James Mason's film career was built on the enthusiastic reaction, mainly from women, to his sadistic treatment of a number of young women in a series of films in the early and mid-1940s. His “dangerous” persona at that time was a revelation to British audiences more accustomed to the cultured, sexually restrained style of theatrically trained actors such as Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, and John Gielgud. Mason, on the other hand, was tall, dark, and brooding, and he became, for a period, every woman's favorite brute, which made him a huge box office draw.
After studying architecture at Cambridge, Mason made his professional stage debut with a repertory company in Croydon. In the 1930s, after stage work with the Old Vic and Dublin's Gate Company, Mason appeared in low-budget “quota quickies,” such as Late Extra (1935), with supporting roles in better films such as Fire over England (1936) and The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel (1937). In 1941 he had a key role as the sensitive hero in Lance Comfort's gothic noir film Hatter's Castle (1941). More important to the development of his “dangerous” persona was his starring role as the brooding war-affected composer in The Night Has Eyes (1942) who arouses strong passions in the vulnerable, repressed heroine (Joyce Howard). The film's pervasive sense of danger was reinforced by the fact that the characters were trapped in an isolated mansion on the Yorkshire moors.
Mason's ability to convincingly project a feeling of repressed violence and sexual sadism, coupled with suggestions of emotional disturbance, was further developed in his breakthrough role as the sadistic Lord Rohan in The Man in Grey (1943). While Rohan was an unmitigated villain, Mason's character as Nicholas, Ann Todd's perverse mentor in The Seventh Veil (1946), was also disturbing, especially in his overt hostility to women, as he explains to Todd in their first encounter. However, Todd, like Howard in The Night Has Eyes, welcomes Nicholas's firm control, and the immense popularity of this film reinforced the desire of producers to continue casting Mason in similar roles. In both The Seventh Veil and The Man in Grey Masoninflicts physical damage on his women—beating Margaret Lockwood to death in The Man in Grey and thrashing the delicate fingers of pianist Todd in The Seventh Veil. Mason's highwayman, Captain Jackson, opposite Lockwood in The Wicked Lady (1945), was more of the same for Mason; the only difference is that this time, Lockwood kills him. There was also his persecution of Phyllis Calvert in Fanny by Gaslight (1944).
A welcome change for Mason was his performance as the vulnerable Northern Irish gunman Johnny McQueen in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947). This critically celebrated film depicts the last hours in McQueen's life after he has been fatally wounded in a raid on a linen mill to obtain money for the IRA. Before he left for Hollywood, following the success of Odd Man Out, Mason gave a less showy performance as a doctor avenging the death of his lover in Lawrence Huntington's film noir The Upturned Glass (1947), where Mason costarred with his wife, Pamela Kellino, whom he murders in the film.
Mason was voted number one male star in Britain in the mid-1940s. It took time to establish himself in Hollywood—an early film role was as a sympathetic doctor with a working-class clientele in Max Ophuls's noir film Caught (1949), with Mason, now the hero, opposite the archetypal screen villain Robert Ryan. A more significant noir performance by Mason was in his next film for Ophuls, The Reckless Moment (1949), as Martin Donnelly, a small-time criminal who tries to blackmail Joan Bennett but gradually falls in love with her. His regeneration is complete when he protects Bennett from his boss and dies taking the blame for an earlier murder he did not commit to prevent Bennett and her daughter from facing an investigation from the police. This was Mason's most important role in a film noir produced in Hollywood.
After essaying the famed German General Rommel in two films for Twentieth Century Fox, The Desert Fox (1951) and The Desert Rats (1953), and the notorious espionage agent Ulysses Diello (“Cicero”) in Five Fingers (1952), Mason played Norman Maine, the fallen movie star, in the Technicolor remake of A Star Is Born (1954). This role earned him his first Academy Award nomination. As Mason gradually moved into character parts in Hollywood in the 1950s, he produced a number of his films, including Nicholas Ray's bold melodrama Bigger Than Life (1956), a story of a teacher who terrorizes all around him after becoming affected by prescription drugs. Later, Mason was cast as Professor Humbert, who becomes infatuated with underage Sue Lyon, in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962). In 1969 Mason traveled to Australia to portray a painter, loosely based on the activities of artist Norman Lindsay, who gains inspiration from young Helen Mirren in Age of Consent (Mason also produced this film, directed by Michael Powell).
The 1970s and early 1980s were less rewarding as he walked through numerous European coproductions, although he gave a mannered performance as the cruel plantation owner in Mandingo (1975), and he was a fine Dr. Watson in Murder by Decree (1979). The standout performance by Mason in his final decade was as the amoral lawyer Edward Concannon in Sidney Lumet's courtroom drama The Verdict (1982), demonstrating again that when the script and direction were right, James Mason was a fine actor. He died in Switzerland in 1984. Aside from his nomination for A Star Is Born, Mason also received Oscar nominations for Georgy Girl (1966) and The Verdict (1982). Mason was nominated for best British actor at the 1963 BAFTA Film Awards for Lolita (1962) and at the 1968 Awards for The Deadly Affair (1967).
Selected Noir Films:Late Extra (1935), Troubled Waters (1936), Twice Branded (1936), Prison Breaker (1936), Catch As Catch Can (1937), I Met a Murderer (1939), Hatter's Castle (1941), The Night Has Eyes (1942), Alibi (1942), The Man in Grey (1943), They Met in the Dark (1943), Fanny by Gaslight (1944), A Place of One's Own (1945), The Seventh Veil (1945), Odd Man Out (1947), The Upturned Glass (1947), Caught (1949), The Reckless Moment (1949), One Way Street (1950), Lady Possessed (1952), The Man Between (1953), Bigger Than Life (1956), Cry Terror! (1956), The Deadly Affair (1966), 11 Harrowhouse (1974), The Marseille Contract (1974), Murder by Decree (1978), A Dangerous Summer (1982), The Verdict (1982).
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