Throughout September, the New Bev proudly presents a large-scale retrospective honoring filmmaker J. Lee Thompson, covering some of the director’s early British work in the 1950s through to his lengthy collaboration with the Cannon Group in the ’80s, highlighting his greatest hits (The Guns of Navarone, Cape Fear), his action-packed output starring Charles Bronson, his Planet of the Apes sequels and more! Films screening in the series are in bold below and include links for more info.
John Lee Thompson was born into a theatrical family and began writing plays when he was very young, usually in the mystery or crime genre. When his play Double Error proved successful, he was hired on at British International Pictures to work on scripts. One of his biggest early influences came working as a dialogue coach for Alfred Hitchcock on Jamaica Inn (1939), a period melodrama about cutthroat smugglers on the Cornish coast starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara. He was very impressed with Hitchcock’s pre-production process, planning everything out in meticulous detail before even a frame of film had been exposed. This was an important takeaway for Thompson, who adopted a rigorous method of pre-production in his early-and-mid career days, although this seemed to not always be possible in later years. His movie work was interrupted by WW2 and he served in the RAF through the duration of the conflict.
Afterwards, he returned to scriptwriting at Elstree Studios, and he finally got to make his directorial debut in 1950 with Murder Without Crime, a modest little sleeper which nevertheless exuded talent and self-confidence. His next picture, The Yellow Balloon (1952), was even more impressive and he began to receive attention from critics as an up-and-coming filmmaker to watch. More noirish genre efforts followed (such as the women’s prison picture, The Weak and the Wicked, 1954), as well as his first (and in hindsight, rather rare) forays into comedy, For Better, For Worse (1954, starring a young Dirk Bogarde) and An Alligator Named Daisy (1955, starring blonde bombshell Diana Dors). The very next year proved an important one for both Thompson and actress Dors with the critically acclaimed film Yield to the Night (given the more sensational title, Blonde Sinner, in America). Thompson’s anti-capital punishment opus was lauded by the critics but they had even more praise for the surprisingly strong performance by star, Dors, as an unsentimental party girl found guilty of murder. Dors had long been looked at as a performer with only moderate talent. Her sensational love life, chronicled in the tabloids (along with her supposed friendship with the notorious mobsters the Kray twins), kept the more snobbish critics from taking her seriously. Yield to the Night changed all that for her, even though she was still often typecast as a brassy sex bomb.
Thompson, along with other British filmmakers such as Basil Dearden, pioneered the rugged realism and attention to social problems that would blossom full flower in 1958 with the coming of directors Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson, igniting the so-called explosion of ‘kitchen sink’/angry young man cinema. Unfortunately, many in the critical establishment and a few of the younger film buffs who welcomed the British New Wave, gave immense talents such as Thompson and Dearden short shrift because they worked almost exclusively in genre pictures.
Thompson remained committed to his gritty depiction of life as something other than a bed of roses with Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957), a tale of family discord jump-started by extra-marital relations, and more genre fare, including his first attempt at a war film, Ice Cold in Alex, starring John Mills and Anthony Quayle, which proved an enormous hit with the critics and at the British box office. It won the FIPRESCI Award at the 8th Berlin International Film Festival in 1958. Shamefully, the 130 minute film was cut down to 76 minutes three years later when it belatedly received its American release. However, the New Beverly is showing a print of the original full-length version, shipped all the way over from the UK!
Thompson did two more crime pictures next, both with ‘kitchen sink’ atmosphere and standout performances: No Trees in the Street (with gang boss Herbert Lom trying to seduce a resolutely resistant Sylvia Syms) and the critically successful Tiger Bay, with the striking debut of Hayley Mills as a precocious 12 year old who steadfastly refuses to turn in a young Polish sailor (Horst Bucholz) wanted for murder, to the frustration of an intrepid police inspector (played by Hayley’s real-life dad, John Mills). The film won the Silver Bear at the 9th Berlin International Film Festival.
To end 1959, he helmed the big budget adventure film Northwest Frontier (known as Flame Over India in America) starring Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall. This became his calling card for Hollywood and proved to help enormously when he was summoned by producer Carl Foreman to replace Alexander Mackendrick (Sweet Smell of Success) as director of the high profile WW2 epic The Guns of Navarone (1961). The saga of a squad of highly trained experts infiltrating a Nazi-occupied Greek island to destroy their gigantic clifftop cannons that have been shelling Allied warships, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards. The early sixties seem, in retrospect, to be the peak of Thompson’s career. He followed up Navarone with another critical and box office smash, Cape Fear (1962). It is difficult to recall another more intense, controversial thriller before its release. Psycho (1960) from Hitchcock, Thompson’s early mentor, seems to be the only movie up until that time which could go head-to-head with Cape Fear and hold its own in the audience shock-and-traumatization department.
