J. Lee Thompson
J. Lee Thompson in the 1970s
John Lee Thompson
1 August 1914
|Died||30 August 2002 (aged 88)|
John Lee Thompson (1 August 1914 - 30 August 2002) was a British film director, active in London and Hollywood, best known for such movies as Ice Cold in Alex, Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone.
Thompson was born in Bristol on 1 August 1914. His family had links to the theatre. Thompson studied at Dover College then went to work in the theatre, joining the Nottingham Repertory Company as an actor and stagehand. He later went to work for a repertory company in Croydon, Surrey.
He wrote plays in his spare time, and had started when he was nine. One of them, Murder Happens? was performed at Croydon in 1934. His second staged play, Double Error, had a brief West End run at the Fortune Theatre in 1935. An article from this time about the play said he had written 40 plays already, including four in between his first two staged plays. A company worth £10,000 was formed to exploit Thompson's writings over the next seven years but this appears to have not had a long life.
Thompson later said he had written a part for himself to act in but when management asked him if he wanted to do so he said "of course not" and "the die was cast. Later I decided if I didn't have the guts to admit I wanted to play the role I should never act again and I never did."
The film rights to Double Error were purchased for £100. Thompson was hired to work in the scriptwriting department at British International Pictures at Elstree Studios. While there he made his one appearance an actor in films, playing a small role in Midshipman Easy (1935).
His first credit was The Price of Folly (1937), based on his play. He also worked on the scripts for Glamorous Night (1937) and he worked as dialogue coach on Jamaica Inn (1939), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Thompson served in World War II as a tailgunner and wireless operator in the RAF. In 1942 a revised version of Double Error, titled Murder Without Crime, opened at the Comedy Theatre in London. The play had a run on Broadway in 1943.
After the war Thompson returned to his work as scriptwriter under contract at Associated British on such films as No Place for Jennifer (1949) and For Them That Trespass (1949), the latter starring Richard Todd in his debut.
Thompson was dialogue director on The Hasty Heart (1949), which turned Todd into a star. He later said he gave up dialogue directing because he found the job "impossible. My job was to take stars through their lines but I felt that I was also expected to be a spy for the front office. If a word was altered they wanted to know why. It was a way of keeping control."
His first film as a director was Murder Without Crime (1950), made at ABPC, who put Thompson under contract. Thompson was offered £500 for the screen rights to the play and £500 to direct. He said "it was not so much that I wanted to direct movies it was to get the money so I could continue writing plays. But while directing it I got the feeling that I wanted to be a movie director."
Thompson said "the fact is I found directing to be much easier than writing and I enjoyed it much more than writing as well. So I became a film director."
The film was about a man who thinks he has committed murder. Thompson also wrote the screenplay, based on his own play Double Error. In the words of Thompson's Screenonline profile "this well structured film went largely unnoticed but contained many of the themes which were to characterise Lee Thompson's work: a good person's struggle with their conscience, an external force of evil, and an out-of-character moment of violence which has long-term consequences. Believing people can "commit crimes without being criminals", he sought to make his audiences condone or at least understand behaviour that they would normally condemn."
Thompson's first film success was one he directed and co-wrote (with Anne Burnaby), The Yellow Balloon (1953), the story of a child who is blackmailed into helping a criminal after accidentally causing his friend's death.
Thompson's fourth film as director 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 wrote the script, again in collaboration with Anne Burnaby. It starred Glynis Johns and Diana Dors and was a hit at the box office. The success of the film greatly added to Thompson's prestige and he began to be regarded as one of the leading directors in the country.
Thompson was loaned to Rank Films to direct a Jack Buchanan comedy, As Long as They're Happy (1955), co-starring Dors and An Alligator Named Daisy (1955), also starring Dors, along with Donald Sinden. He returned to ABPC and the theme of female prisoners in Yield to the Night (1956), an anti-capital punishment tale with Diana Dors as the condemned prisoner.
Thompson later said the "pattern" of his ABPC films was "two pieces of tepid rubbish for one decent project - if I could persuade Robert Clark, who was head of production. He used to wring his hands when I insisted. 'Okay,' he'd finally say. 'Do it if you must. But it won't make money.' I admired him for that really. He did give you a bit of a chance."
The Good Companions (1957) was lighter fare, based on a book by J. B. Priestley. According to one obituary Thompson "made excellent use of the CinemaScope screen, assembled a fine supporting cast and, with zestful choreography... came up with one of the few successes in a genre for which the British cinema was not noted."
