Douglas Slocombe: The Nazis, Monty Clift and me

The cinematographer Douglas Slocombe has seen everything and filmed most of it. He tells Matthew Sweet about dodging the Gestapo - and the madness that broke out on Freud
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The Independent Culture

A scene from the childhood of Douglas Slocombe. Paris, the beginning of the 1920s. A short-sighted young man is sitting at the piano, singing an old Irish song, a small boy perched on his knee. Later, the boy listens, or tries to listen, as the same short-sighted young man reads aloud from the manuscript of his unpublished novel – a modernist epic that squeezes an immense tract of human history into the actions of a single day.

You'd need to perform a similar act of compression to do Douglas Slocombe's life justice. The immensity of his experience confounds summary in a few hundred words. He's been a newspaper columnist and a photojournalist. He's been imprisoned by the Gestapo and bombed by the Luftwaffe. Since 1939, he's been a cinematographer, one of that selfless breed for whose talent directors are often too willing to take the credit. He's photographed Burton, Taylor, Bogarde, Guinness, Coward, Olivier, Katharine Hepburn and the significant Redgraves. He's received three Oscar nominations, a clutch of BAFTAs, and – only last month – a lifetime achievement award from the American Society of Cinematographers. His résumé is a list of everyone's favourite films: Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, The Servant, The Italian Job, The Great Gatsby, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Listing all of his credits would entail something like that inventory of warships at the beginning of The Iliad.

Spending an afternoon with him has its Homeric aspects, too. A botched course of laser treatment has robbed him of the use of his right eye – the one with which he gazed through camera viewfinders – and the vision in his left eye has been deteriorating since being injured in a jeep crash during a location recce. "Until this happened I never worried about that," he says, brightly. "So long as you've got one good eye, the other one is just back-up." To optimise what remains of his sight, we sit near the window of his airy Kensington flat, as he narrates the story of his life.

His father, George Slocombe, was a celebrated Paris correspondent who interviewed Hitler and Mussolini, and was instrumental in securing Gandhi's release from jail. Douglas was raised in France but returned to England in 1933, where – after a stint writing a column on Parisian life from the London offices of British Universal Press – he began working as a freelance photojournalist. A series of pictures shot in Danzig in 1938 – images of Hitler Youth marches, goose-stepping Brownshirts and attacks on Jewish businesses – altered the course of his career. The American documentary-maker Herbert Kline asked him to return to the city with a movie camera, and Slocombe's life through a lens began. "It was my baptism of fire," he says, "in terms of film and war."

He took shots of Goebbels addressing a rally, and escaped from an aggressive auditorium of Brownshirts by scurrying under their outstretched arms as they Zeig Heiled. He filmed the burning of a synagogue, for which he was imprisoned in a Gestapo cell. (He talked himself out of his predicament so eloquently that the officers sent him on his way with a cup of tea.) He was in Warsaw when hostilities began, and witnessed Polish recruits discarding their newly-issued boots and fleeing, barefoot but uniformed, across the muddy countryside. He attempted to escape from Poland by rail, but the train was attacked from the air. After the machine gun fire stopped, he emerged from under the carriage, camera in hand. "I filmed a young girl who had been hit. She died within minutes. I hated it. It was the first time I'd filmed anything like that. She was so young and pretty." After weeks travelling across the war-torn countryside, he reached the Latvian border – hours before it was closed by the Russians – and returned to London via Stockholm.

Slocombe's war was spent filming documentary material for the Ministry of Information, with his salary paid by Ealing studios, on condition that they could also make use of his footage. It was the beginning of a 17-year association with the studio, a period of enormous creativity in which he used multiple exposures to fill Kind Hearts and Coronets with multiple Alec Guinesses, made revolutionary use of Technicolor in Saraband for Dead Lovers, experimented with UV-sensitive chemicals in The Man in the White Suit.

