I’m thinking about that scene in Lolita (1962), the one where Clare Quilty meets Humbert Humbert on the veranda of the hotel where a police convention just happens to be underway. “You have a most interesting face,” Quilty tells Humbert in parting. Yet only minutes earlier he’d told him, “You have the most normal face I’ve ever seen.” That’s James Mason.
5 Fingers (1952)
The Cinematheque Ontario, recently—and, it must be said, lamentably—re-dubbed TIFF Cinematheque, turns 20 this year, and it strikes me at least as serendipitous that among the numerous exciting programmes being unveiled in their newly launched anniversary season, which include retrospectives of legendary directors such as Eric Rohmer, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Akira Kurosawa, they’ve made room for a 14-film retrospective of James Mason, the extraordinary actor whose larger body of work I only became exposed to, and only began to fully appreciate, after becoming a Cinematheque member five years ago when I first moved to Toronto.
Julius Caesar (53)
Laura and I arrived in June of 2005, right in the middle of a heat wave and right in the middle of the Cinematheque’s Ingmar Bergman retrospective. We’d just traveled across the country with our aging Mexican poodle, had been through car trouble and illnesses along the way, and had nearly exhausted our finances completely. Nonetheless, a Cinematheque double membership was the first thing we bought with our last bit of cash. It was one of the best investments we ever made. If you’re going to be broke for a summer in Toronto, you might as well spend it watching elegantly projected masterpieces with an enthusiastic and attentive crowd.
Bigger Than Life (56)
It was at the Cinematheque that I first saw Max Ophüls’ The Reckless Moment (49) and Caught (49). In the former Mason plays a blackmailer, in the latter a kindly pediatrician. It was at the Cinematheque where I first saw Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron (77), in which Mason plays a Nazi. And it was at the Cinematheque where I finally saw Bigger Than Life (56), Nicholas Ray’s melodrama about a middle-American schoolteacher and patriarch who’s saved from a death sentence by a wonder drug only to have it drive him off the rails. The material is fascinating and provocative, the mise en scène exacting and so tense as to make you grit your teeth, but its Mason who makes the film so enduringly troubling. With his mid-Atlantic accent, his slightly overwrought cheerfulness and contained superiority, Mason’s Ed Avery is that much more reflective a mirror of postwar American values by so obviously being an outsider, one quietly desperate to fit in, and when he’s gradually transformed from an amiable, humble, hard-working family man into a potentially murderous, ultra-conservative megalomaniac, you never quite buy that it was just the drugs that did it. It was something already there, inside the character and permeating his environment. I believe this sort of transformation, this rigorous persistence of ambiguity, even while working within the confines of the Hollywood studio system, is evidence of Mason’s genius.
North by Northwest (58)
The Cinematheque will be screening all of the above pictures minus the Peckinpah, as well as some well-known favourites such as North by Northwest (58), where we get to see Mason survey Cary Grant’s well-tailored wrong man like he’s sniffing leftovers and stroke Eva Marie Saint’s neck like he’s fitting it for a noose. And of course we get Lolita, which took Mason even farther out on a limb than Bigger Than Life. Mason’s Humbert is rather different from that of Vladimir Nabokov’s source novel, as are so many things, but Nabokov’s own adaptation, realized by Stanley Kubrick, manages to offer a slightly more palatable, if still inky-blackly comic variation on the novel’s pedophile’s confession. (As I get older and begin to re-asses Kubrick, Lolita is starting to look more or more like his best work.)
I cannot imagine another actor in this role, not even Jeremy Irons, who played Humbert in the later Adrian Lyne version (97), which corrected certain things while completely screwing up others. It’s the odd sincerity in Mason’s expression and vulnerability in his voice when he urges Quilty to understand he’s about to be killed. It’s his deliciously ridiculous attempt to cha cha cha with the very horny Charlotte Haze. It’s the hoity-toity way he enunciates words like “issue” and “toenails.” Mason’s Humbert, though afflicted with a perverse, crippling nostalgia, is indeed, as Mason’s characters usually are, urbane. He’s also bumbling. He’s nefariously manipulative, yet he’s also somehow innocent, even in the depths of his moral bankruptcy.
Odd Man Out (47)
Mason was born in 1909 in Yorkshire. He studied architecture. He co-authored a book about cats. He led several lives, it seems, before his death in 1984. He was self-effacing, yet his career, which thrived both in the UK and the US, was clearly driven by a tremendous ambition and belief in his particular talent. The Cinematheque’s programme gives a superb assessment of his singular career, and is not to be missed.