Tuesday 22 June 2010

Ronald Neame RIP

Ronald Neame obituary
Producer, director and cinematographer of many well-loved British film classics, including Oliver Twist, Tunes of Glory and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

Ronald Bergan
Sunday 20 June 2010 18.38 BST

The producer, director, writer and cinematographer Ronald Neame, who has died aged 99, played an important role in British cinema for more than half a century. The critic Matthew Sweet once called him "a living embodiment of cinema, a sort of one-man world heritage site". Neame was assistant director to Alfred Hitchcock on Blackmail (1929), the first British talkie; he was the cinematographer on In Which We Serve (1942), Noël Coward's moving tribute to the Royal Navy during the second world war; he co-produced and co-wrote David Lean's Brief Encounter (1945) and Great Expectations (1946); and he directed Alec Guinness in two of his best roles, in The Horse's Mouth (1958) and Tunes of Glory (1960). As if this wasn't enough, Neame also conquered Hollywood with one of the first and most successful disaster movies, The Poseidon Adventure (1972).

Neame came from a film-making family. His father, Elwin, was a well-known photographer who directed four films starring Ronald's mother, Ivy Close. She acted in dozens of silent pictures, including Abel Gance's innovative La Roue (The Wheel, 1923), of which Jean Cocteau pronounced: "There is cinema before and after La Roue, as there is painting before and after Picasso." Although none of Ronald Neame's films could claim as much, cinema was part of his DNA. "You could say I was really born in a film studio," he explained. "My mother was making a film up to six weeks before I was born ... She took me on the set when I was just two or three months old, rather proudly."

His father was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1923, and around this time his mother withdrew from acting, so Neame left school aged 15 to find work. His first job was as an office boy with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. His mother used her influence at Elstree Studios to get him taken on as a messenger boy, and he soon graduated to gofer, clapper boy and assistant director. From 1933, Neame was the cinematographer on dozens of cheap thrillers, musicals and many comedies starring the toothy, ukulele-playing Lancastrian comic George Formby.

He became director of photography on Gabriel Pascal's Major Barbara (1941), Neame's first film of real quality, with a screenplay by George Bernard Shaw, adapted from his own play. The editor was David Lean. Neame and Lean worked together again, as director of photography and editor respectively, on Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942), for which Neame was Oscar-nominated. Lean then made his debut as a director on In Which We Serve, photographed by Neame.

Anthony Havelock-Allan, the associate producer of that film, joined Lean and Neame to form a production company, Cineguild, an independent unit within the Rank Organisation. The company's initial intention was to produce adaptations of Coward plays, directed by Lean and photographed by Neame. The first of these was This Happy Breed (1944), a saga of the lower middle-classes, followed by Blithe Spirit (1945), a well-performed version of the supernatural farce. Both were shot in splendid pastel Technicolor by Neame, who also contributed to the scripts.

Blithe Spirit was Neame's last film as a cinematographer. He co-produced and co-wrote Brief Encounter, one of the most telling juxtapositions of the romantic and the mundane in cinema, and two of the finest Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist (1948), with Guinness as Herbert Pocket and Fagin respectively.

Neame directed a taut, low-budget murder mystery, Take My Life, in 1947 for Cineguild. However, the company broke up after Lean decided to direct The Passionate Friends (1948) himself, despite having promised to give Neame his first chance at directing a major film. Neame's second movie, The Golden Salamander (1950), an exotic thriller partially shot in Tunisia, was a tepid affair despite the presence of a 17-year-old Anouk Aimée. Neame then teamed up with Guinness on The Card (1952), a witty adaptation (by Eric Ambler) of Arnold Bennett's rags-to-riches 1911 novel.

The Horse's Mouth (1958) provided Guinness with the plum role of Gulley Jimson, an archetypal portrait of the artist as nonconformist. With rasping voice, tipsy gait and roguish eyes, Guinness gave a larger-than-life performance as Jimson, who exploits everyone for the sake of his paintings (provided by John Bratby), which were rendered appropriately visionary in Technicolor.

Tunes of Glory (1960), the film of which Neame was most proud, caught the intrigues and jealousies in the officer's quarters of a Highland regiment. At its centre is the conflict between the wild, hard-drinking, red-haired major Guinness, a man who has risen from the ranks, and colonel John Mills, ex-Eton and Oxford, a stoical disciplinarian.

Neame was assigned several British films featuring Hollywood stars, presumably to attract American audiences. The Million Pound Note (1954), with Gregory Peck, was among the best, because Neame brought the touch of an Ealing comedy to Mark Twain's story of a man who is given a fortune but finds that he cannot spend it. The Man Who Never Was (1956) proved to be an enjoyable espionage drama. A few of Neame's other films suffered from the dead hand of the Rank Organisation in the 1950s, and American companies in Britain in the 1960s, who insisted on what could be termed Anglo-American puddings. Among these was Escape from Zahrain (1961), set in the Middle East but filmed in the Mojave desert in California, with Yul Brynner as a revolutionary Arab leader; the rather stagy version of Enid Bagnold's play The Chalk Garden (1964), with Deborah Kerr; Mister Moses (1965), in which Robert Mitchum implausibly led the people of an African village, about to be flooded by a new dam, to the promised land; and a crime caper, Gambit (1966), with Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine. What they proved was that Neame could handle large resources and big stars.

Neame survived the mood swings of Judy Garland during the making of her last film, I Could Go On Singing (1963), which was almost a parody of her own life, but still captured the frenetic feel of her stage performances. Neame recalled that, in one sequence, "Suddenly, Judy had become the real Judy. It was no longer acting, and it was absolutely wonderful. She bared her heart ... Whilst we were shooting, I thought, 'My God, what am I going to do?' Because this was a one-time thing. So I kept the camera running right through the whole six minutes, and everybody on the set was in tears when we said cut. I said, 'That's it. We'll never ever get that again'."

He steered Maggie Smith towards her Oscar for best actress in The Prime of Jean Brodie (1969), an adaptation of Muriel Spark's novel. It was the first film role worthy of Smith's talents. Neame's last film before going to America was Scrooge (1970), a return to Dickens and Guinness (who plays Marley's ghost), but undermined by redundant songs and dances.

Neame was then asked by 20th Century-Fox to save the production of The Poseidon Adventure, which was in trouble after the original director walked out. Much of his direction was submerged by the impressive sets and special effects, but this story, about 10 passengers trying to escape from an ocean liner overturned by a freak wave, made a great deal of money. Neame took 5% of the huge box-office takings, giving him financial security for the rest of his life.

Perhaps that was why he only made five more features over the next 14 years. These included an adaptation of the Frederick Forsyth thriller The Odessa File (1974); Meteor (1979), a sci-fi disaster movie, as much of a flop as Poseidon was a success, from which Neame tried in vain to have his name removed; and two inconsequential vehicles for the grouchy talents of Walter Matthau, Hopscotch (1980) and First Monday in October (1981). He was appointed CBE in 1996 and published his autobiography, Straight from the Horse's Mouth, in 2002.

Neame married Beryl Heanly in 1933; they divorced in 1992. The following year, he married Donna Friedberg. She survives him, along with his and Beryl's son, Christopher, and a grandson, Gareth. Both Christopher and Gareth are television producers.

Ronald Neame, film producer and director, born 23 April 1911; died 16 June 2010


1 comment:

  1. Brief Encounter... Tunes of Glory... A great legacy.