Current Obsession: James Mason

I ran through 3 James Mason films in the last two days, with hopefully more to come (at least The Reckless Moment, I’m also taking recommendations if you have any!!!). With classes starting I have a lot of dead time to fill, most of these films were watched during four hour breaks between classes; me tucked in a corner somewhere with my laptop and the sound blasting with my lovely new earphones. While I tend to prefer watching films on my television (although my abnormally large laptop is not THAT much smaller than my actual television), this seemed to be a particularly intimate experience. It might have helped that two of the films were astonishingly good… that does help! Instead of talking about them in the order I watched, I’m going in order of preference. As usual read at your own risk, as I’m bad with spoilers…

I’m very excited because Thursday I’ll be seeing Max Ophuls’ Madame de… on the big screen. It’s a recent favourite of mine, and I’ve taken this as an excuse to see more of his films (I’ve also seen Letters from an Unknown Woman, which I’m fairly indifferent too). So, I watched Caught (1949), an American noir about a young woman who’s dreams come true when she marries rich. Her dreams crumble apart when he becomes an insensitive brute, the role is played expertly by Robert Ryan who was supposedly channelling Howard Hughes. She eventually leaves him and tries to make her own living, where she meets a young doctor Larry Quineda whom she quickly falls for, making her life all the more complicated. The film is unfortunately not very good, a lot of this is due to Barbara Bel Geddes who just doesn’t have the acting chops for the role. Although I’m not big fan of Joan Fontaine, nor her typical withered woman role, she would have been much better for the part. Enough to elevate the film to minor classic status. Bel Geddes’ greatest fault perhaps is her inability to interact with those around her, there is no real connection with her and the other actors. It’s only supporting player Curt Bois who draws interaction from her, as a rather obnoxious assistant to Ryan’s millionaire.

Ophuls’ own visual style adds interest to the rather meandering plot, as the camera moves through walls, and characters who are probably standing within feet seem like they’re in different worlds. Space is emphasized greatly, in a very way. The homes of the rich are opulent, large and empty. They are not homes, they aren’t lived in, they aren’t enjoyed. This contrasts with the cramped existence of the doctor’s world, where there never is enough room, but there is so much joy and living going on that it feels more at home than any of the mansions. The contrast is emphasized when Ryan enters this world, and is shocked, even disgusted by it. He even remarks about his wife’s tiny apartment that only someone who never saw the rooms he lived in could be able to bear living there. A strange irony as his wife had decided to leave that world, and was determined not to return to it. Speaking of Ryan, he absolutely carries the film. His performance is grandiose and wonderful, one of his best… although he is very consistent. This combined with the visuals are enough for me to mildly recommend it, but still.. just barely.


Next up comes the first Nicholas Ray film to truly blow me away. I really liked On Dangerous Ground, Rebel without a Cause and In a Lonely Place… but something was missing. Was it James Mason?… Bigger than life is an astonishingly fresh and frightening film, James Mason stars as a hard working school teacher who falls ill. His life in danger, the doctors suggest a miracle drug that will save his life. At first energized, the drugs begin to take a terrible toll on him. He becomes dependent, and his personality and behaviour become erratic. More than just a film about addiction and pharmaceuticals, the film is an indictment on the middle American lifestyle and the characters’ desire to live beyond what is expected of them. Cinemascope is used to great effect, while the effect was no doubt created for epics in the style of the Robe, it was perhaps best used in Ray’s and Sirk’s melodramas. The enormity of the space creates this delirious emptiness between characters. The small home, which comprises most of the set, is exaggerated and adapted to match Ed’s ups and downs. It’s almost fetish-ized, as even the most pedestrian action and object seems to take on resonating symbolism about the characters.

