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Lee Thompson, J. (1914-2002)

Director, Writer, Producer

Main image of Lee Thompson, J. (1914-2002)

John Lee Thompson was born in Bristol on 1 August 1914 into a theatrical family, and after leaving Dover College, he briefly went on the stage, writing crime plays in his spare time. When one of these, Double Error, got a West End run, he was hired by British International Pictures as a scriptwriter. In 1938 he worked as dialogue coach on Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn (1939) and was struck by the way, as Steve Chibnall puts it, "he had everything plotted down to the last detail and... knew exactly what he wanted." It was a system Lee Thompson was to adopt himself.

After serving in the Second World War as a tailgunner and wireless operator in the RAF, he returned to Elstree as a scriptwriter and in 1950 was given the opportunity to direct his first film, Murder Without Crime. A melodrama about a man who thinks he has committed murder, 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.

The Yellow Balloon (1952), the story of a boy, stricken with guilt over the death of a friend, who is blackmailed into a spiral of criminal acts, attracted more attention. It was followed by The Weak and the Wicked (1954), a sympathetic portrayal of a group of women in prison. He then directed a series of amiable comedies, such as For Better, For Worse (1954) and An Alligator Named Daisy (1955), before reaching to women in prison with Yield to the Night (1956), a film which combines a strong human story about a good-time girl with a passionate argument against capital punishment. Diana Dors, boldly cast in a serious role, gives a moving and understated performance and Lee Thompson captures the trapped, oppressive atmosphere of prison. Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) was also impressive as a domestic drama that treats with equal sympathy, the harassed, no longer glamorous housewife, the adulterous husband, and the young woman who seems to offer an attractive alternative, in an era when divorce required a guilty party.

After a remake of The Good Companions (1957), Lee Thompson made Ice Cold in Alex (1958), a Second World War film which salutes the heroism of four fallible people whose growing understanding and mutual respect (despite the discovery that one of them is an enemy soldier) enables them to survive their trek across the Libyan desert. He returned to domestic melodrama in No Trees in the Street (1959) and Tiger Bay (1959) - a beautifully made film about a lonely child who resists betraying a sailor wanted for murder - before moving on to North West Frontier (1959), the film which marked the beginning of his career as an international director. A fast paced adventure set in India at the turn of the century, with Lauren Bacall paired with Kenneth More, its success led to him being drafted in to take over the direction of The Guns of Navarone (1961), another war film which proved to be a huge box-office success

Moving to Hollywood, Lee Thompson directed a string of successful films, beginning with the chilling Cape Fear (1962). He nevertheless regularly returned to the UK to make films which included: Return from the Ashes (1966), the darkly ironic story of a woman surviving the evil of a concentration camp only to encounter evil on her return home, the eerie Eye of the Devil (1968), an occult parable on how, despite modern society's veneer of rationality, savage forces lurk close to the surface waiting to be unleashed in times of stress, the downbeat Before Winter Comes (1969), which shows war continuing to claim its victims long after the fighting finishes, Country Dance (1970), a flawed but beautifully shot exploration which parallels the moral disintegration of an aristocrat with that of his privileged lifestyle and The Greek Tycoon (1978), a creditable attempt at fictionalising the life of Aristotle Onassis, with a finely judged performance from Anthony Quinn. J Lee Thompson died in Sooke, British Columbia, Canada on 30 August 2002.

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. But even within the entertainments he felt he could open up issues, such as the brief debate on the separatist issue in North West Frontier. There are instances where his faith in finding underlying virtue in unpromising subject matter overcame his judgement, but he wholeheartedly brought to bear his formidable talents on every project he worked on.

It is his British films of the '50s which reflect the more personal side of J Lee Thompson, but they also reflect the more serious nature of post-war Britain, when filmmakers were part of a wider sense of idealism and there was a pervading belief that films could change society. He never quite achieved intellectual respectability, even when, with the '60s British New Wave, it became fashionable to make the kind of gritty social realist films he had been making for almost a decade. His versatility gave rise to criticism, yet he was remarkably consistent in the way he made his films and the preoccupations these encompassed.