Thompson had a big success with Ice Cold in Alex (1958), the story of a British Army unit trekking across North Africa in the Second World War. It featured John Mills, Sylvia Syms, Anthony Quayle and Harry Andrews. It won three BAFTA Awards, including Best British Film. He followed it with North West Frontier (1959), an adventure film set in British India starring Kenneth More and Lauren Bacall. It was one of the most popular films in Britain in 1959.
No Trees in the Street (1959) was a thriller written by Willis. Also in that genre was Tiger Bay (1959), starring John Mills. It introduced cinema audiences to Mills' daughter Hayley and German actor Horst Buchholz. Hayley Mills also earned a BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer portraying a 12-year-old girl who refuses to betray a sailor accused of murder.
Thompson followed this with I Aim at the Stars (1960).
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. Co-star Anthony Quinn said Thompson:
Never read a scene until he had to shoot it and approached each shot on a whim. And yet the cumulative effect was astonishing. Lee Thompson made a marvelous picture but how? Perhaps his inventiveness lay in defying convention, in rejecting the accepted methods of motion picture making and establishing his own. Perhaps it was in his very formlessness that he found the one form he could sustain, and nurture, the one form that could, in turn, sustain and nurture him. Perhaps he was just a lucky Englishman who pulled a good picture out of his ass.
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. In 1961 he said "primarily I am in the business to entertain. This does not mean that I never want to try artistic movies again. But I do not think you can sell art on the big movie circuits. Art belongs in the art houses." Later he said "I liked the character bits best" about Navarone. "Anyone can make an explosion."
The success of Navarone 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 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 the United Kingdom.
He worked on a project with Warren Beatty and Clifford Odets based on an idea of Beattys. It was never made. Neither was The Short Cut which he discussed doing with Darryl F. Zanuck, or The Living Room from a novel by Graham Greene or Chips with Everything by Arnold Wesker.
Thompson directed Yul Brynner in the Cossack epic Taras Bulba (1962) for producer Harold Hecht. Thompson was going to follow it with Big Charlie starring Brynner but the movie was not made. In 1962 the Mirisch Brothers signed the director to a four-picture contract. The first made under this was the Mayan Indian epic Kings of the Sun (1963), starring Brynner.
In September 1962 Thompson said he would make I Love Louisa with Elizabeth Taylor produced by Arthur Jacobs. (This film became What a Way to Go!(1964) with Shirley MacLaine.) He would put actors under personal contract like Talitha Pol.
In September 1963 Thompson announced he had formed a company, Bowhall Productions, to make around four films a year in the $120,000-$160,000 budget range. Thompson said it was "unlikely" the films would "make a profit" but they were movies he "deeply wanted to make". They included Chips with Everything, Rose without a Thorn by Clifford Bax, and a film in Spain. Following Return from the Ashes he would also make a $7 million movie in Africa Thunder of Giants.
Instead he did another with MacLaine, John Goldfarb, Please Come Home (1965). Back in England Thompson made Return from the Ashes (1965) for the Mirisch Brothers. In April 1965 Thompson announced he would make High Citadel based on a novel by Desmond Bagley for the Mirisch Brothers. These plans were postponed when Thompson received an offer to replace Michael Anderson, who had fallen ill before he was to start directing a thriller about cults with David Niven, Eye of the Devil (1967) (originally titled 13). High Citadel was never filmed. Another film announced but never filmed was The Case Against Colonel Sutton which he was going to do with producer Martin Poll. Neither was a proposed musical remake of The Private Lives of Henry VIII.
After a war film, Before Winter Comes (1968) Thompson was reunited with the star, producer and writer of Navarone in the Western Mackenna's Gold (1969) but it did poorly at the box office. So too did the espionage tale The Chairman (1969) with Gregory Peck. He was meant to follow that with You?, about assassination from a script by Andrew Sinclair. It was never filmed. "I freely admit I've done some pretty bad stuff," he said in 1968. "It's entirely my own fault. The trouble was I accepted some dismal scripts. I wasn't tough enough... Writing is the fundamental thing." Some have argued that Thompson's creative decline coincided with the end of his relationship with Henry.
Back in the UK he directed Country Dance, also known as Brotherly Love (1970). Thompson's handling of a smaller scale film impressed producer Arthur Jacobs, with whom Thompson had made What a Way to Go; Thompson was the first director attached to the Jacobs production The Planet of the Apes and Thompson says he turned down the first two sequels. He was available to make the fourth and fifth movies in the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Writer Paul Dehn said Thompson had a reputation as someone with a drinking problem but that he had overcome it by the time of the Apes films.
"They were cutting back on the budgets the whole time after the first one", said Thompson later. "It was a bad policy."
