Monday, September 5, 2011

James Mason: a thoroughly insecure investment?

The first time I saw James Mason was in the early nineteen-eighties.
He was near the end of his life by this time, grey-haired and moustached. I was about nine or ten, and he scared the crap out of me.
This was when the BBC showed the mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot (1979), and those pasty, floaty vampires that leaped out of dark corners and scratched on your window panes at night were scary, but Mason’s icy, refined creepiness was even more lingering when the time came to turn the lights out.
When I saw him again a year or so later, I couldn’t believe the transformation.
Now he was Dr Watson to Christopher Plummer’s Sherlock Holmes in Murder By Decree (1979); he looked the same, but instead of evil he was warm, charming and eminently trustworthy - the very model of an English Victorian gentleman.
I was still scared, this time by what remains the most darkly terrifying recreation of Jack the Ripper's London on film, but Mason's steadfast, decent and reliable Watson was one of the film's few beacons of light.
I was even more impressed.
Then, finally, a little later again, I saw The Wicked Lady (1945).
Now he was young, dashing, passionate, with thick black hair and a magnetic vitality: every inch the man film historian David Thomson described as “the most stylish leading man in British films.”

Which is a roundabout way of saying that James Mason was among the most versatile and talented of all British leading men.
Do people still love him? He doesn't get mentioned a lot these days, but he's always been one of my favourites, and it's a very interesting career. Few British stars had his range, or his magnetism, his dynamism or his sensitivity.
He was born in Yorkshire in 1909, and even in his later Hollywood years a trace of Yorkshire accent can always be discerned in that oh so melodious speaking voice.
If the voice is the actor's basic instrument, no actor was so fortunate as Mason. I don't know if he worked on it, and played it up in professional circumstances, or if it was how he really talked all the time, but if the latter it's pretty amusing to imagine him ordering a pizza.
It's simply the greatest actor voice of all time, simultaneously soothing and disquieting, like honey-coated gravel.
For proof, turn to the 1953 animated short The Tell-Tale Heart, with Mason narrating Poe's first-person confession of a madman trying to convince the reader of his sanity, and just wallow in it. The combination of the mesmerising, stylised imagery and Mason's voice makes for probably the most creepily effective Edgar Allan Poe movie ever made. Sorry, Vincent.

The essence of Mason for me is in the Gainsborough melodramas that first brought him true stardom: rollicking bodice-rippers that exploited the relaxed censorship of British wartime to wallow in sadism and villainy, decadence and duplicity, rape, murder, bondage and flagellation. And all in wonderful approximations of period dress and settings, and peopled with a gorgeous rep company of British stars: Margaret Lockwood, Patricia Roc, Phyllis Calvert. For ladies who liked their men upright, dashing and unthreatening, there was Stewart Granger, for everyone else there was Mason. In The Wicked Lady and The Man in Grey and Fanny By Gaslight he was mad, bad and dangerous to know, but devilish handsome for all that, and providing, as writer Jeffrey Richards put it, “the same powerful sexual charge as those dark, cruel, fascinating outsiders of nineteenth-century Romantic fiction, Rochester and Heathcliff.”
Women adored him regardless of, and a little bit because of, the depths of misogynistic villainy his characters plumbed, bringing his cane down upon Ann Todd's poor defenceless fingers as she played the piano in The Seventh Veil, horse-whipping Margaret Lockwood to death in The Man in Grey or, as highwayman Captain Jerry Jackson in The Wicked Lady, surviving a public hanging before returning broken-necked to Lockwood's boudoir to give her one from beyond the grave.
Rather like the later Hammer Horror films, these barnstorming historical dramas were savaged by the critics but audiences (particularly Britain’s newly emancipated home army of women) flocked to them.

A pacifist, Mason was a conscientious objector during the war, a stance which estranged him from many in his own family (and cost him a part in Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve) but did not, surprisingly perhaps, alienate the film-going public, who consistently voted him among the top male stars at the British box-office throughout the period. And while Granger laboured under his matinee idol image for the rest of his career, finding worthwhile roles harder and harder to come by, Mason continued to flourish as a hugely talented character actor.
Immediately after the war, he appeared in Carol Reed’s brooding masterpiece Odd Man Out (1947) as Johnny McQueen, a mortally wounded IRA operative on the run in wintry Belfast. Considered by many to be his best ever performance, his work in the film was aided by a magnificently doom-laden score by William Alwyn and some exceptionally poetic images.

At this point, Mason decided to try his luck in Hollywood. In later life he was wont to characterise this period as a failure, and it is true that he never became a Hollywood star in the strictly limited sense of one whose name alone is enough to sell a picture. But he was in regular demand, and he gave many noteworthy performances in several of the fifties’ most memorable and important films.
He was Oscar-nominated for A Star is Born with Judy Garland and a splendid Captain Nemo in Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (both in 1954), a sensitive and convincing Rommel in two films, most importantly The Desert Fox (1951), Brutus to Brando’s Mohk Annunny in Julius Caesar (1953) and one of his best smooth villains in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959).
“The public never knows what it's getting by way of a Mason performance from one film to the next,” he said around this time. “I therefore represent a thoroughly insecure investment.”
Physically, he seemed to get older very quickly, and to welcome the chance, in the early sixties, to slip into offbeat middle-aged roles in unusual, sometimes controversial projects such as Lolita (1962) and the Swinging London drama Georgie Girl (1966) with Lynn Redgrave, in both of which he played older men making predatory advances to younger girls. The latter is on the whole rather a charming relic of the era and one of its more worthy, if entirely typical, prospects for reappraisal; the former is a Kubrick adaptation of a Nabokov novel, so it's really up to you.

Despite this, along with the equally unlikely Cary Grant, he was one of the many actors initially considered for the role of James Bond in Dr No. The casting seems unimaginable now, but it prompts the reflection that he would have made a first class Bond villain, at least one of which (Drax in 1979’s Moonraker) he was offered but declined.
But he seemed refreshingly happy to do work that was cheerfully beneath him. Many a Briton of a certain age will remember him warmly in an eccentric documentary, The London Nobody Knows, in which he lugubriously tours the capital's dying markets, rotting and condemned music halls, and Jack the Ripper murder sites, captured for posterity in grainy Eastmancolor mere seconds before the re-developers obliterated them forever. Americans might remember him doing 'The Wonderful World of Beards' on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
And here he is revealing that he likes the unusual flavour of Thunderbird wine. I'm not surprised it tastes unusual if you drink it out of a tumbler stuffed with ice and sliced fruit.

And here he is on What's My Line?:

Never entirely comfortable during his years of stardom in the forties, he found far greater fulfilment playing supporting roles in the second half of his career.
He published his autobiography Before I Forget in 1981. It begins: “My purpose in writing this book is to get things out of the way.” Revealingly, he once said that he would like to be remembered “just as a fairly desirable sort of character actor”.
His final film, The Shooting Party, was released after his death from a heart attack in 1984.