James Mason was an awkward actor, a fact he never denied. He despised the British film industry, openly loathed the Gainsborough bodice-rippers that brought him fame ( Fanny By Gaslight, The Wicked Lady) and then, when he got to Hollywood, treated studios and producers with unconcealed contempt. He was stunningly handsome, with a deep, velvet voice – but he made his name playing vicious brutes, beating Margaret Lockwood to death with a whip and smashing Ann Todd’s fingers with a cane. He was also one of the finest actors Britain’s ever produced.
This five-movie boxset features his supreme performance as Johnny McQueen, wounded IRA man on the run in Belfast in Carol Reed’s haunting five-star masterpiece Odd Man Out (1947). A later Reed effort, The Man Between (1953), set in divided Berlin, doesn’t work as well – it’s an obvious attempt by Reed to replicate the success of The Third Man, but with a weaker script.
The Man In Grey (1943) is the first of those ripe Gainsborough melodramas that Mason so hated. His only Ealing film, The Bells Go Down (1943), about the firefighting crews of the London blitz, is solid stuff but suffers by comparison with Humphrey Jennings’ classic Fires Were Started. Mason gives one of his most insidiously subtle performances in Joseph Mankiewicz’s 5 Fingers (1952), as an Albanian-born valet to the wartime British ambassador in Ankara, quietly filching top secret documents.