Two period adventure films followed, Taras Bulba (1962) and Kings of the Sun (1963), both starring Yul Brynner and the latter title featuring a bizarre storyline about the ancient Mayan empire. Thompson subsequently switched to humor with the lavish black comedy/Shirley MacLaine vehicle, What a Way to Go! (1964), the tale of a seemingly cursed woman (MacLaine) who marries for love, but has each of her successive husbands die absurd accidental deaths after striking it rich, each leaving her their fortunes. Populated with an all-star cast including Dick Van Dyke, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum and Gene Kelly as her doomed mates. Robert Cummings is her rattled psychoanalyst and Dean Martin is her last spouse (who doesn’t die – at least not by the time the end credits roll). Although the film grossed millions, it was panned by the critics. Thompson was unlucky with his follow-up with MacLaine, another comedy, John Goldfarb, Please Come Home (1965), which proved both a critical and box office flop.
Thompson seemed to be doing all his genre films in pairs during the swinging sixties, with atmospheric thrillers, Return from the Ashes being released in 1965 and Eye of the Devil in 1967 (both filmed in Europe). The latter is an underrated occult horror tale set in France with a superior cast, including David Niven, Deborah Kerr, Donald Pleasence, David Hemmings and Sharon Tate (in one of her first roles). In Return from the Ashes, Ingrid Thulin is a doctor and WW2 concentration camp survivor, slightly disfigured and aged by her experience, returning to her duplicitous husband (Maximillian Schell) and her resentful stepdaughter (Samantha Eggar). Herbert Lom plays one of Thulin’s oldest, closest friends. Somewhere in this perverse mix of personalities, murder may be afoot. This film seems to have been forgotten, but it remains one of Thompson’s most suspenseful, accomplished efforts from the decade.
Thompson returned to America to lense the big budget western, Mackenna’s Gold (1969), sporting a huge cast including Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif, Telly Savalas, Edward G. Robinson, Lee J. Cobb, Eli Wallach (to name only a few). It received mixed reviews in America and was moderately successful in its theatrical run. Strangely enough, it was a staggering hit in the Soviet Union and remains one of their highest-grossing films ever!
The 1970s proved something of a transitional period for Thompson, finding himself directing more and more “entertainment” films as opposed to the more “serious” pictures he started out with in the 1950s (and that he continued to sporadically be able to do in the 1960s). His helming of the last two in the Planet of the Apes franchise, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), found him working in the science-fiction genre for the first time. He made an unusual, entertaining family film, Huckleberry Finn in 1974, then a moderately successful, atmospheric supernatural chiller, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975). He would return to the horror genre only once more, with the over-the-top slasher extravaganza Happy Birthday to Me in 1981.
Starting in 1976 with St. Ives, Thompson devoted the lion’s share of the last thirteen years of his career to working with action icon Charles Bronson. Bronson’s oddball fantasy western (with a huge cult following), The White Buffalo (1977) followed. Thompson took a hiatus from working with Charlie to do two pictures with Anthony Quinn, The Greek Tycoon (1978), a thinly-disguised fiction based on the real life Jackie O/Aristotle Onassis romance and a WW2 adventure, The Passage (1979), which co-starred James Mason and Malcolm McDowell.
The 1980s saw virtually the whole decade set aside for the lucrative team-up of star Bronson and filmmaker Thompson. They churned out a total of seven ever more violent, outrageous grindhouse-style features, including Caboblanco (1980), 10 to Midnight (1983), The Evil that Men Do (1984), Murphy’s Law (1986), Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987), Messenger of Death (1988) and the ultra-controversial Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (1989), which was to be Thompson’s last film. Thompson took Bronson breaks a few times during the 1980s, directing the tongue-in-cheek adventure movies, King Solomon’s Mines (1985) and the Chuck Norris vehicle Firewalker (1986). He also directed a critically well-received (but barely released) political thriller, The Ambassador (1984), starring Robert Mitchum, Ellen Burstyn and Rock Hudson.
When Thompson retired after his last picture, Kinjite in 1989, he was 75 years old. He lived to be 88, dying in 2002 at his vacation home in British Columbia, Canada.
“J. Lee Thompson accepted the reality that as a feature director he worked within a commercial framework, and throughout his career serious films are interspersed with entertainments… His versatility gave rise to criticism, yet he was remarkably consistent in the way he made his films… His films explore how people respond to and can be shaped by their environment…Characters, trapped by their situations, are forced to actions that normally they would never contemplate… Thompson shows the world as a complex place, where people are often confronted with difficult choices and the innocent get hurt.” – BFI Screenonline