From Ealing to Indy: Douglas Slocombe
There are few cinema images as iconic as Indiana Jones outrunning the huge cave boulder or facing down an angry cobra in Raiders of the Lost Ark that come to mind when recalling the half-century legacy of the great British cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, who died today at age 103. But what preceded that timeless George Lucas/Stephen Spielberg cliffhanger looms equally large. One need only evoke the word Ealing Studios to conjure up a world of fanciful filmmaking, from earthy romances to sweltering films noirs to delightfully understated yet downright madcap comedy, and Slocombe shot many of the best of the studio’s output in the 1940s and ’50s. The shadowy intrigues of Dead of Night, The Captive Heart and It Always Rains on Sunday were followed by the lighthearted larks of Kind Hearts and Coronets (featuring one shot in which six of the eight characters played by Alec Guinness appeared in the same frame), The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit. Slocombe’s lens captured the light and the dark of them all, helping to empower a legacy that would cross borders and preserve in amber a golden time in cinema. The early 1960s would bring the raw and sinister shadings of The L-Shaped Room, Freud and The Servant, proving the ongoing potency of black-and-white photography at a time when “pretty” color moviemaking became predominant. Color was no obstacle for Slocombe, whose magnificent cinematography graces two memorable Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray titles. Director John Guillermin’s World War I aviation epic The Blue Max (1966), like Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels of 30 years before, captures the soaring scale of aerial combat like few movies ever have and Slocombe’s cameras bracingly record the simultaneous beauty and terror of men in rickety aircraft challenging each other in the clouds and raining death below. It’s no wonder that Lucas, an admirer of The Blue Max, cited it as an inspiration for the cosmic skirmishes of Star Wars and remembered Slocombe when Raiders of the Lost Ark followed soon afterward.Nine years later, director Norman Jewison used Slocombe to capture the grim sports combat of Rollerball (1975, currently sold out but returning to TT this summer), wherein his camera wheeled audiences inside the punishing action of this cautionary fable about contests to the death in an anesthetized future controlled by a ruthless corporation promoting athletic contests as a savage release to keep the population in check. In April, TT will offer Twentieth Century Fox’s new 4K restoration of another Slocombe-shot masterwork, director Fred Zinnemann’s film of Lillian Hellman’s memoir Julia (1977), in which the friendship of two remarkable women plays out against a background of gentility and privilege that gives way to the fascist-leaning turbulence of pre-World War II Europe and a necessary call to activism and personal sacrifice. Slocombe’s Oscar®-nominated and BAFTA-winning cinematography will be showcased in a beautifully pristine transfer. Sight problems would sideline Slocombe in later life, but he is due not just a tip of the Indiana Jones fedora but also the gratitude of generations of movie fans for whom his camera eye was a gateway to fabulous images and the restless beats of the human heart.