Thompson began working more in US television, directing the television films A Great American Tragedy (1972), Huckleberry Finn (1974) starring Jeff East and Paul Winfield, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1974) and Widow (1976) as well as the pilot episode of The Blue Knight (1975).
He returned to playwriting with Getting Away with Murder (1976).
In 1976, Thompson started collaborating with actor Charles Bronson, starting with the Warner Bros. crime story St. Ives . John Crowther, who worked with both men, later said Thompson was the total antithesis of Charlie and they got along famously. They really worked well together."
Thompson directed two films starring Anthony Quinn, The Greek Tycoon and The Passage. Reviewing the latter The Guardian called Thompson a director who "should know better but often doesn't".The Globe and Mail argued Thompson was "possibly the worst experienced director working in the world today."
Thompson directed the horror film, Happy Birthday to Me in 1980.
In 1981 with Bronson the film Caboblanco had its Los Angeles opening on 24 April. Also that year he directed an episode of the TV show Code Red, which he followed with another Bronson movie, 10 to Midnight.
Thompson worked with Bronson again on, The Evil That Men Do (1984) which was shot in Mexico. Thompson was called in to replace original director Fielder Cook, who was fired shortly before filming. Producer Pancho Okhenr sad Thompson "knew exactly what shots he needed to put together the film... [Bronson] had a lot of respect for Lee. The whole crew appreciated when the director didn't make them work over and over getting the same shot from different angles... He was just a terrific filmmaker."
On 18 April 1986, Murphy's Law, the Thompson and Bronson collaboration of that year, started its theatrical run. It is a neo-noir thriller film. Acting in the film are Kathleen Wilhoite, Carrie Snodgress, Robert F. Lyons, and Richard Romanus. Thompson tried another Indiana Jones-type tale with Firewalker, which premiered on 21 November. The film paired the actors Chuck Norris with Louis Gossett, Jr. as its leads. The action adventure co-stars Will Sampson and Melody Anderson. Norris and Gossett play Max Donigan and Leo Porter, two soldiers of fortune, whose adventures rarely result in any notable gain. They are befriended by an inscrutable woman of mystery Patricia (Anderson). Patricia's map leads them on a quest for treasure in Central America. The name of the movie comes from the powerful guardian of the treasure.
In 1986, Thompson was credited as the director of two Charles Bronson films made by Cannon. On 16 September premiered Messenger of Death and on 6 November Death Wish 4: The Crackdown. He later reflected, "I realized these films were not going to enhance my reputation. I had to live with that. You're not going to be offered the great films at a certain age."
In 1990 Thompson moved to Sooke.
In 1992 Thompson said he was trying to finance a remake of Tiger Bay with Anna Chumsky and Alec Baldwin. The director said "I have certain regrets now. I would rather have stuck to making films like Yield to the Night which had some integrity and importance. But the British film industry caved in. I shouldn't denigrate myself too much because I have enjoyed making my films but I suppose I sort of sold out."
Thompson was married three times. His first wife was Florence Bailey, whom he married in 1935 when he was 18. They had a son, Peter (1938-1997), who became a film editor on several of his father's films and predeceased him, and a daughter, Lesley, who survived him. They divorced in 1957.
His second wife was prisoner and author Joan Henry, whom he married in 1958. They collaborated on Weak and the Wicked and Yield to the Night. He left her for actor Susan Hampshire. In March 1962 Hedda Hopper reported that Thompson was "sweating it out" in Los Angeles while Henry and Hampshire were "awaiting his decision in London." Thompson confirmed this in an interview, while Hampshire and Henry were less forthcoming to the press.
His third wife was Penny who was his widow.
The Guardian obituary called him "a compelling craftsman". The Washington Post said "he directed adventure films noted for their punchy pacing, rich atmosphere and nuanced characterization."Variety said he was "Known as a craftsman who had a clear sense of how each film should play, scene by scene".
The Independent said "he lent his acute sense of atmosphere and vivid visual style to a wide range of material. His intimate kitchen-sink melodramas... were unflinching portraits of social realism unusually stark for their time. His thrillers were tautly edited exercises in suspense, and he also made some engaging comedies and a bracing musical...Though his later films can most kindly be labelled potboilers, his body of work in the Fifties and early Sixties was an impressive one."
In 2000 he stated that he made so many American films "because of my insecurity and effort to stay here. If I was given a script and it had something good in it I'd say, 'Good, I've got my next picture!' That is not the way to make good films, so some of them were good and some not so good.... What an idiot! 'You should have stayed at what you really wanted to make.' If I have anything to say to young directors today it's don't make a film for the sake of making it. Make it only if you really believe in it. Then success will eventually come to you."