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.


12 comments:

Lya de Putti said...

I don't half fancy James Mason. Phor.

Matthew Coniam said...

Yes, he's a dish all right. Even I can see that.
Bet you'd like to share a glass or two of that Thunderbird wine with him.

kate gabrielle said...

Great post! I LOVE James Mason! I spend way too much time defending him though... many people (cough.. Casey and Millie.. cough) can only accept him as a super creeper thanks to Lolita and Georgy Girl (and creeper though he may be, I still adore him in those movies) when his performances in those films are just proof that he's such a great actor. He could convince you he was a perverted old man in one film and a super suave and handsome criminal in another. His voice alone could send chills up your spine or convey the utmost refinement. I think he was one of the best actors ever, and he really is sorely underrated.

Meredith said...

Immediately had to look up 'The London Nobody Knows' and was fascinated by it. Especially love the beginning where he comes out with his very dapper cane swishing through the rubble. Rather haunting. Also I think if I ran into James Mason at market my reaction would be decidedly less composed.

Mykal said...

Matthew: Great post. You capture Mason’s charm and great talent perfectly. I loved that ad for Thunderbird. Wow. I’m not sure I’d call it’s flavor delightful, though.

And you are so right: He could do creepy quite like nobody else. My favorite creepy role as Dr. Polidori in the made for TV movie; Frankenstein, the True Story. Man was he so smooth and oily – and slightly sadistic.

Glad to see you posting more often again!

NoirGirl said...

"Honey coated gravel" - that's a perfect description of his voice!

Kate's already related my feelings about James Mason so I won't rehash, but both she and you will be happy to know that my opinion is gradually changing. I have found that I quite like his earlier films in the 40s & 50s (before old-man creepiness set in!). I recently watched The Reckless Moment with Joan Bennett and was riveted by his performance as a kindly blackmailer (who but JM could play that?!).

Your comparison of him to Stewart Granger is particularly fascinating. I never realized how SG was typecast as the matinee idol, but you're quite right. He was always cast in the "Stewart Granger to the Rescue" movies.

But, back to JM: That wine commercial is a riot! Do you think Orson Welles' gig was a response to this?

I searched YouTube for a clip of the Beards skit, but came up with nothing. That sounds incredible and I'd quite like to see it!

And OH MY GOSH you linked a What's My Line! Whenever I watch those, I can never just watch one. They are fun little time capsule character studies of the stars. I especially love when the panel gets exasperated not being able to guess who is sitting in front of them. :)

You and Kate will also be pleased to know that because of this post, I raided the Netflix Instant library of James Mason films and my queue is now brimming with the suave gentleman. :)

James Nicholas said...

Nicely done, Mr. Coniam. Love your stuff. I've got to go check out some of these shows!

James Nicholas said...

Okay, got a couple in the queue!

George said...

Excellent. I too cast my vote for Mason to be the best.

Some performances you disdained to mention which are nevertheless worth catching by Mason fans:

'Bigger Than Life', a 50s melodrama in which he's a small-town American school teacher who develops megalomania from a bad reaction to medication. He is splendidly rude to all around him and then scarily barking mad.

His touching role as the old-fashionedly decent, dying jewel-appraiser in the 1974 heist movie
'11 Harrowhouse.'

His rare comic turn as the Captain in 'Yellowbeard', alongside Mr Prostitute.

You're too curmudgeonly about 'Lolita' though, which is best role outside the Gainsboroughs for the bath scene alone.

Matthew Coniam said...

Kate -
Yes indeed, though he's not quite a pervert in Georgy Girl, is he? I mean, she's of age, and he is offering marriage... I really like the ending of that film; I thought it came as a nice surprise. But yes, get C and M to watch any of his forties films and they'll see what a dashing fellow he was.

Meredith -
Glad you enjoyed London; a very odd little film indeed, and Mason with his cloth cap and brolly, is really charming in it. That bit in the Bedford Music Hall is incredibly eerie. It has, needless to say, perhaps, been pulled down completely now.

Mykal -
Is Thunderbird still around? You sound like you speak from experience...
And F: The TS - Yes, I'd forgotten we were both fans of this much underrated production. And Mason is wonderful in it. One of Jane Seymour's best too, if one's tastes run in that direction.

Casey -
That's more like it!
'The Wonderful World of Beards' can be found on the recent Time Life box set of The Best of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour Season 2. A wonderful, if maddeningly self-destructive, comedy team, massively talented, that threw their careers away.

James -
Great to hear from you. Sorry I've not been around Movie Club of late. Lots of real life things happening. And I never did get Out of the Past, after some ridiculous Paypal dispute entitely of their own doing, the transaction was cancelled. But I will be back soon, I promise!

George -
I ommitted them only in ignorance: they sound excellent, but the only one I've seen is Yellowbeard, which I enjoyed very much when I was about 18 but haven't seen since. (I remember the line "half cuddle, half rape" with amusement.)
Is it possible to be too curmudgeonly?
Yeah, Lolita's okay; I know. But Kubrick's legacy can survive the odd jab in the ribs, and on the whole needs it.

Mykal said...

Matthew: “What’s the word? Thunderbird! What’s the price? Thirty twice!”

Indeed I have, in days or youth (high school or there about), spent the occasional evening ‘neath the open sky sharing a bottle or two of this vintage with fast friends. Suffice to say we didn’t take ours on the rocks amid a comfortable drawing room, ala Mr. Mason. In fact, my comrades and I were so close on these evenings, we had no use for glasses at all.

Yet, despite the powerful bonds of friendship forged during these evenings of wine tasting, I often woke up quite alone, often in the bushes. Did you know that Thunderbird, if taken liberally (and I’ve never known thunderbird to be taken any other way), turns your lips and teeth a blackish color? Gods Truth. This can be quite alarming the first times it happens if one isn’t forewarned.

I can't say if it's being made anymore, but I bet it is.

Anonymous said...

I'm American. A fan of James Mason. I mentioned him to my mother, who's in her 80's. Her one word response: "Creep!" Guess he did play quite a few of them!

First Mason film I ever saw was The Prisoner Of Zenda, in which he played Rupert of Hentzau, the charming villain, to Stewart Granger's dual role of Ruritanian crown prince and British commoner (who subs for the drugged prince at his coronation).

Mason and Granger had a very lively duel at the climax.

This was a remake of a Ronald Colman classic (with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. as Rupert).

I have often wondered what it would have been like with Mason in the lead and Granger as the charming villain. Mason was so much more like Colman in that he came across as modest and reserved, and had a somewhat similar, hypnotic voice. Granger was surprisingly good as a villain, as in Footsteps In The Fog (1955), costarring his wife Jean Simmons.

In the years following I have been enormously impressed with James Mason's performances, especially in Lolita and A Star Is Born.

But he was a great actor, photogenic, a person who I think will be regarded as one of the greats for years to come.

Dave