The film has so much to offer, and can be read in so many different ways I can’t even think where to begin. I feel to start at the end, or after.. or French? French? The new wave critics adored Nicholas Ray, he was named alongside such notables as Hitchcock and Hawks as a cinematic “auteur”. His visual style, and consistent thematic interests support this idea. Like his other films, Bigger than Life is about a character, or characters who can’t fit in to society… or more accurately don’t seem to want to. The ambiguity of the direction and Mason’s performance suggest that in some ways the drug was just a catalyst for revealing his inner desires and anxieties. He’s free from inhibition, and can say what he never would say out loud. In a way, the drug allows him to escape his life as an underpaid, underappreciated teacher, as well as his physical problems. The results however, are more than disastrous. Total freedom from societal conventions leads to more than anarchy, it leads to a fascist madness. His character’s new found liberation is peculiar, because even now it’s unclear whether he’s everything the American ideal rejects… or a fully realised masculine ideal (perhaps they’re one in the same?). As the film progresses, he seems increasingly disturbed by his sons’ lack of manliness. He often pushes him beyond his physical limits, asking him “Don’t you want to be a man?” His character champions firmness and discipline, particularly in a scene which is quite funny as he calls childhood a plague, and education the cure. He puts a lot of importance on discipline, and the rejection of (what I imagine) are new ideas like personal expression as creating a generation of morons. This, tied with his rejection of his wife, seems to be a rejection of femininity and all that is not masculine, strong and manic. He’s quite literally bigger than life as his character becomes the ultimate alpha male, slowly rising above everything. By the end, he is even above religion and conventional morality as he declares in a frightening scene “God was wrong!”, before trying to enact his own vision of megalomaniacal justice.

All of these ideas and effects are enhanced by Ray’s direction, as mentioned earlier space is used beautifully. It’s especially potent in the transition from Ed pre-drugs, and post- drugs. The low angles of the second half of the film suggest German expressionism, and famous characters of horror films. He’s not unlike Nosferatu, or Frankenstein as he towers above the other characters and the viewers. Extreme shadows are also used, especially notable in the now iconic scene where he towers over his son teaching him math. It’s right out of a horror film… so much of the film actually is more horror than anything else, not only in the shots, the character even in perpetuating stereotypes like cutting phone lines. It’s an interesting approach to the material, which is probably why it’s worth watching and remembering. Godard once said this is among the 10 greatest American films. You know what, he might not be so wrong.

Considering my praise for Bigger than Life, a film that truly only gets better the more I think about it, it’s weird it’s not even my favourite film of the past three days. That honour goes to the engrossing and emotionally powerful Odd Man Out (1947). Directed by Carol Reed, the man behind The Third Man the film is dark and grungy noir, much like it’s famous cinematic brother. I’ve honestly never been a huge fan of the Third Man, although I do have a powerful urge to rewatch it. My only viewing was years ago, and the print was a terribly faded and the audio was worse. Okay right, back to the film that rocked my world. Odd Man Out is an incredible film about a young Irish nationalist, Johnny McQueen (James Mason) who escaped from prison and was finally going back to work in a bank robbery that goes horribly wrong. He soon finds himself a murderer, injured and all but abandoned alone.

The film truly takes on a noir philosophy of life, playing on themes and ideas that run heavily through the works of people like Chandler. The film feels very much like those chess games Phillip Marlowe was always playing with himself. McQueen however is everyone’s pawn. First and foremost, he’s a pawn of the nationalist movement. Much like a recent film I saw Duck you Sucker! (1971), revolution suffers criticism as preying on the poor… or killing the poor for the benefit of a nouveau riche. While the film doesn’t focus entirely on the revolution, the constant remarks about Johnny’s youthfulness speak to me as indicating that there is a perception that he shouldn’t be in that line. The film doesn’t condemn the nationalist terrorist group which might have been done in a modern context, nor does it advocate their actions. It’s an essential establishment for the skewed moral battles that will follow. The revolution represented a variety of ideas, but it’s clear in the behaviour of the characters that they are not true examples of their cause. As McQueen is literally holding on to life, he is exemplifying a noir idea/question about the meaning of life. In a world where men and women cannot be trusted, rarely if ever exemplify their virtues, and even those in authority are corrupt tyrants, why is life worth living? What in the film inspires McQueen to go on? I think some would argue his love for Kathleen, but besides clear affection she uses him as much as the others. This makes a stirring final scene bitter instead of bittersweet, in an unexpected and ambiguous turn of events. Throughout the film while a lot of compassion and empathy is thrown away, it’s only at their convenience. The film crosses a fine line, and never crosses over to overtly manipulative drivel. I don’t know if pathos was ever as effectively delivered.

