Film Studies: From Brutus to Humbert Humbert, always the English gent

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There was a time in my life when I supposed that all Yorkshiremen were like Len Hutton or Geoffrey Boycott. Can you imagine the relief when I discovered that James Mason was from Huddersfield? It was like realising that, if Hutton and Boycott had made a dry 54 together before lunch, and before Boycott had Sir Leonard run out on the last delivery, still there was Compton to come in the afternoon, inventing shots, and giving the surviving Boycott fits. (Boycott at tea, by the way, is 51 not out, stagnant in his deep suspicions of the pitch and everyone else.)

The National Film Theatre has a rich and varied James Mason season running through until after Christmas, and dedicated to nothing less than the pleasure principle. Mason could contrive to be and sound like anything you liked - along his merry way he was Gustave Flaubert, Brutus, Rommel and Humbert Humbert, and he made them all sound like a Belgravia gentleman, or a Belgravia butler who had the gentleman down so thoroughly that he could carry off any engagement to complete satisfaction. Just ask the gentleman's wife.

I never think to ask whether Mason was a good actor (in which case should he have been knighted?). He skirted such horrors by going Hollywood and becoming American, though his swish accent never wavered. I suppose it is quite possible, and legitimate, to argue that as the IRA man in Odd Man Out, as the embittered intelligence man in The Deadly Affair or even as Brutus (speaking the speeches most sweetly) in Julius Caesar, Mason was a superb actor. Still, that wasn't quite his point: for he was at his best, always, most suave, most wry, most sexy and amusing, as a man putting on an act.

Where did that post-modernism come from? Perhaps it started in those thunderous good looks (beauty is the unavoidable word), put with a disposition that could take nothing seriously. That is the flamboyant spirit of those English films that made him - Fire Over England, Thunder Rock, The Man in Grey, Fanny by Gaslight, The Seventh Veil, The Wicked Lady. He was a highwayman in that last film, seducing Margaret Lockwood (and you have to realise that as the war ended, Mason and Lockwood together were Magnificent Depravity). They were also a welcome dash of costume, faux manners, bodice-ripping and lust in the age of ration books and dyed coats. It's telling, I think, that next to the platoon that was Hawkins, Attenborough and Bogarde etc, Mason contrived to make very few war films. His first serious excursion in uniform, in fact, was as Field Marshal Rommel in The Desert Fox - and I'm sure he took wicked pleasures in the tremors that would send through England.

His move to Hollywood was disapproved of in England. But where else would he find things like Caught and The Reckless Moment (both for Max Ophuls), Five Fingers (where he really is a butler who is a secret agent), Rupert of Hentzau in a re-make of The Prisoner of Zenda, to say nothing of A Star is Born (with Judy Garland) and North by Northwest where he is the villain and Cary Grant is the hero - except that their mutual appreciation society, their sheer respect for each other's class, begins to amount to a love affair?

Mason was never quite a star in Hollywood - though his Englishness was easily cast in assorted villainous roles. But he often wrote a bit and sometimes produced. This National Film Theatre season reaches a proper climax in one of those films, a revival of the terribly neglected Bigger Than Life.

This was taken from a New Yorker article about the impact of the new drug cortisone on a man suffering from what we would call manic-depression.

It was a picture made at Twentieth Century Fox on which Mason had a deal as both producer and actor. Thus he nursed the script into being and then collaborated with the director Nicholas Ray in a very useful way. Though Mason's accent never fluctuates from SW1, it's the story of a middle American, hard pressed to cope economically in his family situation, yet a teacher with vast intellectual ideas. The strain proves too much. The drug seems like rescue, but then it turns to ruin.

Bigger Than Life is one of Nick Ray's great films, and it is a searing portrait of a certain kind of middle-class existence based on lies.

You could handle such subjects in America in the 1950s, but not now. What startles still is the ease with which Mason can leap from ordinariness to a kind of mania that suggests warped genius. That Mason wasn't even nominated is a travesty, and a measure of the way his mocking panache was by then taken for granted.

Have they put the statue up in Huddersfield yet?

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

James Mason season: NFT, London SE1 (020 7928 3232), to 30 December. More details at www.bfi.org.uk

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