I never found the time to pay my own tribute to Dennis Hopper on the news of his death, yet I doubt there were too many people holding their breath waiting for it. I assured myself that Hopper’s importance for an entire generation of filmmakers and actors, as a symbol and survivor of the counterculture he helped shape, and for the subsequent generation for which he reinvented himself with performances in films like Hoosiers, Blue Velvet and River’s Edge, would not go unmarked, and by much better writers than me. I was right. Besides, on the occasion of Matt Zoller Seitz’s remarkable and personal video essay, which chronicled the actor’s career about a month and a half before his passing, I feel like I (through looking at Matt’s work) had already said everything I could say about the man’s impact on those like me who held his work and his presence dear.
But there’s another man whose impact was certainly as chronologically far-reaching as that of Hopper who passed recently that I don’t want to forget. The work of producer-director Ronald Neame, who passed away a week ago Wednesday, June 16, will probably never be discussed in terms of great artistic achievement, in the way that some might position a few of Hopper’s contributions to the world of film, certainly his stature as an actor-artist. But Neame lived a life that was intertwined with many of the great names of British and American cinema during his long career, and to be quite frank, several of the films Neame was involved with mean more to me today than the phenomenon of Easy Rider ever did.
Neame was the product of a colorful British show-business family—his father was a photographer, his mother an actress who starred in many films including Abel Gance’s La Roue-- who turned an early stint working as an assistant cameraman on Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) into a lifelong career as a cinematic jack-of-all-trades associated with many of the greatest talents in British and eventually American cinema. Another few years toiling behind the scenes landed him his first credited job as director of photography-- 1933’s Happy-- and over the next 12 years he shot 44 other films, including Carol Reed’s Penny Paradise (1938), Anthony Kimmins’ Trouble Brewing (1939), Gabriel Pascal’s Major Barbara (1941), Powell and Pressburger’s One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942)—for which he also won an Oscar for Visual Effects—and three films for David Lean-- In Which We Serve (1942), This Happy Breed (1944) and Blithe Spirit (1945). (Neame also served as collaborator with Lean on the screenplays of the last two films.)
The association with Lean would continue for three more films. Neame’s capacity was no longer cinematographer, however, but instead that of full-fledged producer on Brief Encounter (1945) and Great Expectations (1946), both of which bore the benefit of his talent as a writer as well. He collaborated twice more as Lean’s producer on Oliver Twist (1948) and A Woman’s Story (1949) before making his way into a career as a producer-director that would itself last 43 years.
His first movie as director was the well-regarded British noir Take My Life (1947), to which he brought all the confidence and storytelling acumen he had absorbed at the hands of his masterful mentors. Over the decade of the 1950s he developed a reputation based on that sure hand, though he never emerged from the pack of working British filmmakers, which included Lean, Powell and Pressburger, Alexander Mackendrick, John Boulting, Robert Hamer and others, as one considered much of a stylist. Of course now we look back (or at least I do) on crafty, sensitive, smart filmmakers like Neame fondly for their lack of ostentation, for their firm grasp on the tenets of classical filmmaking. No doubt folks like Lean and Powell ended up taking those tenets to some pretty glorious places, but Neame was always one that seemed to subsume himself into the story not in order to accentuate and play up his connections to it, but to bolster the way the story was told in a more anonymous fashion. It’s easier to mistake the work of a filmmaker like Neame as that of a hack, and I’ve been guilty of that presumption as well. But look back at the work of the man who was able to fashion such glorious entertainments as the gently hilarious satire of artistic compulsion The Horse’s Mouth (1958) starring Alec Guinness; the solid military drama Tunes of Glory (1960), featuring Alec Guinness squaring off against John Mills for the allegiance of a Scottish battalion; the painful family drama of The Chalk Garden (1964), uniting John Mills with daughter Hayley and Deborah Kerr; the amusement of James Garner and Melina Mercouri in A Man Could Get Killed (1965); the struggles of a Scottish schoolmarm to retain her job and her dignity in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1968), which brought star Maggie Smith an Oscar under Neame’s guidance; the director’s undervalued adaptation of Dickens starring Albert Finney as Scrooge (1970); and even the re-teaming of Glenda Jackson and Walter Matthau, fresh off House Calls, in the terrific spy comedy Hopscotch (1980). It's a career any director, journeyman, artist or hack, could be proud of.
