels With My Aunt,” “Julia” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”), a triple British Academy of Film & Television Arts winner and lifetime achievement honoree by the British Academy of Cinematographers, Slocombe — who turned 90 last week — now accepts an international achievement nod from the American Society of Cinematographers. This ceremony, taking place Feb. 17 at L.A.’s Century Plaza Hotel, will place him in a pantheon that already includes such celebrated multinational lensers as Jack Cardiff, Henri Alekan, Giuseppe Rotunno and Freddie Francis.
Retired these last 13 years, Slocombe remains charmingly modest about his contribution to the art form. Reached by phone at his London home, he looks back on having addressed “a great variety of pictures … each time on a completely different level. 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.”
His enthusiasm for “matching the photography … to a story that was intriguing” found equal footing in widely disparate projects for directors like Norman Jewison (“Jesus Christ Superstar,” the original “Rollerball”), Joseph Losey (“The Servant,” “Boom”), Roman Polanski (“The Fearless Vampire Killers”), John Huston (“Freud”), Jack Clayton (“The L-Shaped Room,” “The Great Gatsby”), Fred Zinnemann (“Julia”) and Ken Russell (‘The Music Lovers”).
Period pieces, intimate psychological studies, exotic adventure tales and romantic comedies are just a few of the genres accommodated in an oeuvre that reinvented itself yet again in a final career lap lensing all three of Spielberg’s cliffhanging “Indiana Jones” films.
That flexible mastery was fostered during 17 years of employment at England’s legendary Ealing Studios, where Slocombe became the preeminent house cinematographer after a start in photojournalism, wartime newsreel-propagandic assignments and second-unit work. First promoted to d.p. (sharing credit with Stan Pavey) on the famous supernatural anthology “Dead of Night,” he went on to shoot most of the company’s still-beloved comedies, including Alec Guinness vehicles “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “The Man in the White Suit.”
In contrast to their understated elegance, other Ealing assignments during this late-’40s-early ’50s heyday ranged from the boisterous realism of 1947’s “Hue and Cry,” utilizing bombed-out postwar London as a vast children’s playground, and lush costume drama “Saraband for Dead Lovers,” the company’s first Technicolor venture.
“Ealing was rather like Hollywood in the old days,” Slocombe recalls. “It had a number of cameramen and directors and writers under contract, so there was a continuity of production. We all knew each other so well, we’d spent the eves together in the local pub. It was very much a community.”
After Ealing’s demise in the late 1950s, Slocombe freelanced for different companies, at one point signing a three-year contract with 20th Century Fox that resulted in a series of CinemaScope spectaculars, from the seafaring adventure of “High Wind in Jamaica” to the high flying of WWI-set biplane saga “The Blue Max” and the African intrigue of “Guns at Batisi.”
Perhaps his most striking work from this mid-’60s period lies in the unsettling B&W atmosphere of Losey and Harold Pinter’s “The Servant,” whose gradually more expressionistic images convey the perverse shifting power balance between “master” (James Fox) and scheming “gentleman’s gentleman” (Dirk Bogarde).
Alongside acclaimed lensing for such subsequent U.S., Brit and multinational prestige pics as “The Lion in Winter” and “Great Gatsby,” Slocombe was often attracted to projects that invited multiple visual approaches. For Huston’s sadly studio-truncated drama “Freud,” he deployed “at least four different techniques within the film, all in B&W, to separate the flashbacks, the biographical story, dream sequences and so forth.” George Cukor’s 1972 “Travels With My Aunt” as well as Zinnemann’s “Julia” similarly conjured wholly different looks for its contemporary scenes and romanticized memory segments.
“I always took everything in my stride … I’d always find a solution for any problem,” Slocombe says. Still, he confesses, “In all the films I did, the ones I enjoyed most were always those that were literary subjects — not necessarily coming from a book, but with a script that one could listen to, acting that one could watch.”
He cites the “brilliant and funny” black comedy “Kind Hearts” as a personal favorite, along with such lit-pedigreed features as “Gatsby” (“I don’t think that film received the press it perhaps deserved”) and much laureled “Julia.”
Given that preference, it did not at first seem a natural fit when Spielberg, whom Slocombe considers a very special talent, asked the cinematographer to shoot the popcorn epic “Raiders of the Lost Ark” after he’d contributed a week’s lensing in Bombay to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (on which Vilmos Zsigmond was principal d.p.).
Though very intrigued, Slocombe was somewhat taken aback by Spielberg’s favoring “a very, very tight schedule, enormous numbers of setups every day, very large sets that he didn’t want laboriously lit. It was challenging in terms of keeping on schedule — or rather ahead of schedule, as was his wont.”
Nonetheless, he soon grew to consider this collaboration among his most enjoyable, one that carried on through two sequels.