J. Lee Thompson
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|J. Lee Thompson|
J. Lee Thompson in the 1970s
|Born||John Lee Thompson
1 August 1914
|Died||30 August 2002
Sooke, British Columbia, Canada
Thompson was born in Bristol, England, to a theatrical family. After studying at Dover College, he briefly appeared on the stage and wrote crime plays in his spare time. Thompson first drew critical notice when his play Double Error was staged in the West End of London in 1935, upon which he was hired as a scriptwriter for British International Pictures, acquirer of the play's film rights. During this initial BIP stint, Thompson made his only film appearance in the Carol Reed-directed Midshipman Easy (1935) and worked as a dialogue coach for Alfred Hitchcock's production of Jamaica Inn (1939).
The small-framed Englishman was occupied during World War II as a tailgunner and wireless operator for the Royal Air Force. He eventually returned to his scriptwriting duties at the Associated British Picture Corporation, a successor of BIP, in 1950. That year, Thompson was given his first film direction opportunity, Murder Without Crime.
Murder Without Crime was mostly ignored upon release. Thompson's first movie success was one he directed and co-wrote, The Yellow Balloon (1953), the story of a child who is blackmailed into helping a criminal after accidentally causing his friend's death. The Weak and the Wicked (1954), portrays the lives of women in prison and is based on memoirs by Joan Henry, who became Thompson's second wife.
Thompson earned a reputation in Britain for social dramas besides occasional comedies and musicals. He was also known for collaborating with top British actors. After the comedies For Better, For Worse (1954) starring Dirk Bogarde, As Long as They're Happy (1955), and An Alligator Named Daisy (1955) starring Donald Sinden, he returned to the theme of female prisoners in Yield to the Night (1956), a powerful anti-capital punishment tale with Diana Dors as the condemned prisoner.
The late 1950s continued Thompson's 'kitchen sink' dramas, focusing on plights of the average Briton. Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957), with Yvonne Mitchell, Anthony Quayle, and Sylvia Syms, deals with the collapse of a 20-year marriage. The Good Companions (1957) gives a dour, semi-musical view of the theatrical world.
Thompson's strongest period of British films was undoubtedly 1958–60, during which he made Ice Cold in Alex (1958), North West Frontier (1959), No Trees in the Street (1959), Tiger Bay (1959), and I Aim at the Stars AKA Wernher von Braun (1960). Ice Cold in Alex, the story of a British army unit trecking across North Africa in World War II, was a major success featuring John Mills, Sylvia Syms, Anthony Quayle, and Harry Andrews; it won three BAFTA Awards, including Best British Film. Hayley Mills also earned a BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer in Tiger Bay, portraying a 12-year-old girl who refuses to betray a sailor accused of murder.
Thompson vaulted to international fame with The Guns of Navarone (1961) as a last-minute replacement for director Alexander Mackendrick. His take-charge attitude during its production earned him the nickname 'Mighty Mouse' from lead actor Gregory Peck. The Guns of Navarone, a World War II epic filmed on location in Rhodes, Greece, was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Thompson for Best Director.
The success of that film won him entry into Hollywood, where he directed Cape Fear (1962), a psychological thriller with Gregory Peck, Robert Mitchum, Polly Bergen, and Lori Martin. Based on a novel called The Executioners by John D. MacDonald, Cape Fear boldly shows how a sex offender can manipulate the justice system and terrorise an entire family. Highly controversial for its time, the film was cut heavily in both the United States and Britain.
Thompson would never reach the artistic heights of The Guns of Navarone or Cape Fear again, but he maintained a steady career in Hollywood through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s that is rarely seen. He retained his knack for working with dynamic actors, joining Yul Brynner in the Cossack epic Taras Bulba (1962) and the Mayan Indian epic Kings of the Sun (1963); Shirley MacLaine in What a Way to Go! (1964) and John Goldfarb, Please Come Home (1965); and Deborah Kerr in the occultist Eye of the Devil (1967). Thompson also proved capable of working in different genres, including Western (Mackenna's Gold, 1969), espionage (The Chairman, 1969) and science fiction (Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Battle for the Planet of the Apes). While in the US, he continued to dabble with British productions such as Return from the Ashes (1965) and Country Dance AKA Brotherly Love (1970).
In the late 1970s and 80s, Thompson's reputation declined but he was still known as an energetic presence on Hollywood sets. The remaining years of his career were spent mostly in low-budget exploitation films. One musical film foray (not his best genre) was Huckleberry Finn (1974) starring Jeff East and Paul Winfield. He became a favourite of action star Charles Bronson, pairing up in the Warner Bros. crime story St. Ives (1976), an unconventional western called The White Buffalo (1977), and a Casablanca spinoff, Caboblanco (1980). Their work at Cannon Films lasted throughout the 1980s with such pulp action titles as 10 to Midnight (1983), Murphy's Law (1986), Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987), and Thompson's last film as a director, Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989). Other titles included The Evil That Men Do (1984, through ITC Entertainment and Tri-Star Pictures), The Ambassador (1984), King Solomon's Mines (1985), and the Chuck Norris vehicle Firewalker (1986). Several of these films were edited by Thompson's son Peter.
Personality and style of directing
Low-key and with a typically British sense of humour, Thompson was highly regarded by many actors and film personnel. He was known for having a clear directorial vision and for working collaboratively rather than tyrannically. Thomson also had a reputation for coming to the set prepared and knowing exactly what was needed to make an effective sequence. This resulted in generally shorter work days for his staff and the quick completion of his films.