The velocity and variety of his career is difficult to convey. I might describe how the wheel of an aeroplane barrelled over his spine during the making of The Blue Max, or his travels across Europe with Katie Hepburn, or what happened when he made intemperate use of the word pederaste over lunch with Jean Genet. But if I keep my mouth shut, then somebody might persuade Douglas Slocombe to write his memoirs. So instead, I'll give you the details of a movie that proved the most satisfying and frustrating film of his career. Satisfying because it contained what, in his own estimation, was his best work; frustrating because most of it was destroyed by the company for which it was shot.

The story of the production begins with a meeting between John Huston and Jean-Paul Sartre in the director's castle in Galway. Sartre was persuaded to supply the script, and the pair agreed on the casting of Montgomery Clift as Freud and Marilyn Monroe as Cecily, a composite character derived from several canonical cases. (Monroe's analyst forbade her to accept the part.) During the script conference, Huston, who claimed to have learned hypnosis while making Let There Be Light (1943), attempted to put Sartre under the influence. He failed; but perhaps he should have tried harder. When the first draft came in, Huston, the producer Wolfgang Reinhardt, and Slocombe were shocked to receive a document which, in Slocombe's words, "looked liked four telephone directories, running into several thousand pages. If they had filmed it as it was, it would have run to about 48 hours long." Sartre declined to rewrite it, and dissociated himself from the project, whereupon Reinhardt and Huston set upon the script with their scissors. Pre-production began in Munich, during which time Slocombe experimented to find ways of giving different visual textures to the four narrative modes of the movie: present-tense events, flashbacks, dream sequences, the reminiscences of Freud's patients. "And then," he recalls, "we came across a stumbling block. And that was poor old Monty Clift."

In 1957, while filming Raintree County, Clift had smashed his car into a tree, disfiguring the left side of his face. He was also suffering from cataracts, and mixing his alcohol with barbiturates and amphetamines. "The part was as long as that of Hamlet," remembers Slocombe, "but the boy couldn't remember anything, not a line. He asked John whether we could shoot scenes around him, leaving his speeches until later. And John played ball, so we did that. And then the time came to shoot his material. I would light the set for nine o'clock in the morning, and when Monty came in at a quarter past nine, he would say he wasn't quite ready. He would just lie on the floor on his tummy, and, like a child trying to learn his history, he'd look at his script and silently mouth the words."

After lunch, Clift would be ready to attempt a scene. "Sometimes he could remember the first word, but then he'd need to be prompted. He would then manage two more, and stop again. After a time getting nowhere, I suggested to John that we try idiot boards. We devised the shots so we could put these little things behind the back of a chair, or on somebody's back, or behind a vase on the mantelpiece. But then we found that wouldn't work because he couldn't remember where they were. It was absolute agony." Sometimes, that agony became physical. "John, on one occasion, took him off into a room, and then one heard screams coming from the room, with Monty saying, 'don't kill me! Don't kill me!' and the sounds of smashing furniture."

The shoot over-ran by several months. Universal responded to the increased costs by attempting to sue Clift, and the legal action made him virtually unemployable. However, at a screening for studio executives, Huston announced that the film was exactly as he wanted it to be seen in cinemas. "I remember," says Slocombe, "the Universal chaps sitting next me saying under their breath: that's what he thinks." They sliced it down by 90 minutes, and released it as Freud: The Secret Passion, "in case," notes Slocombe, "people thought it was the name of a frozen food."

Much of Slocombe's careful work on Freud may have been lost, but so much else remains. His picture-book compositions, for instance, in Kind Hearts and Coronets, as rich in pretty horrors as any Tenniel illustration. That breathless sequence in Raiders, in which Harrison Ford escapes that relentless rolling boulder to stagger into a welcoming committee of spears. That moment in The Servant in which Dirk Bogarde's furious shadow looms on the stairway. Or the carnal luminosity of Diana Dors in Tread Softly Stranger: she never looked better or more dangerous, as if every curve was packed with light bulbs...

Douglas Slocombe's view of the world may now be vague and indistinct, but he has bequeathed his vision to us. And his blindness has brought new, unlooked-for insights. With the living room now in darkness, he tells me how he recently obtained an unabridged recording of Ulysses. As a child he listened, bemused, to these words from Joyce's own lips; even as a grown man, he found the text hard work. Today, however, he sits there entranced.

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