To say that cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (1913 -2016) had a varied film career would be a major understatement. Even from early on in his career, Slocombe’s adventures behind the camera would become the stuff of legends. So much so that an entire page of Sight & Sound (the Summer 1940 issue) was dedicated to his encounter with Joseph Goebbels during a Nazi rally on the eve of the Second World War, an encounter from which Slocombe narrowly escaped with his life. A nod to this face to face meeting could well have been the inspiration for Indiana Jones’ very own chance encounter with Adolf Hitler at a pre-war Nazi rally in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), which was Slocombe’s final film. It is fitting that these two dramatic scenes, one from his real life and the other from one of his films, bookend an incredible film career that lasted 40 years and spanned 80 films. A film career that very much defines one of the greatest, possibly the greatest, cinematographers that ever lived.
It was during the Second World War, filming under harsh and even life threatening conditions, that Slocombe began to learn his craft, and boy, what a way to learn a new trade! He filmed the first days of the Nazi invasion of Poland (the first key hours of the Second World War), came under fire by German bombers, escaped Europe under the Nazis, by the skin of his teeth, and filmed on dangerous Atlantic conveys.
But before the Second World War, Slocombe had been a young freelance photojournalist: armed only with a Leica stills camera, cataloguing what he could of Europe on the brink of war. After returning from The Free City of Denzig (now Gdansk), taking photographs of the impending rise of the Nazis, during the early weeks of the summer of 1939, he was asked, by filmmaker Herbert Kline, to return to the city. This time, however, Slocombe was armed with a “heavy” 35mm Bell and Howell Eyemo Film Camera. What came out of his first major film assignment was Lights Out in Europe (1940). “It was a baptism of fire,” he later recalled to writer and broadcaster Matthew Sweet, “in terms of film and war”. It was during the filming of Lights Out in Europe that Slocombe had his encounter with Joseph Goebbels, was shot at by German aircraft, dodged German storm troopers and joined the masses of refugees from Poland.
Slocombe returned to Britain, with Kline, within a matter of days after the fall of Poland. Kline rushed through the edit of Lights Out in Europe and completed it in mere weeks. When the first cut was ready, Kline showed it to fellow documentary filmmakers Alberto Cavalcanti and Robert Flaherty. Both were impressed with the film, but were even more impressed with the on location sequences, and suggested that the newly established cameraman speak to the Ministry of Information. Slocombe later joined Cavalcanti’s short film unit at Ealing Studios, taking up the camera for the much forgotten, twenty-three minute documentary Guests of Honour (1941), which tells the story of how small forces involved in the defence of Britain fled occupied Europe. Documentary News Letter, a magazine on documentary film founded by filmmaker John Grierson, later stated, “The craftsmanship which one has learnt to associate so especially with Cavalcanti shines in almost every sequence… the Cavalcanti-(Ray) Pitt-Slocombe-(Charles) Crichton team is one to be reckoned with.”
Cavalcanti’s team surely turned into a force to be reckoned with, as all four became key names at Ealing during and after the war. But, while Cavalcanti, Pitt and Crichton continued to work on Ealing productions, Slocombe, noted for his continued skill when filming on location, was asked to film war related material for not only the Ministry of Defence’s newsreel and propaganda but, also, for second unit material for Ealing’s very own war time propaganda feature films. Most of his time was spent on Atlantic convoys. This later work would end up appearing in Ealing films such as Ships with Wings (1941), The Big Blockade (1942), Find, Fix and Strike (1942), San Demetrio London (1943) and For Those in Peril (1944), to name a few. And, when Slocombe wasn’t getting his feet wet in the Atlantic, he would sometimes return to Britain to film as a second unit cameraman for some of Ealing’s main feature films. Cavalcanti’s now celebrated Went the Day Well (where Slocombe is credited on the film’s titles as Reporter Cameraman) was one such feature film. Slocombe shot the sequence where British troops were gunned down by German troops in a lane surrounding a British village.
He didn’t realise it at the time but, in accepting the offer to film wartime material for Ealing Studios, so began a seventeen-year relationship with the studio; Ealing Studios would see his work flourish. By the end of his time at Ealing he would light some of the studio’s most celebrated titles, including Dead of Night (1945), The Captive Heart (1946), Hue and Cry (1947), It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953).
But Slocombe at Ealing is another story…
Written by James Harrison, Co-Director and Co-Curator of South West Silents.
With thanks to journalist Vincent Dowd (BBC World Service), writer and historian Matthew Sweet, Dave Kehr (MOMA) and Georgina Slocombe.