James Mason

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

James Mason Pencil Portrait
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Leaving a loved one with a ‘life interest’ in a will trust ensures, finances permitting, that the survivor may continue living to the standard they have become accustomed to. This ‘interest’ will grant the widow/er, the use of property(ies) and enjoyment of a continuing income stream for the rest of their natural life, but will not confer upon them, the right to bequeath the ‘capitalised’ value of this benefit to whomever they choose, when they die. This form of financial planning is therefore vital when an individual re-marries, particularly where there are children from the first marriage.

Unfortunately, under the terms of his will, James Mason left everything to his second wife, the actress Clarissa Kaye, thus ensuring a sixteen year legal battle between his children and his widow and thereafter, her executors.

The ramifications were not purely financial but religious as well. For many years, Mason’s only offspring had no idea where their father’s ashes were, until lawyers traced them to a bank vault in Geneva, thus necessitating further legal action to get them released for burial.

The actor felt most strongly that she had sacrificed everything for him, especially in abandoning her Hollywood career to support him when he left tinseltown in 1963, and he wanted her to live her last days in comfort. In a letter dated May 7, 1976, he told his children, both from his first marriage:

“It does not mean that I love you any the less than always, and that’s the top. I hope you will understand why I have decided to make you, as it were, stand in line.”

The inference was clear; his children presuming therefore, that on Clarissa’s death they would inherit their father’s estate, valued at up to £15 million. But, by the time of her death from cancer, their stepmother, who had no children, harboured a “pathological” hatred of the two, according to Mason’s friends, even cutting them out of family photographs.

James Mason was born in Huddersfield, the son of an affluent textile manufacturer, and never forgot his roots. He was sent to public school at Marlborough College, and then went on to Cambridge where he gained a first-class degree in architecture. Whilst the depression would curtail career opportunities in this direction, the young Mason had a suitable fall-back. His performance in a university drama production had won him a good notice from one of the London critics, so he started answering adverts in The Stage and presenting himself for auditions.

He made his professional debut in 1931, and reached London’s West End two years later. He got his first film role in 1935 in one of the “quota quickies” churned out to comply with government attempts to develop a home-grown film industry.

When war broke out he outraged his family by trying to sign up as a conscientious objector. In the event he was never a “conchie” because work in the film industry was deemed to be of national importance.

Recommended viewing

The Desert Fox (1951)

‘The Desert Fox’ is a superb filmed biography of German General Erwin Rommel, concentrating on the period between his retreat from North Africa and his government-decreed death.

I’ve always admired Rommel’s tactical awareness, his cri de coeur as a German soldier, and his increasing incredulity at Hitler’s paranoia. Despite more recent efforts to tarnish the reputation of a great campaigner, for most people it is James Mason’s portrayal that defines him.

Earning the respect of both his own men and the British, Rommel becomes increasingly estranged from Hitler (Luther Adler), as the Fuhrer’s demands increasingly place the men under his command at risk.

Ordered to stand his ground in Africa to the last man, Rommel favours tactical withdrawal in order to fight another campaign, and incurs the wrath of Hitler, by now consumed with the possibilities of nuclear warfare.

Blessed with a virtually sacrosanct reputation as a war hero, Mason conveys the General’s ‘flight’ from blind loyalty to high treason with panache and sensitivity.

The scenes with his wife (played by Jessica Tandy) are touching, whilst his son’s hero-worship typifies public sentiment in war torn Germany at the time. Increasingly disgusted by Hitler’s behavior, Rommel joins in a plot to assassinate the Fuhrer. The attempt fails, and Rommel’s complicity is discovered. Given a choice, he opts for suicide over public disgrace and execution.

Anticipating future cinematic trends – most notably the Bond opening pre-title teaser – the film caused a critical stir in 1951 by providing a tense ten-minute dramatic sequence before the opening credits depicting Operation Flipper, a British commando raid whose aim is to assassinate Rommel. Based on the book by Brigadier Desmond Young, who is dubbed by the actor Michael Rennie, he narrates the film and appears as himself in the early scenes.

