The star of the sidelines

As a new season at the NFT makes clear, James Mason was never better than when playing second fiddle. Ryan Gilbey celebrates a sly genius
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The Independent Culture

Near the start of Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947), there is a power struggle staged with such subtlety and politeness that we may not even notice it is taking place. Johnny McQueen is the chief of Northern Ireland's gunrunning "organisation", but there are doubts about his suitability to lead an upcoming raid. "Your heart's not in this job, is it?" asks Dennis, his second-in-command. Johnny winces at the suggestion; a lock of black hair dangles over his brow like a question mark. But the tug-of-war isn't between Johnny and Dennis - it's between Johnny and himself. That's why it was so fitting that the part was played by James Mason, whose most notable work is being shown at the National Film Theatre for the next two months.

"What made James so good," reflected his co-star, Dan O'Herlihy, "is that inside himself he was already on the run." Mason wasn't the first choice to play Johnny - Stewart Granger had already passed on the role - but then he was rarely to be found at the top of anyone's list. Even the local rag of his home town, Huddersfield, proclaimed him only its second-most famous son ("after Harold Wilson").

It was common knowledge that Mason didn't get the lead in George Cukor's 1954 version of A Star is Born until after Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart and Marlon Brando had each made their excuses. One of his last parts, as the malevolent lawyer in The Verdict (1982), was a hand-me-down from Burt Lancaster. Perhaps this unfortunate reputation as an understudy fuelled the rumour that Mason had been cast in Lolita (1962) only once Noël Coward had declined the role. Still, it's true enough that Mason fretted over having taken what he considered to be "the wrong part" by playing Humbert Humbert in Kubrick's film; Peter Sellers, he reasoned, was bound to attract all the attention in the showier role of Quilty - the attention, that is, that always seemed to make Mason squirm in his skin.

This might be heartbreaking if it didn't fit squarely with the actor's own conception of himself. Toward the end of his life, he said: "I would have liked to have been the Warren Beatty of my day, a producer of flair and a warrior-merchandiser as well as a brilliant actor. Somehow I never quite managed all of that." To ascend to the position of privilege enjoyed by Beatty would require business acumen and a knack for self-promotion that even Mason must have known was absent from his DNA. It is telling that he felt at his most comfortable playing Dr Watson to Christopher Plummer's Sherlock Holmes in Murder By Decree (1979). "It's a role that for once is totally within my range," he purred.

None of which should diminish the contribution he made to screen acting. By accident or design, he was assigned second fiddle, but upon those strings he played haunting variations on the theme of quiet, gentlemanly torment. "James seemed unfulfilled as an actor and as a man, which was part of his emotional attractiveness," noted the screenwriter Buck Henry. "He was a man of all kinds of confusions inside himself."

One of the most profound internal conflicts in Mason's life, in the view of his biographer Sheridan Morley, was when he declared himself a conscientious objector. "I believe he went to his grave still uncertain whether his conscientious objection to the Second World War had been an act of considerable isolationist courage or the appaling blunder of a coward," writes Morley. This was not a man born to be at peace with anything, least of all the authority of his own decisions. Ironic that he should find some of the combat he craved secretly in a public and controversial endorsement of pacifism.

He had been severely reprimanded at school for excessive "coxiness" - described by Morley as "an undue desire to make some sort of impression on fellow schoolboys." And while it's unlikely this experience alone could have been responsible for an entire career strategy, there is an edgy embarrassment in Mason's choice of projects, and the tenor of his performances, that seeks to deflect attention under cover of soliciting it. Partly this spoke of an inherent unease with the glamour and artifice of film acting - "It really is such a silly profession, when you get right down to it," said Mason.

But his reluctance to play the celebrity game was widely seen by critics and commentators as, at best, a perverse rebuttal of popularity and, at worst, downright rude. The actor didn't win any friends in Britain by defecting to America at the end of 1946, and at the height of his UK success, shortly after firing off broadsides against this country's film industry, which he regarded as all industry and no film. Once he arrived in California, his enemies back home were thrilled that his unpopular choice of projects gave them plentiful opportunities to dispatch poison-pen letters disguised as reviews. But what looked wayward to the critical orthodoxy in the late-1940s and 1950s now seems nothing short of fearless.

C A Lejeune complained of Mason's US work: "Not only does he eschew the close-up, dodging recognition in the shadows, generally muffled in a long overcoat, but he seems reluctant to turn up on the screen at all." The biggest indignity in the eyes of the critics was that Mason's appearances in his first three projects - Caught, Madame Bovary and The Reckless Moment (all 1949) - were scarcely more than cameos. Lejeune conflated quality with quantity, slighting Mason's brooding turn in the latter film by accusing him of having "a Harry Lime complex".

