When Anecdotes Collide


I collect movie stories in my brain. Some of them may just be stories. But sometimes two stories link up, and we have CORROBORATION.


A chap I know once worked on a commercial for Kwik-Fit, a garage company notorious for their cheesy musical T.V. ads. The cinematographer, bizarrely, was the great Douglas Slocombe, slumming it rather. My friend got a few stories out of the great man:

“I never use a light meter. I used to have one, but I was on a boat and I threw it at the director. It went over the side and I haven’t had one since.”

Now Slocombe measured the light just by looking at the shadow of his thumb on the palm of his hand.

When somebody asked Freddie Francis (Slocombe’s near-contemporary) about light meters, he said it was impossible to work without one. “You’ve got to bear in mind not just the difference in the light between 8am and 8pm, but the difference in your eyes.”

Anyhow, in Philip Kemp’s study of Alexander Mackendrick, Lethal Innocence, we hear about Mackendrick arguing with Slocombe about the lighting of a ship’s figurehead during the fraught shooting of A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA. Slocombe hurled his light meter at his intransigent director. “I think it missed him.”

Sandy looking cute


My late friend Lawrie Knight worked in commercials after his career as an assistant director in British films such as THE RED SHOES. He recalled with awe his one glimpse of Orson Welles, emerging from a taxi in a foggy London street, swathed in cape.

Later that day he was in a recording studio and mentioned the dramatic scene. “Oh yes, Mr. Welles was in here today, doing a voice-over for fish fingers.”

crumb crisp coating

Yet Lawrie was unaware, until I told him, of this famous set of outtakes:

(Incidentally, this clip has some of the smarter comments I’ve ever seen on Youtube: voice-over artists and directors supporting Welles against the ad people!)


The elusive Mr. Welles again. Many of you will have heard about how, while shooting OTHELLO, Welles ran up against various cash difficulties. The film was made “on the installment plan,” whenever Welles was able to raise enough cash by acting in other movies.

At one point, although the costumes had been made, they could not be delivered, due to a little matter of unpaid bills, so Welles brilliantly improvised the murder attempt on Cassio, staging it in a bath-house so that most of the characters would not require costumes, only towels or undies.

Big bathers

Flicking through the pages of Charles Drazin’s In Search of The Third Man, we learn that Welles, engaged by Alexander Korda to act in THE THIRD MAN, was charging his OTHELLO costume bills to the budget of THE THIRD MAN. (Some Welles fans would like to deny the confidence trickster side of his personality, I prefer to revel in it.) Knowing the importance of keeping your star happy, Korda shrewdly allowed this fraud to continue — until Welles had completed his scenes in Korda’s movie. Then he swiftly stopped payment.

The result would seem to be: a masterful piece of cinema flung together by Welles in a fit of inspiration to get himself out of a purely practical difficulty.

black market

Drazin’s book is highly recommended, but Michael McLiammoir’s account of filming OTHELLO, Put Money in thy Purse, is even better. And then there’s Welles’ own documentary, FILMING OTHELLO. In some future Utopia where Welles’ heirs actually speak to each other, we shall have all the various edits of Welles’ OTHELLO together in a box set, with FILMING OTHELLO as the main extra. If we eat well and get some exercise, we may live to see this.

3 Responses to “When Anecdotes Collide”

  1. LOVE the Slocombe anecdote about light meters. I wonder what some of those old film greats would think about all the CGI shit that is so predominant now.

    An excellent reminder of when films and their artists still mattered.


  2. Though I can’t seem to track down a clip now, the 1990s cartoon Animaniacs, which was frequently loaded with film references, featured a take-off on the Welles voiceover session in one episode featuring a character named the Brain who was voiced to sound like Welles.

    When I first saw the Animaniacs scene, I didn’t know about the Welles clip and had absolutely no idea why the Brain was in a recording studio reading this stuff and melting down; seeing the two side-by-side years later, I was impressed, first, with how closely they’d hewed to the Welles lines (sans profanity) and second, that they’d done this at all on a show nominally aimed at kids.

  3. I’m not *100%* certain Slocombe didn’t have somebody running around behind his back with a light meter, making adjustments for him… “He was a delightful old fellow,” said my friend, “but he was kind of a menace, wandering backwards into light stands and stuff.”

    Yeah, Animaniacs was always fond of throwing in obscure stuff. It’s fine up to a point. British kids shows are afraid to try anything some of their audience might not get, so they’re rather dumb. American ones sometimes get carried away and pitch stuff way over the viewers’ heads. And it’s possible to over-rely on smart references. John Kricfalusi’s blog is full of griping about this.

    I like a healthy mix, as in the Toy Story films. we can’t ignore this big ol’ post-modern melting-pot we’re all jumbled up in. I once directed a spoof of the Amok Time episode of Star Trek, and discovered that British 12-year-olds don’t even know who Mr. Spock is!

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