The criticisms stem partly from a misconception of Lee Thompson as a proponent of realism. Unlike the New Wave, filmmakers who were deeply committed to getting away from the artificiality of the studio, he deeply valued the extra control this could give him. Although from a literary background, he paid great attention to the visuals and his films always looked good - indeed those photographed by Gilbert Taylor, notably Ice Cold in Alex, have some of the best black and white cinematography in British cinema. But the cinematography was never used gratuitously; it formed an integral part of the telling the story.

That his films often featured ordinary people in ordinary environments also reinforced the image of a realist filmmaker. However, from the first, Lee Thompson's films contained instances of heightened theatricality, as instanced by the dramatic pre-credits sequence of Yield to the Night, which effectively contrasts with the low-key nature of the rest of the film. He was attracted to stories with characters battling for survival, emotionally as well as physically. Moments of extreme stress give rise to moments of extreme reaction, and he required an acting style to mirror this.

While Lee Thompson's early films confronted social issues, his films are not political in the sense that they espouse a particular set of political principles. On the contrary, there is a wariness of the established order, whether of the right or left. The Second World War taught him the importance of mutual responsibility within society and offered an object lesson in the consequences of prejudice and intolerance. But his own experience of a rootless and insecure way of life made him sensitive to life's complexities. His films argue the case for those whom society disapproves of or fails, such as the mistreated and misunderstood women and children of his '50s films. His sympathy for the victim is obvious, though his choice of victims was far from obvious, and - in the case of the Nazi scientist responsible for developing the V2 in I Aim at the Stars (1960) - controversial.

His films explore how people respond to and can be shaped by their environment. But he questions commonly held attitudes by presenting issues in terms of human dilemmas. Characters, trapped by their situations, are forced to actions that normally they would never contemplate - the husband in an arid marriage desperately seeking solace in Woman in a Dressing Gown or the boy from a loving home stealing in The Yellow Balloon - or the audience condone. Lee Thompson shows the world as a complex place, where people are often confronted with difficult choices and the innocent get hurt. While acknowledging the existence of evil, he shows people as misguided and subject to temptation rather than intrinsically evil. Often his characters have to choose between doing what the law requires and what they feel is right. The young girl decides that the sailor in Tiger Bay doesn't deserve to go to prison, the survivors in Ice Cold in Alex allow the 'South African' to escape despite a clear duty to turn him in. Lee Thompson empowers his protagonists, and by extension the audience, to make their own decisions according to their conscience, not according to the values of society.

Chibnall, Steve, J. Lee Thompson (Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2000)
Durgnat, Raymond, A Mirror for England (London: Faber and Faber, 1970)

Linda Wood, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Alligator Named Daisy, An (1955)Alligator Named Daisy, An (1955)

All-star farce starring Donald Sinden, Diana Dors and an alligator

Thumbnail image of Ice Cold in Alex (1958)Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

Classic war film charting a perilous journey across North Africa

Thumbnail image of Jamaica Inn (1939)Jamaica Inn (1939)

Hitchcock's last pre-Hollywood film, a tale of Cornish smugglers

Thumbnail image of North West Frontier (1959)North West Frontier (1959)

Stirring epic starring Lauren Bacall and set in British-ruled India

Thumbnail image of Tiger Bay (1959)Tiger Bay (1959)

Melodrama starring Hayley Mills as a seven-year-old witness to murder

Thumbnail image of Weak and the Wicked, The (1954)Weak and the Wicked, The (1954)

A young woman, framed for fraud, journeys through the prison system

Thumbnail image of Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957)Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957)

Powerful and progressive drama of a marriage in crisis

Thumbnail image of Yield to the Night (1956)Yield to the Night (1956)

Diana Dors stars in a powerful anti-capital punishment film

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Thumbnail image of Taylor, Gilbert (1914-)Taylor, Gilbert (1914-)