When the critics weren't taking pot shots at Mason, he could be relied upon to do the job just as well himself. He claimed to be "disappointed and depressed" by his portrayal of the swaggering souse in A Star is Born, which now ranks among his most richly felt work. And the thought of "playing boy scouts" in Scotland while shooting I Know Where I'm Going! prompted him to pull out of that film, which would have given him a rare chance to attempt an uncomplicated romantic part, and to be seen in a kilt.

In fact, he might have tipped the movie off balance: a love story as light-headed as that one could only be complicated by a man with so much trouble in his eyes. When he points a gun at Peter Sellers in Lolita, and tells him calmly, in a nasal whine touched with decadent sadism, that he is about to die, you believe him. He sounds as unstoppable as a bullet: a velvet-coated bullet.

It wasn't that Mason didn't know how to have a more conventional kind of fun - you can smell the greasepaint on him as he whoops it up in The Wicked Lady (1945) or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). But his intensity seems bound up with discomfort. In Lolita he exploited it for comic effect; fingering the urn of Shelley Winters' late husband, or greeting a suggestion of "swinging" with a bashful shrug and a flutter of eyelashes, he makes Humbert's desire seem dangerously innocuous by appearing to be little more than a child himself. When he partially revisited the scenario in Age of Consent (1969), some of the fun had drained away; this was a more carefree romance, and Mason seemed uncomfortable without something to make him uncomfortable.

Frequently he sought out characters who would contrive emotional incarceration rather than face the daunting prospect of freedom. An obvious example is Johnny in Odd Man Out: the scene in which he confesses his sins to a child, believing that she is a guard and he has been returned to the former safety of his prison cell, provides a distressing insight into a personality conditioned to crave punishment.

But there is also the bullying father in Spring and Port Wine (1970), who transforms family mealtimes into distressing rituals of torture, and realises too late that he has become a prisoner of his own regime. Meanwhile, in Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life (1956), the audience isn't even allowed that conventional release of pathos. Mason's portrayal of a family man addicted to cortisone escalates into a kind of operatic horror. The red-tinted camera tricks Ray uses to evoke the character's breakdown look half-hearted next to the terrified rage in Mason's eyes. He's like a patient who feels every incision beneath his anaesthetic, but can do nothing to avert the scalpel.

When he didn't go looking for anxiety, he could expect it to attach itself to him just the same. His role as the villain in North By Northwest (1959) seemed straightforward enough on paper - he wasn't called upon to do much more than menace Cary Grant and exercise his dominion over Eva Marie Saint. But Martin Landau, who played Mason's henchman, invested his co-star's role with unbidden inflections by virtue of his own performance. "I decided to play my character as a homosexual, very subtly, because otherwise he would have been just a henchman. The only person who didn't like this was James Mason because it cast aspersions on his character; it basically turned him into a bisexual." It's a choice image: Landau, with his Method training, transforming a virtual walk-on part into flesh and blood through judicious embellishment, while making Mason, supposedly the master villain, shudder and shrink in the shadow of innuendo.

Whenever sex was present in one of Mason's roles, he handled it like a city gent tidying his desk. For all Humbert's impish glee, he has compartmentalised his desires with businesslike efficiency. When Mason embraces Winters in bed, cocking a snook at the bedside portrait of her teenage daughter, there is a sense of tidiness: a place for everything, and everything in its place, even paedophilia. It seems that Mason enjoyed a similar briskness in his personal life. Before he married his first wife, Pamela Kellino, he rented a room in the house that she shared with her director husband Roy. They were seen out socialising as a trio, and the secret dynamics of their private living arrangement acquired a public front when they began making films together.

But only in a handful of pictures did Mason ever shake the feeling that he would rather have been doing something else. Dirk Bogarde had some of the same distractedness, though his was laced with arrogance; Mason, you felt, was simply on the lookout for an unattainable optimism. Odd Man Out is one of the exceptions. That he regarded it as the finest picture of his 49-year film career isn't evidence of any great perceptiveness. This is not just a great film - it is an analysis of its lead actor's mercurial, unreachable persona. In the first scene, his words flow softly but quickly, in the manner of a coax, and your ear naturally inclines toward the screen. That's why the sense of loss is so acute when Johnny's presence is reduced in the film's second half to a succession of wounded reaction shots. "We hardly hear him speak in the film," noted Roman Polanski. "But when he does, it's incredibly moving."

The movie presents Mason in all his devilish charm - the brooding eyes, the shadows pooling beneath his guillotine-blade cheekbones - before reducing him to a corpse. He literally fades away while we watch. In the final shot of Johnny collapsed in the snow, that line comes back to you - "Your heart's not in this job, is it?" "This job", of course, being life.

I wonder how Mason, who never seemed so content as when he had placed all possibility of contentment beyond reach, would have answered that question.