James Mason in 5 Fingers

The Man In Grey: James Mason

8th May 2009

James Mason, one of the greatest stars of British cinema, was born one hundred years ago this month. Jack Watkins celebrates the career of the man women loved to hate…

At university in the early Eighties, it was a mystery to me that some female friends still regarded James Mason, by that time a septuagenarian actor whose heyday had been in the 1940s, as massively attractive. Over twenty years on, and the idea of those young women finding the older man so appealing is a happier issue to contemplate.

Do students today have the same reverence for the stars of old black and white films as we did then? The early 1980s was a time when so-called New Romantics were desperately, self-consciously trying to recapture ‘style’ after the scruffy seventies. The matinee idols of the Thirties and Forties oozed glamour and grooming. To a generation before us, they probably seemed passé, but we lapped up re-screenings of their films on TV and felt we were on a voyage of rediscovery. I picked a trench coat in a retro clothes shop and, delighted at the way it padded out the shoulders of my stick-like figure, for months strolled around convinced I was Humphrey Bogart.

5 Fingers

James Mason, as I say, was never a personal favourite, but he was undoubtedly a great star, and always seems to have been a hit with the ladies in the audience. He became the man they loved to hate through a series of sadistic charmer parts in Gainsborough period melodramas of the mid 40s, his brooding surface poise hinting at unspoken depths of depravity.

Mason died, aged 75, in 1984, going out with a bang as it were, in The Shooting Party, in which he movingly played an Edwardian aristocrat. This month he would have celebrated his one hundredth birthday (15 May), and you can enjoy his acting once again in the Screen Icons: James Mason Collection of five DVDs. These include one of his most famously ‘bad’ roles, The Man in Grey, two of his finest performances in Odd Man Out and 5 Fingers, plus The Man Between (like Odd Man Out, directed by Carol Reed) and the Ealing Studios curiosity Bells Go Down. They are evidence of the skill of the consummate actor who, whatever the shortcomings of the material or other players he was cast against, never personally seems to have missed a beat.

The outstanding British director Michael Powell (A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, A Canterbury Tale) draws an apt pen picture in his autobiography A Life in Movies of the proud Mason early in his career in the 1930s, as a ‘tall, black-haired, magnificently built man in white rowing shorts and a singlet which modelled the shape of his muscular limbs.’

Born in Huddersfield, the son of a wealthy textile merchant, Mason had attended Marlborough College and graduated from Cambridge with a first in architecture – so the inner confidence and self sufficiency that was so singular a part of all his performances was real, not assumed.

He’d come to London to make his way in the theatre, ‘expecting,’ says Powell, ‘to find it at his feet.’ But this was the age of Olivier, Richardson, Gielgud and Redgrave, and though Mason appeared to possess all the attributes, the great parts he craved did not come his way. The velvet voice and immaculate composure, so powerful on screen, simply did not have the same impact on stage.

Odd Man Out

He turned to film acting, though even here progress was slow, until during the war the Gainsborough films made him a box office draw. I watched The Man in Grey recently, in which, as the brooding, cold-hearted Lord Rohan, he famously took a riding crop to his mistress, Margaret Lockwood. It is not, to be honest, a very good film, and wasn’t thought so even in its day, but its faint air of tongue-in-cheek naughtiness, and the sight of Stewart Granger and Mason rolling around in the dirt in their boots and breeches, made it a wonderful piece of escapism for a war-weary Britain.

Fanny by Gaslight, They were Sisters and The Wicked Lady saw him in similar wicked beast mode, and such was the nature of his female fan base that Mason was even drawn to write a satirical article, Yes I Beat My Wife. In truth, he despised these films and moaned about “knocking myself about in an unbroken line of banalities.”

More satisfying was Odd Man Out, a Carol Reed masterpiece, in which Mason played a wounded IRA gun-runner, forced to go into hiding in the dingy alleys and back streets of Belfast. The inky black photography drew up a vision of the city as an earthly hell, and was Mason’s personal favourite among all his films. Unsurprisingly, its imagery and poetic intent sailed clean over the heads of audiences, and it was a box-office flop, although critics, historian and buffs have been drooling over it ever since.

By the 1950s, Mason had left for Hollywood, but though he did some good things – 5 Fingers, Madame Bovary, Julius Caesar, Lolita among them – he never quite achieved the same stature that he had held back home. Darkly scowling, or suavely charming, whether he liked it or not, he was a very British type of film star.

Screen Icons: James Mason Collection is available
to buy on DVD now from Optimum Home Entertainment

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