Distinguished and debonair, James Mason was a leading man for many years, but gravitated toward more daring and character roles for some of his best films. I don’t do impressions, but Mason was one of the few that i accomplished.
From Gen. Rommel to to Capt. Nemo to Lolita to Hitchcock, Mason took risks: he played the villain, the obsessed mariner, the lustful older man, the spy and other complex, interesting roles as he moved into middle age. He was not afraid to play criminals (Odd Man Out) unsympathetic (Verdict), weak (Evil Under the Sun), evil (Frankenstein: The True Story), traitorous (The Mackintosh Man), the tragic (A Star is Born) and Nazis.
Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) stars Mason as an Irish nationalist who stages a robbery to get funds to finance their political operations. Mason’s character is injured and on the run after the robbery. He’s a bit too sophisticated and mannered for this earthy role, yet his performance is very good. The film is full of shadows, artsy camera angles, and breathy dialogue. Mason would not be action star, but he could play dramatic roles in those films.
Lolita, could easily have derailed Mason’s career, as the middle-aged intellectual who falls under the spell of the nubile teenager, and she causes his life to fall apart. Mason’s character is actually not the most ribald or morally offensive among the kooky characters in the film. Still, it was daring of Mason to play this character, but since he had a tragic end, that might have muted some criticism.
Mason was a contemporary of Richard Burton, John Mills, Laurence Olivia, John Gielgud, Orson Welles; actors who balanced popular film roles with more serious classic roles. Later in life, he cashed in, playing parts in bad films, capitalizing on his marquee values, his sophistication and his rich, stately voice. Born in England, Mason spent his early years on the stage and then in British minor films and then television. After World War II, Mason landed in Hollywood. The 1950s was his most successful decade, when he was in his 40s, enjoying leading man roles, and featured parts in A-list films.
Personally, I feel his best work from from the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, and the selectively in his later years. Mason appeared in numerous films that weren’t worth his time, I suspect just for the paycheck. His voice and dignity earned him roles as lawyers, military officers, angels and doctors. Roles that went to Hollywood royalty in exchange for stately marquee value. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman get those roles now.
Mason played Gen. Erwin Rommel in two films. The Desert Fox (1951) is the best, and one of his early Hollywood films. Written by Nunnally Johnson, with technical advise from Rommel’s widow, and directed by Henry Hathaway. The film focuses on the events after his desert action.
I remember Mason starring in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth, films I watched and enjoyed as a kid. Mason was perfect for those fantasy-action films. Nemo is a bit like Capt. Ahab, more interested in revenge and hardly a sympathetic character. Mason has that throttled intensity that makes you wonder about his psyche.
A Star is Born (1954) is regarded as one of Mason’s finest performances. Teaming with Judy Garland and director George Cukor, Mason plays an actor on his way down, losing a battle with alcohol. Mason was nominated for an Oscar Abe won a Golden Globe for the role.
The other film that made a huge impression on me was North By Northwest. His role as Vandamm, the worldly spy, was magnified by his culture and sardonic humor. Charming and disarming, Vandamm dealt in secrets to kill for, and was open to the idea of pitching his girlfriend from an airplane to her death. Nice guy.
The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) has its moments. These costume films had their heyday, but were tremendous gambles. This film had a huge budget and great cast. Billed fourth, but above the title, Mason is fine, his British accent aside. The film failed at the box office, but Mason and others escaped unscathed from the experience. The film plays on elements in The Godfather and Dallas, with Mason as the consigliere in this sandals and chariots drama.
Georgy Girl (1966) features Mason as the top-billed actor in more of a featured role. His Leamington is an older man who has fallen in love with the much younger Georgina, who works for his children’s school. The film, a huge international hit, put Mason back in the role of an older man pursuing a young lady. He plays Leamington as supportive of his invalid wife, but having not so repressed feelings for a younger woman who seems to inject some life into his conservative existence. He draws up an agreement for her to become his mistress. In the end, they marry and adopt her roommate’s baby. A film reflecting the attitudes of the time.
Mason’s later roles ranged from forgettable to meaty. Warren Beatty cast Mason as Mr. Jordan, the top-angel in Heaven Can Wait. He had only limited screen-time, but he made it count. The film was a big hit and utilized Mason’s dignity and precise vocal delivery for this emotionless, but wise character.
The Last of Sheila was an ensemble mystery film that never got much notice, but it’s an exciting who-done-it. Mason’s role is small, but critical to the story.
The Verdict was perhaps Mason’s last, substantial role. Opposite Paul Newman, Mason is an unscrupulous attorney looking to steamroller the plaintiff’s outgunned attorney (Newman). The steely Mason shows no mercy.
Perhaps his most fun role was in Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun, where he played a henpecked husband and Broadway producer as part of a wonderful ensemble cast. Mason is Odell Gardener, is under the thumb of his abrasive wife, played by Sylvia Miles.
James Mason sometimes referred to himself as a film actor and not a film star. This partially explains the arc of his career and the choice of some roles. His divorce from first wife Pamela, left his finances in a state that pushed him to accept some roles not worthy of his talent.
Even his lesser roles are worth watching, he was a craftsman at work. Mason died in 1984 at age 75, in Switzerland where he lived away from Hollywood.