Monday, July 26, 2010

Ten James Mason Films

Due to this article in the "Scenic Routes" column that the AV Club runs about every week or so. (Which, on its own, is usually a pretty interesting read.) That made me think of James Mason and what my favorite James Mason movies might be, here is what I came up with. Its sort of difficult, his career lasted for a good fifty years or so. Oh, also, my colleague posted a poem that seems to be about or inspired by The Prisoner of Zenda, I believe the 1952 version that James Mason was in, and starred Deborah Kerr. Weird coincidence that I was thinking of this today. (One interesting aside, that is only interesting to us in the here in now, Mason did a lot of television, in 1956 he even had what seemed to be his own variety show appropriately called The James Mason Show. He was even in 1979's Tobe Hooper-directed, Salem's Lot. So he did a lot of teleplays, and one of the ones he did was on something called The Schlitz Playhouse. Again this only funny in hindsight, the juxtaposition of a somewhat low-rent beer like Schlitz offering high class entertainment.)

My Favorite James Mason Movies:

(in chronological order)

1) Odd Man Out (1947)

Neat little failed-heist movie directed by Carol Reed. Mason plays Johnny McQueen, the leader of some sort of clandestine Irish organization. He sets up a robbery, and that goes sour, as they do, he is wounded and can't make it back to their hideout. So he takes to the back alleys of Belfast to try to evade the police, in particular a police chief who really has it out for him. While its not The Third Man, this is a nice little precursor to it, because the atmosphere is just oppressive, with Mason running through the back streets trying to stay one step ahead of the police. Really good stuff.

2) The Desert Fox (1951)

I don't know exactly why, but I always found it interesting that they even made a biopic about Rommel just 6 years after the end of World War 2. I suppose, I shouldn't, I mean they made movies about World War 2 DURING World War 2. As a rule, I am usually not much of a biopic person, but this one is pretty interesting. They probably made it because Rommerl plotted to assassinate Hitler. But it follows Rommel's career from the Afrika Korps, including his work on the defenses of Fortress Europe, that plot to assassinate Hitler, and his subsequent suicide. Its like watching Das Boot in a way, fascinating, even though you in your mind shouldn't be identifying or rooting for these men. I do think it was a somewhat bold choice for Mason to play Rommel. He has a career full of them.

3) Julius Caesar (1953)

This is a 50's method-acting powerhouse showcase where James Mason (and Deborah Kerr) hold their own against Marlon Brando in this Shakespeare adaptation.

4) A Star Is Born (1954)

Mason is great as Norman Maine, the alcoholic movie star who helps out Judy Garland's Vicki Lester's career. The two meet in the middle, develop a romance, but it all starts to go sour as Lester's career takes off, and Maine's keeps plummeting.

5) 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea (1954)

1954 was a good year for James Mason, it seems. Its interesting ina big budget (particularly for the time) Disney adventure that Mason can walk the tightrope between being a semi-mad, out-in-out villain, and being a sympathetic character. He also serves as a nice counter to Kirk Douglas here.

6) North By Northwest (1959

Here,as Phillip Vandamm, silky-smooth as one of the best villains in one of the best Hitchcock movies.

7) Lolita (1962)

This probably could have killed his career, playing the noted and tortured pervert Professor Humbert Humbert. This is a highwire act since he is supposed to be the one the audience identifies with, since he also narrates. Kubrick might have helped (I am quite sure that he had to do this) by making Lolita older here than she is in the book (In the book she's twelve). But for Mason, he plays it note-perfect, while being able to work opposite Peter Sellers, and work with Stanley Kubrick.

8) Georgy Girl (1966)

If there is one thing James Mason can pull off it is being a part of the stuff, British upper crust. Here he wants the titular Georgy, played awesomely by the late Lynn Redgrave, to be his mistress. He even offers her a contract! Which is made somewhat creepier since her parents are domestic servants living there at his estate. There is an undercurrent of class conflict to the whole film, which is obviously focused on Georgy and her attempts to fit in with her swinging single London roommates, and eventually grow and mature as all their lives begin to change.

9) Heaven Can Wait (1978)

This is somewhat of a trifle, I guess, but I really enjoy Mason's turn here as Mr. Jordan (or god!?)

10) The Verdict (1982)

This is one of Mason's final roles (he died in 1984) What a way to go out, this is really an amazing movie. It features one of the best Paul Newman performances ever as an alcoholic lawyer that stumbles from one seedy case to the next until he happens upon his chance for redemption in the form of a malpractice suit against a Catholic hospital in Boston. James Mason plays Ed Concannon, who is defending the hospital. Mason brings the perfect balance of elegance and cunning to the table.

Eddie Izzard does a pretty good impression of James Mason. Check it out around the 4:45 mark:


  1. You know, as great as James Mason was, I sometimes think his filmography should be better. Not that it's not amazing but where is his great romantic film? Where is his Hitchcock lead role?

  2. You know whats weird? When I was going through his filmography I was sort of thinking the same thing. I mean he DID work with the likes of Carol Reed, Hitchcock, and Kubrick-so there's that. But he did seem better as someone who's a bit off somehow (Humbert Humbert) or the villain. I see him more as a troubled soul, somehow, than a real romantic lead. And maybe thats how people saw him too.

  3. James Mason was always complex and interesting to watch. He played his menacing, villainous lead roles with intelligence and panache. I don't believe anyone else could have done any of the work he did on par or better than he. He didn't play the romantic lead in an ordinary way, either. In "The Seventh Veil," for instance, he was the tortured soul with whom his young charge fell in love. However, neither of them knew how they felt about one another until a psychiatrist (Herbert Lom) intervened to ferret out the love, by exploring various conflicting emotions hidden in their psyches. In "A Touch of Larceny," he courted Vera Miles in an obtuse manner, perpetrating a fraud in order to afford to support her thereby winning her hand. After all is said and done, as an actor, James Mason was one of a kind and a class act, even in unworthy projects like "Mandingo," where his character was the only one with any depth whatsoever.........