Looking at how each character comes to betray McQueen is dealt with powerfully, many accusations are thrown around, but many people also help him. Their intentions and motifs are often unclear and self serving. Only one character is above this, Father Tom, but he himself embodies a childlike idealisation of faith. He is a beacon however, and it seems one of the few people McQueen himself respects and admires. He can’t save McQueen, it’s outside of his powers. He is stifled by authority and his situation. He is without any significant power in this world, another frightening realisation that even spirituality and faith cannot save a man. I come back to the question, why does McQueen endure? He is a walking corpse, between life and death but he cannot let go. As others mention, if his body is brought back it’s only so they can hang him. He has nobody to live for, or nobody seemingly worth living for… and yet, there he is. He continues to persevere. This film is about the search for meaning in life, especially in the darkest moments. I’m still deliberating to the conclusion it comes to, the conclusion I arrive at… I think the film values life, and places virtues above the vices, although it does paint the vices with vicious confusion. The style of the film reflects the turmoil of the characters, the weather is raining and snowing, the locations cramped and claustrophobic and the police crawl the city like a plague. As a thriller the film is incredibly effective, especially in the tense first half. A first fight in a crowded streetcar is particularly engrossing. This was apparently James Mason’s favourite performance, it’s certainly one of his more interesting ones. His character is as good as silent through most of the film. In his body language and his famous Mason has to convey intense emotion and deliberation. Something about this film truly spoke and inspired me. If you like noir, Mason or the Third Man, this film is a must-see.

9 responses to “Current Obsession: James Mason

  1. I think I heard somewhere that Anthony Hopkins does a bang-on impersonation of Mason’s distinctive voice–apparently, Hopkins is a brilliant mimic and over-dubbed some of Olivier’s dialogue from “Spartacus” when it was cleaned up and re-issued some years back…
    Great post…

  2. I had a teacher once who said that James Mason had one of the only truly perfect voices he ever heard. I wonder if that means Hopkins has at least two of the two most perfect voices!

  3. That’s actually the exact instance my teacher was referring to. I was doing an adaptation of Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart and included the short as part of my research in pre-production (it actually end up being a huge inspiration for my look). It’s a stunning piece of work.

  4. I cheated. Do you live near Toronto? Colorado is like… close right? I think it’s playing there in theatres next month. It’s also on regio 2 DVD.

  5. Great reviews of these films. Other Mason films you might enjoy are “The Seventh Veil” (which has been on TCM lately, but is not available on DVD), and his Gainsborough films for fun and gamse with Margaret Lockwood (“The Wicked Lady” and “The Man in Grey”). However, one of the real oddities of Mason’s career during the Gainsborough years was a film he made in the ’40s called “A Place of One’s Own” in which Mason plays a 60 year old man. His acting is excellent and the story is charming. Mason’s fans rejected him in any role other than a sexy sadist in those days, however. Clearly, I am also obsessed. He was a wonderful and complex actor.

  6. I think I’ll be seeing the Seventh Veil soon, I’ve been so busy lately though I’ve had a difficult time catching up on my viewings. I hate when life gets in the way! I’ve never heard of A Place of One’s Own… seems very difficult to find but I’m interested. Thanks for the reply and the recommendation.

  7. Pingback: 2008 in Review « House of Mirth and Movies

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