Of course, most of the headlines that noted Neame’s passing mentioned the name of his biggest box-office hit, The Poseidon Adventure (1972), directed for producer Irwin Allen.. Many seem to have mistakenly believed that Allen directed that film, and he did wield quite the iron hand when it came to staging the film’s various action set pieces. But Poseidon also displays Neame’s unflappable sureness of approach in the development of the various characters, and the movie never seems out of balance when it comes to finding the right mix of horror and humanity, the way many movies in the subsequent disaster genre (right on up through last year’s 2012) often seemed to be. It’s undoubtedly no coincidence either that The Poseidon Adventure is the best-acted of all the 1970’s disaster epics, with turns by Gene Hackman (“You want another life? Take mine!”), Shelley Winters (“I was a champion swimmer, Reverend!”), even Ernest Borgnine (“Li-i-i-i-inda!”) that deserve to be among the most well-remembered of their illustrious careers. Ronald Neame proved that, even among the calamity of a big studio action extravaganza, his was a man whom the actor could trust.
But by far my favorite of Neame’s films, even more than The Poseidon Adventure, which seeded my ever-growing interest in the movies, or Tunes of Glory, is a less-well-remembered gem of stiff-upper-lip British wartime cinema starring Clifton Webb, Gloria Grahame, Laurence Naismith, Cyril Cusack, Andre Morell and Stephen Boyd called The Man Who Never Was (1956). Webb is a British Intelligence officer during World War II charged with the assignment of trying to distract the German high command away from its focus on Italy just prior to the Allied invasion. Webb concocts a plan in which it will be made to seem that England is planning to invade Greece instead, thus pulling German forces away from the real target at precisely the right moment. A dead body, one of an “anonymous” Allied soldier, is procured and put in a plane made to look as if it has crashed off the Spanish coast, in hopes that the Spanish authorities will pass along papers found on the body mapping out the supposed Greek invasion to the Germans. The movie details the efforts of Webb and his assistant to prepare the body to seem as if it were authentically drowned and to create an identity which will pass the scrutiny of a German agent (Boyd) sent to check out his background. Neame masterfully pulls all the elements of this story together, including a strand which orchestrates the agony of an American woman (Grahame) who awaits the return of her boyfriend from battle, in harmony with the ambivalence of her roommate (Josephine Griffin), one of the British agents involved in engineering the mission who projects Grahame’s sadness onto that of the boy whose body has been appropriated. The story of The Man Who Never Was is so masterfully woven that Neame’s directorial hand seems almost imperceptible. That is, until the emotion of Grahame’s despairing monologue, in which she’s employed by her roommate to help write a believable love letter to be found on the body of the missing soldier, all the while thinking of her own perhaps lost love, sweeps you up; or until the pain of a father sending off his already dead boy to be part of a mission that no one can ever speak of overwhelms you; or until the near unbearable suspense of German agent Boyd descending on the constructed past of the soldier in a small coastal town nearly crushes your chest—Will he or won’t he discover the false identity and relay the information in time to leave the British forces open to storming onto the Italian coast to their deaths? (You can read a fascinating account of a book written about the actual WWII mission here.)
In many ways Neame’s unassuming style as employed in The Man Who Never Was is as good an example of a strong storytelling hand as there is in British cinema of the period. It is not ostentatious or bold or cinematically probing. Neame is instead there in absolute, unwavering service to his story, and even the lesser films that came as his directing career wound to a close in 1990 one could always be assured that the intelligence behind the camera was sound, even if the films themselves sometimes stumbled. Neame, seemingly well-loved by everyone who worked with him, lived for 20 years after he last took a credit on a motion picture. During that time he divorced his first wife of nearly 60 years, Beryl Heanly, with whom he had a son Christopher, and in 1992 remarried to Donna Friedberg. Neame took a fall in his family home and died after complications arose during his recovery, according to Christopher, who survives him along with wife Donna and a grandson, Gareth. They have lost Ronnie, a father, a grandfather and a husband, a man who lived a long, rich life and made contributions to film culture the likes of which many may not be fully aware. The family's sorrow is likely only tempered by the fact of that long, wonderful life. But for those who love movies, and especially the classic films of British cinema, we have lost one of the original guiding lights, Ronald Neame, who quite fittingly seems like The Man Who Always Was.
(My thanks to Bob Westal, who deserves an editor's stipend, for pointing out a couple of factual scrambles that I apologize for and that have now been fixed!)