Was James Mason born with that voice? Were his first words spoken in that velvety, Yorkshire-accented purr; that voice of private amusement and secret schemes; a voice that might belong to a dirty-minded aristocrat or an aristocratically minded scoundrel? “I’m not what is called a civilized man,” says Mason as Jules Verne’s smoking-jacketed sociopath, Captain Nemo, in the 1954 film version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and we take him instantly at his word. For while Mason (who would have been 100 this year) did play his share of ordinary, civilized men in his 50-year career, his special gift was for those characters touched by genius or madness — or both, destined by will or circumstance to live outside the boundaries of normal society. It is here that you will find his Ulysses Diello, the lowly valet who fancies himself a spy in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s diabolically clever real-life espionage tale, 5 Fingers (1952); the grandiloquent über-villain Phillip Vandamm of Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959); and of course Humbert Humbert, the aesthete author who feels more than a fatherly attraction to his nubile stepdaughter — and who fails to see the harm in that — in Kubrick’s Lolita (1962).
It is said that Mason — the subject of a 10-film LACMA retrospective running through the end of the month — got into acting on a lark, after studying architecture at Cambridge. By the age of 26, he had already landed a leading part in Late Extra (1935), a quickie crime drama in which he is a dogged newspaperman on the trail of a policeman’s murderer. These were years of widespread film production in the U.K., resulting from the Parliament-mandated film quotas of 1927, and Mason reaped the rewards, appearing in another six pictures in 1936 alone and eventually becoming a regular face in the popular costume melodramas produced by the Gainsborough studio (A Place of One’s Own, The Wicked Lady). In 1945, he scored a hit on both sides of the Atlantic, with The Seventh Veil, showing early evidence of his gift for the macabre as the Svengalilike guardian of a famous concert pianist. But his greatest performance of this period came as the wounded IRA leader Johnny McQueen, who finds his personal loyalties pitted against his professional ones in Carol Reed’s magnificent Odd Man Out (1947). Perhaps Mason’s own history as a conscientious objector during World War II — a decision that reportedly ostracized him from his own family — gave him a particular feeling for the doomed McQueen, and the eggshell vulnerability barely concealed by a surface toughness.
Hollywood was quick to notice, and in his first year — 1949 — Mason managed to squeeze in the last two American pictures (Caught and The Reckless Moment) of the master German director Max Ophüls, the Vincente Minnelli version of Madame Bovary and Mervyn LeRoy’s East Side, West Side opposite Barbara Stanwyck. Then to Spain for the extravagantly silly supernatural romance Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), a picture whose chief virtue remains the sight of a skinny-dipping Ava Gardner shimmering under the vibrant Technicolor cinematography of Jack Cardiff. And from there, to Turkey for 5 Fingers, another of his richest and most complex parts, and a thoroughly impressive example of genre employed as sociopolitical allegory. Everyone in Mankiewicz and soon-to-be-blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson’s World War II Europe is trying to get a leg up — the Nazis on the Brits, the Brits on the Nazis, and the underclass on the ruling elite. At the center of it all is Mason’s ice-cool Diello, propelled by the dream of someday having a servant to call his own. When one of the British agents on his tail tells him he’s the most ruthless criminal he’s ever encountered, Mason responds, pricelessly, “What a pity. I rather hoped I’d look like a gentleman.”
In the same year that his Nemo — plus some fancy special effects — was the only thing giving buoyancy to the waterlogged 20,000 Leagues, Mason was Norman Maine, the alcoholic movie star and mentor to Judy Garland’s up-and-coming contract player in George Cukor’s lavish remake of A Star Is Born. That movie, which took 10 months to film and was, at that point, one of the most expensive made in Hollywood, is very much designed as Garland’s show to steal (which she does), but it is Mason who gives it its haunting, tortured soul. It remains one of the great, unsentimental movies about showbiz people — their insecurities and motivations, their need to be loved (by themselves and an adoring public) — its insights into the “business” as sharp as ever after more than five decades. Is there a more prescient template for the Michael Jackson story than that of Norman Maine’s realization that his best hope for a comeback lies in a suicide?
The rare jewel in this Mason retrospective’s crown, however, is Bigger Than Life (1956) — a collaboration between the star and director Nicholas Ray, which I take to be one of the best, most radical and least-known American films of the 1950s. A critical and commercial flop upon release, Bigger Than Life has never been issued on any commercial video format in the U.S. and has remained in circulation chiefly by virtue of occasional television broadcasts — a poor substitute for the new 35mm CinemaScope print that will screen twice at LACMA on Friday, July 17.
Directed by Ray from a screenplay credited to Cyril Hume and Richard Maibaum (though Clifford Odets and Gavin Lambert both made significant uncredited contributions), the film takes its inspiration from a fact-based New Yorker article about a Queens schoolteacher driven to the brink by a negative reaction to the “miracle drug” cortisone. But Ray transposes the setting from New York to the suburbs of Anytown, USA, which is merely the first indication that we’re in for something more than a mere medical mystery. Mason, who also produced the film, stars as Ed Avery, a well-liked teacher, husband and father, who succumbs to sudden, crippling pains and is diagnosed with a rare and potentially fatal inflammation of the arteries. The only treatment: cortisone. Yet, even before he falls ill, evidence suggests that Avery is suffering from a far more lethal affliction of the spirit. He lies to his prim and proper wife (Barbara Rush) to conceal his extra-income job as a taxi dispatcher — whatever would the neighbors think? — and dares to voice the realization that beats silently at the heart of many a smiling suburbanite: “We’re dull!”
Well, the dullness soon subsides, as Avery starts popping prescription hormones like breath mints and his id runs roughshod over suburban America’s neatly manicured lawn. (The recurring use of mirrors emphasizes the suggestion that we have passed through the looking glass.) Riding a euphoric high, Avery feels unstoppable, showering his family with expensive presents, berating the assembly at a PTA meeting for “breeding a race of moral midgets,” and announcing plans to write a “life work” manuscript that will teach people how to make themselves over in his shining image.
Ray begins Bigger Than Life as a series of immaculate hedgerows, picket fences and modern kitchen appliances, only to gradually lower the camera angles and lengthen the shadows, as the film transforms into a dystopian, surrealist expanse — an obvious precursor to David Lynch’s maggot-infested Lumberton, North Carolina; Father Knows Best reconfigured as Greek tragedy. An outsider by temperament and himself no stranger to addiction, Ray aligns his own sympathies with Avery, even as the character moves from delusional to homicidal. Or is this apparent madman simply telling an uncomfortable brand of truth? “God was wrong!” Mason bellows as the movie arrives at its still-terrifying climax — an attempted “correction” of Abraham’s aborted fatherly sacrifice little dulled by the movie’s Production Code–imposed “happy” ending.
Mason was nominated three times for an Oscar — he never won, providing more evidence of the Academy’s terminal folly. But then, Mason wasn’t the type to pander for awards: He was too busy working. Even at the height of his fame, he kept up a pace that would make Michael Caine look like a slacker. So, Mason’s résumé is dotted with low-budget Italian action movies, TV miniseries (to a generation, he may be best known as the sinister antiques dealer Straker in Salem’s Lot) and a guest appearance on Sesame Street. Yet even in his lesser works, Mason himself is rarely less than a joy to watch, still classing up the joint when he’s only there to take the money and run. And then there are forgotten, uncivilized masterpieces like 5 Fingers and Bigger Than Life — and that voice, echoing out from the darkened screen.
BIGGER THAN LIFE: JAMES MASON ON FILM | Los Angeles County Museum of Art Bing Theater | through Sat., August 1 | www.lacma.org