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The Times (28/Jul/1984) - Obituary: James Mason

(c) The Times (28/Jul/1984)



Versatile cinema talent

Mr James Mason, who died yesterday in Lausanne, Switzerland, at the age of 75, was a highly intelligent and creative cinema performer who appeared in more than 100 films. And though many of them were unworthy of his talent he could lift the poorest material just as he could enrich the best. He made a reputation in parts calling for moody and tyrannical introspection, notably as Ann Todd's sadistic guardian in The Seventh Veil, before maturing into a versatile and dependable character player.

One of his best performances came under Sir Carol Reed's direction in 1947, when he played a dying gunman on the run in Belfast in Odd Man Out. Soon afterwards, expressing his disenchantment with the British cinema, he left for Hollywood where, after a difficult start, he successfully built a new career.

James Mason was born in Huddersfield on May 15, 1909, the son of a textile merchant. He was educated at Marlborough and Peterhouse College, Cambridge where he took a first in architecture and got a taste for acting. His professional debut was at the Theatre Royal, Aldershot, in 1931 and two years later he made his first London appearance in Gallows Glorious at the Arts Theatre. He joined the Old Vic company and then the Gate Theatre in Dublin, where he played between 1934 and 1937.

He entered films in 1935, playing a reporter in Late Extra, but for several years most of his parts were in low budget "quota quickies". In 1939, with two friends, Roy and Pamela Kelli-no, he set up his own film, I Met a Murderer, a crime story in which he was the killer of the title. He and Pamela Kellino were married two years later.

During the Second World War, he worked with ENSA and his film career finally took off through a series of costume melodramas which gave him the opportunity to create a memorable gallery of suave and vicious villains. The film that made him into a star was The Man in Grey, in which he took a whip to Margaret Lockwood; Fanny by Gaslight, They Were Sisters, and The Wicked Lady, also with Margaret Lockwood, followed in similar vein.

The Seventh Veil proved to be the most successful of all and from 1944 to 1947 Mason was voted Britain's top box-office star. Among those who admired his performance in The Seventh Veil was the veteran American director, D W Griffith. But Mason had become increasingly unhappy with the films he was bing offered, and with what he saw as a monopolistic stranglehold on the industry by J Arthur Rank; and at the peak of his popularity he departed for Hollywood.

It was to be some time before the move paid off. Mason's outspokenness did not endear him to Hollywood and his choice of parts was not always happy. He appeared in two films for the emigre director, Max Ophuls, Caught and The Reckless Moment, and made a splendid Rommel in The Desert Fox; while his Brutus in the 1953 production of Julius Caesar helped to make it one of the best screen versions of Shakespeare.

But it was not until 1954 when he played opposite Judy Garland in George Cukor's remake of A Star is Born that he managed a major performance, a harrowing study of a man's tragic decline, for which he gained an Oscar nomination. He brought the same nervous intensity to the part of a drug addict in Bigger Than Life (1956), a film which he also produced.

The best of his later roles was Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick's film of the Nabokov novel, Lolita, which appeared in 1962. To his portrayal of a middle-aged man's infatuation with a 12-year-old girl, Mason brought a degree of sympathy, combined with wry humour, that few other actors could have managed. With Odd Man Out, it ranks as his outstanding screen achievement.

Three years earlier he had been a memorable villain in Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest and had given an engagingly tongue in cheek performance in an adaptation of the Jules Verne story, Journey to the Centre of the Earth. He maintained a prolific output through the 1960s and 1970s, making two and three films a year, though many were routine assignments easily, and perhaps best, forgotten.

There was still, however, much to relish. His Timonides in The Fall of the Roman Empire was a bright spot in an otherwise dreary epic and he had good supporting parts in The Pumpkin Eater and as Gentleman Brown in Conrad's Lord Jim. He added to his stock of German officers in The Blue Max (1966) and in the same year he was in Georgy Girl, a story of the "swinging sixties", and a John Le Carre thriller, The Deadly Affair.

In 1969 he turned producer again for Age of Consent, directed in Australia by Michael Powell; but a long-cherished Powell project, The Tempest, with Mason as Prospero, proved abortive. The martinet Yorkshire father in Spring and Port Wine was a tailor-made part, there were more Germans in Cross of Iron and The Boys From Brazil and a well judged Mr Jordan in the fantasy, Heaven Can Wait. He was superb as the old tutor recalling his days in India in James Ivory's Autobiography of a Princess.

Once he became established in films, Mason returned only occasionally to the stage. He was in an unsuccessful Broadway play, Bathsheba, in 1947, and during the 1950s played Angelo in Measure for Measure and Oedipus in Oedipus Rex at the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario.

His marriage to Pamela Kellino, which produced a daughter, Portland, and a son, Morgan, was dissolved in 1964. His second wife was an Australian actress, Clarissa Kaye, whom he married in 1971. His autobiography, Before I Forget, appeared in 1981.