Friday, 12 September 2014

J. Lee Thompson

This year is the centenary of the birth of John Lee Thompson, the British director who appeared in-between the golden years of British cinema in the 1940s and the kitchen sink movement in the 1960s. This means that he, like others such as Basil Dearden, has been somewhat neglected when British cinema is discussed. He peaked commercially in 1961 when he made The Guns of Navarone and after that he went to the US to make his most famous film, Cape Fear (1962). But his subsequent American career, despite the occasional film of interest such as the dark comedy What a Way to Go! (1964), is not when he was at his best. It was in the 1950s, home in Britain, that he thrived and his British films are as good, and often better, than the later, more famous films made by Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger, Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson in the 1960s.

There are three things that distinguish his work: the razor sharp images (he often worked with cinematographer Gilbert Taylor), the socially conscious themes, often involving a violent crime and its repercussions, and the acting. Yield to the Night (1956) is an unsettling drama about a woman, played by Diana Dors, who is sentenced to death. It was inspired by the case of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in Britain.

Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) is about the implosion of a family and centred around the desperation of the mother and wife (played by Yvonne Mitchell) to keep both herself and her family together. 

An earlier film, The Yellow Balloon (1952), is about poor kids in the bombed-out parts of London. One I have not seen yet is another prison drama, The Weak and the Wicked (1954), also with Diana Dors.

The two films I like best are Ice Cold in Alex (1958) and Tiger Bay (1959). The first one is set in the Sahara desert and is about two British soldiers and two nurses trying to make it to Alexandria during World War 2. They pick up a South African solider on the way, who might be a German spy. It is an incredibly tense film and filled with astonishing images of the desert, both in the piercing sunlight and the cold darkness of the night. It is also one of those films where the pain and suffering is so palpable that watching it is an ordeal, where every drop of sweat or any broken ribs are as vivid as if they were your own. The main actors, John Mills, Sylvia Syms, Harry Andrews and Anthony Quayle, must have been exhausted after a day's shooting. The close-ups of their anguished faces and the stark compositions of cars, humans, mines, the sand and the sun are unforgettable.

Tiger Bay is set in Britain, and is about the unexpected bond between a Polish man, played by Horst Buchholz, and the little girl, played by Hayley Mills, he takes with him when he escapes from the police. The film cross-cuts between them and the police in pursuit and combines vivid characterisations with excellent cinematography. This time though it is not Gilbert Taylor but Eric Cross who is the cinematographer. It is possible that he got the job because he had previously shot the similar, and equally excellent, Hunted (Charles Crichton 1952). 

Although he also made a few comedies, Thompson was at his best when observing ordinary people, men as well as women, under extreme pressure and with a reluctance to judge their behaviour. He got great performances out of his actors and his visuals are almost always excellent, using depth and blocking to create tension while also capturing the beauty of the setting, regardless of where it is. It is a shame that he seemed to have lost his way after Cape Fear but he deserves retrospectives at any ambitious cinematheque. 

Irene Papas in the fine The Guns of Navarone

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