Born in 1909 the son of a wealthy wool merchant James Mason had a privileged English upbringing, being educated at Marlborough and Cambridge.
After a disastrous start in films when he was removed from Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) he made his debut in a quota quickie the following year.
Mason reached stardom in the Forties with a series of melo-dramas for Gainsborough studios, in the first of which, The Man in Grey, he portrayed a sadistic aristocrat who delights in humiliating his aristocratic wife.
In the Fifties he went to Hollywood, making his mark in films like Hitchcock’s North by Northwest or alongside Judy Garland in A Star Is Born. Apart from his memorable performance in Lolita his later films were generally unworthy of his talents although his presence always enhanced movies like The Last of Sheila or the Agatha Christie thriller Evil Under the Sun.
James Mason’s long career was a search for quality roles in quality films, few of which were available to him in Britain in the Forties when his cruel handsomeness made him the country’s biggest star. His open criticism of the British industry and his departure for America made him a rebel – but there he was able to mature as the excellent performer he undoubtedly was. Mason died in 1984 but he was a true star for many decades – here is our pick for five of his best movies.
Odd Man Out (1946)
A classic drama from a stage when Mason was keen to break away from the Gainsborough melodramas. Here in Carol Reed’s classic he is playing an IRA leader who is wounded during a holdup. Desperately trying to escape the police, Mason encounters people who variously help him, refuse him help, or try to betray him. Magnificent photography by Robert Krasker and William Alwyn’s score create an atmosphere of doom. Mason’s performance is often considered one of the best of his career. William George Fay, who plays the Catholic priest was one of the founders of Dublin’s famed Abbey Theater in 1904 with William Butler Yeats. He had appeared in the famous first production of J. M. Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World in 1907.
Director: Carol Reed
Cast: James Mason, Robert Beatty, Fay Compton, Cyril Cusack, William Hartnell, F.J. McCormick, Beryl Measor, Robert Newton, Dan O’Herlihy, Kathleen Ryan
The Desert Fox (1951)
Mason is utterly convincing as Nazi Field Marshal Rommel, who gained notoriety for his successful North African campaigns. The big-budget actioner portrays not only his victories and ultimate defeat but also his personal doubts and conflicts with his superiors back in Berlin. The Desert Fox was the first film to have a “teaser,” or pre-credit sequence at its opening. The ten-minute sequence prepared the audience for the film to come.
Director: Henry Hathaway
Cast: James Mason, Richard Boone, Leo G. Carroll, Eduard Franz, Cedric Hardwicke, George Macready, Everett Sloane
North by Northwest (1959)
This is one of Hitchcock’s greatest, with suspense, action, and comedy in one non-stop motion picture. In one of his patented ordinary-man-in-exceptional-circumstances plots, advertising executive Cary Grant gets kidnapped from a business engagement and winds up in a baffling, twisting battle with enemy agents, led by ruthless Mason, and on the run from both police and the agents. This technically superb film yielded some of Hitchcock’s best-known images: the crop duster bearing down on Grant in a remote cornfield, Grant and Saint dangling from Mt. Rushmore, Saint’s frank seduction of Grant on a train. In rather too typical Hollywood fashion the wonderfully starchy Jessie Royce Landis plays Cary Grant’s mother although in real life, Grant was ten months her senior. Essential viewing. Academy Award Nominations: 3, including Best (Original) Screenplay.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Cary Grant, James Mason, Leo G. Carroll, Josephine Hutchinson, Philip Ober, Eva Marie Saint
The novel that remains an unquenchable controversy as adapted for the screen by its author, Nabokov. While the novel, though once banned, is accepted in most quarters as a masterpiece, this film version by Kubrick is hotly debated. A professor (Mason) who takes rooms in a widow’s home conceives a distracting obsession with her teenage daughter, eventually marrying the grasping mother (Shelley Winters) in order to remain close to Lolita (Sue Lyon). The triangle results in murder and humiliation. Lyon seems a bit too knowing as the object of obsession. Academy Award Nomination for Best (Adapted) Screenplay.
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Cast: James Mason, Peter Sellers, Shelley Winters, Sue Lyon
The Boys from Brazil (1978)
Levin’s best-selling novel is the basis for this suspenser about the propogation of a new race of Hitlers. When one of his proteges locates the elusive Nazi war criminal Dr. Josef Mengele (Gregory Peck), famed Nazi hunter Ezra Lieberman (Laurence Olivier) stumbles on Mengele’s grand scheme to launch the Fourth Reich. Mason’s aquits himself with effortless ease alongside Peck and Olivier as Eduard Seibert. Gregory Peck’s children worked on the film during their breaks from college. His son Anthony Peck was an assistant director and his daughter Cecilia Peck was an assistant unit photographer. Nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Laurence Olivier.
Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Cast: James Mason, Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier, Rosemary Harris,