February 21, 2017


J. Lee Thompson (1914-2002) b. Bristol, England.

J. Lee Thompson

Despite the fact that he did nothing of real note after 1962, and had many depressing failures in the following years, Thompson is still rightly remembered as a teenage prodigy who had a good track record in the British cinema from 1950 until 1961. It was perhaps his downfall that, fired by the success of The Guns of Navarone (1961), he moved into the field of international spectaculars, at which point his direction seemed to lose its individuality and assume a sluggishness one hadn’t noticed before. Thompson had two plays published and performed before he was 20, and contributed a fistful of screenplays to British films, from Glamorous Night (1937) to For Them That Trespass (1949), before tackling direction on the film version of one of his own plays, the four-hander Murder Without Crime (1950). In the next ten years, Thompson surged to the forefront of pre-kitchen sink realism in the British cinema with a series of gloomy dramas, often with downbeat endings: The Yellow Balloon (1953), The Weak and the Wicked (1953), Yield to the Night (1956), Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) and No Trees in the Street (1958). Thompson got strong, sometimes even tortured performances from the principals in these sombre films. In lighter vein, he made a happy little comedy called For Better, For Worse (1954), unhappily seldom revived today; it had a string of good individual performances and a warm, real and human feel despite its slapstick touches As Long As They’re Happy (1955) and The Good Companions (1957) were two semi-musicals with Janette Scott, the teenage star who had shot into the public eye after appearing in Thompson’s screenplay No Place for Jennifer (1950); Companions especially is full of youthful zest and carries a scintillating dance climax, as well as one of Eric Portman‘s best performances and commendable use of TechniColour: an unexpectedly enjoyable film. Thompson’s easy way with young stars carried over on to his best film, Tiger Bay (1959), a moving and exciting thriller, with an unforgettable performance by Hayley Mills on her debut. The film was splendidly paced as, for the most part, were Thompson’s two big colour action films, Northwest Frontier (1959) and The Guns of Navarone (1961), the latter a major blockbuster at the box-office. Mention should also be made of Cape Fear (1962), a violent, tense and chilling black thriller with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum which, for sheer intensity, outdoes the Martin Scorsese remake of 1991. And so to the veil that must be drawn over most of what followed. Well, perhaps not quite: a TV movie0, A Great American Tragedy (1972), was a return to the more intimate dramas with which Thompson made his name. It featured powerful performances by George Kennedy and Vera Miles as the couple whose cosy and comfortable life falls apart when he unexpectedly loses his job, and a perceptive, adult and believable script adroitly handled by the director. There was a brief revival in the 1980s, with a feisty, underrated variant on King Solomon’s Mines (1985) and a sober, well-acted political/action drama The Ambassador (1984). Thereafter, the director’s career subsided in a morass of slickly made but very middling vehicles for action stars Charles Bronson and Chuck Norris.

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