Thompson was in many ways an 'actor's director' who respected the views of his cast members while maintaining his own vision. It was often remarked that actors were 'spoiled' on Thompson's set due to his more egalitarian methods of directing and the easier working conditions. It is for these reasons that Thompson worked multiple times with certain actors, including Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn, Charles Bronson, Diana Dors, and Jacqueline Bisset. He also had great talent for working with child actors, notably Hayley Mills and Lori Martin.
Thompson arguably did his best work in black and white, favouring depthy compositions which offered sharp contrasts between the actors and the background framing. In colour, his hues are heavily saturated, and he favours darker colours in his dramatic films, creating a filmic vision that is at once personal and disturbing. During the black-and-white era of filmmaking, Thompson styled his dramas after Hitchcock with an emphasis on light and shadow. In his best films, Thompson makes solid use of pacing to build dramatic tension. Three superior examples are The Guns of Navarone, Tiger Bay and Cape Fear, which rely largely on physical action. Thompson's later films with Charles Bronson also show this competence, helping to give these B-level movies a high degree of watchability.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of Thompson's films are the subject matters and how he shamelessly portrays them. In their time, movies such as The Yellow Balloon (blackmail), Yield to the Night (female imprisonment), and Cape Fear (sexual deviance) were highly controversial and still hold dramatic resonance today. Thompson's legacy may rest in his dealing with social topics years before other filmmakers considered them. He was also unafraid to portray violence in realistic fashion, even visiting the horror genre in 1981 with Happy Birthday to Me. Indeed, the violence of some of Thompson's later projects is, for many, their most problematic aspect.
By the mid-1980s, Thompson was respected for his earlier projects, but inevitably tagged as a filmmaker in decline. While the films he directed in the 1970s and 80s are of considerable entertainment value, almost none of them have social significance and are little more than a footnote in cinema history. Thompson later admitted in a biography by Steve Chibnall that he 'sold out' to Hollywood convention, through which he made a large salary at the expense of his art. Although Thompson's output never decreased, it became greatly limited in scope.
Thompson's personal life was irregular at best. He was a three-time husband and a visible figure on the Hollywood party scene. He was also a confirmed heavy drinker, although he seemed to overcome the problem in later years. His habits may have compromised his talent, but Thompson remains an admirable figure of longevity in a business known for its temporary nature.
In the current age of DVD, Thompson's films still hold a large viewership. While best known for The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear, Tiger Bay, and perhaps Ice Cold in Alex, many of his other films have a sizeable following. In all likelihood, The Guns of Navarone will maintain his place as a notable filmmaker. It is also probable that Thompson will be most remembered by people within the industry for his skilled craftsmanship.
- Nominated Best Director Academy Award, The Guns of Navarone (1961)
- Nominated Best Director Golden Globe, The Guns of Navarone (1961)
- Nominated Best Director Directors Guild of America, The Guns of Navarone (1961)
- Nominated Best Film BAFTA, Tiger Bay (1959)
- Nominated Best Film BAFTA, North West Frontier (1959)
- Nominated Golden Bear Berlin International Film Festival, Tiger Bay (1959)
- Winner FIPRESCI Prize Berlin International Film Festival, Ice Cold in Alex (1958)
- Nominated Golden Bear Berlin International Film Festival, Ice Cold in Alex (1958)
- Winner Special Mention Berlin International Film Festival, Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957)
- Winner FIPRESCI Prize Berlin International Film Festival, Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957)
- Nominated Golden Bear Berlin International Film Festival, Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957)
- Nominated Palme d'Or Cannes Film Festival, Yield to the Night (1956)
- Murder Without Crime (1950)
- The Yellow Balloon (1953)
- For Better, for Worse (1954)
- The Weak and the Wicked (1954)
- As Long as They're Happy (1955)
- An Alligator Named Daisy (1955)
- Yield to the Night (1956)
- The Good Companions (1957)
- Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957)
- Ice Cold in Alex (1958)
- North West Frontier (1959)
- No Trees in the Street (1959)
- Tiger Bay (1959)
- I Aim at the Stars (1960)
- The Guns of Navarone (1961)
- Cape Fear (1962)
- Taras Bulba (1962)
- Kings of the Sun (1963)
- What a Way to Go! (1964)
- John Goldfarb, Please Come Home (1965)
- Return from the Ashes (1965)
- Eye of the Devil (1967)
- Mackenna's Gold (1969)
- Before Winter Comes (1969)
- The Chairman (1969)
- Country Dance (1970)
- Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972)
- A Great American Tragedy (1972) (TV)
- Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973)
- Huckleberry Finn (1974)
- The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975)
- The Blue Knight (1975) (TV)
- Widow (1976) (TV)
- St. Ives (1976)
- The White Buffalo (1977)
- The Greek Tycoon (1978)
- The Passage (1979)
- Caboblanco (1980)
- Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
- Code Red (1981) (TV)
- 10 to Midnight (1983)
- The Evil That Men Do (1984)
- The Ambassador (1984)
- King Solomon's Mines (1985)
- Murphy's Law (1986)
- Firewalker (1986)
- Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987)
- Messenger of Death (1988)
- Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989)
Notes and references
- "J. Lee Thompson, 88, Director of 'Guns of Navarone'". The New York Times. 6 September 2002.
- "J. Lee Thompson". Britishpictures.com.
- "J. Lee Thompson". Britmovie.co.uk.
- "J. Lee Thompson Profile". DVD Review.
- J. Lee Thompson at the British Film Institute's Screenonline
- J. Lee Thompson at the Internet Movie Database