No amount of below par matte screen projection – Mason inspecting German defences in anticipation of the second front, and the end sequence with him atop his tank – can undermine this understated film classic…..

Five Fingers (1952)

Based on the wartime exploits of the Albanian born Elyesa Bazna, the famous World War II secret agent who was widely known by his code name Cicero, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz coaxes a near career defining performance from Mason in a leading role.

In the film, James Mason plays Ulysses Diello (Cicero), the character based on Bazna, who worked for the Nazis in 1943–44 while he was employed as valet to the British ambassador to Turkey, Sir Hughe Montgomery Knatchbull-Hugessen. In need of an accomplice, he finds the \‘perfect foil\’ in the Countess Anna Staviska, still smarting at the appropriation of her Warsaw based assets by Field marshall Goering, a known connoisseur of fine arts and treasures. In desperate need of income, and moving regularly within diplomatic social circles, she offers her services to the Germans as a spy. Rebuffed, she cannot consider calling upon friends, for as she so succinctly puts it: ‘I have none that I want, and those who want to be, quite frankly, cannot afford it.’ A woman therefore, whose charms come clearly at a not inconsiderable price.

Photographing top-secret documents in return for appropriate remuneration, Diello seeks favours from the Countess, leaving his ill gotten gains with her for safekeeping in return for an appropriate fee, provided he be allowed to use her new villa as a meeting place for his transactions. Aware of her past marital indiscretions, he tells her of his dream of living in South America together, whereupon she returns his impertinence with a facial slap; her undeniable interest in him surpassed only by her social standing. For now, she agrees only to the financial arrangement, Diello content to mark time.


Before long, Diello’s activities ensure the presence of both Colonel Von Richter and Travers, a British counter-intelligence man, in Ankara.

Realising he could soon be killed by one side or captured by the other, and seemingly thwarted in his South American dream by the deadliest of opponents, Diello secures a severance payment of £100,000 in return for details of the Allied Second Front.

His pension intact, our man repairs to Rio, before events take a decidedly unwelcome yet humorous turn; the delicious irony unlost on the emotionally jilted Diello.

Under construction

A touch of larceny (1959)

Sadly absent from terrestrial television screens for years, Mason is on top form as the smoothest of lotharios – all sublime good manners and rakish charm – doing battle with George Sanders as the pair vie for the hand of the lovely Vera Miles in this diverting tale of press intrusion and media manipulation.

As topical today as it obviously was back then, Mason’s a rather roguish Admiralty Commander who decides to fake his disappearance in order to drum up press speculation over his defection to the Russians. Intent on suing the national papers for defamation of character, the ensuing windfall will provide a solid financial base to support his marital intentions.

Subsequent plot twists threaten to derail his plan, yet Mason ultimately emerges with his credibility intact. Poor Sanders, hell bent on avaoiding scandal by association – his fiancee (Miles) being intimately privvy to Mason’s outlandish scheme – is pure righteousness and moral indignation yet ultimately self serving.

Directed by future Bond director Guy Hamilton, Mason was under consideration for the role of 007 and would have met with Fleming’s approval, but at 50 years of age when he made “A touch of larceny,” he would have been too old to commit to a future series. His loss would be Connery’s gain.

Recommended reading

James Mason - A personal Biography (Diana De Rosso) 1989

A truly engaging biography, that paints a vivid portrait of Mason the man, as well as a much revered actor. Ultimately, it’s a rewarding experience that leaves the reader with a well rounded impression of an essentially erudite and affable individual with few airs and graces. His aversion to personal confrontations may have cost him dearly – both emotionally and financially – but the last twenty years of his life were very happy and greatly deserved.

The author’s half sister Pamela was James Mason’s first wife, and Diana de Rosso enjoyed a close friendship with the actor throughout his life. Drawing on her own experience and interviews with those who knew him, including Alec Guinness, Margaret Lockwood, Deborah Kerr and many other actors, directors and writers, Diana de Rosso lets us into the real life of a truly great Englishman.