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Alex Grant

On Friday, August 30, at his summer residence in Sooke, British Columbia, innovative and controversial Anglo-American film director J. Lee-Thompson died at 88 years. He made a series of rip-roaring melodramas and thrillers, such as the original CAPE FEAR, between 1950 and 1989.

His pioneering British films in the Fifties highlighted women’s issues (The Weak and The Wicked; Woman in a Dressing Gown; Yield to the Night) and he introduced "kitchen-sink" realism long before the likes of Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson and John Schlesinger; the much vaunted but stolid pedestrian triumvirate of the British "New Wave" (A Taste of Honey’; A Kind of Loving).

Lee-Thompson adapted to the big screen the plays of television pioneers such as Ted Willis (No Trees in the Street). He also was gifted with child actors, such as Anthony Ray and Hayley Mills (The Yellow Baloon; Tiger Bay) and with their elders – such beetle-browed, earnest British leading-men as Kenneth More (the rip-snorting North West Frontier) and John Mills (the ironic, atmospheric wartime allegory Ice Cold In Alex).

The controversy he courted began with The Yellow Balloon; the second only "X-Certificate" imposed by the British Board of Film Censors, in 1952. Ten years later, Lee-Thompson’s genuinely scary Cape Fear was subjected to severe, unsparing censorship due to Robert Mitchum’s uncanny portrayal of "Max Cady", a sexually sadistic ex-con. Lee-Thompson had dramatized crime and punishment issues in X-certificate films such as The Weak and The Wicked (Women’s prison) and Yield to the Night (Capital punishment/the last woman to hang in England, Ruth Ellis).

The director made four films with Hollywood’s most decent, honourable star Gregory Peck, including the global blockbuster The Guns of Navarone. Lee-Thompson ended his career with nine films starring Peck’s polar-opposite Charles Bronson, the epitome of amoral vigilantism on screen.

Neither an Anglo-American counterpart to US action-director Don Siegel, nor even to the late John Frankenheimer, who also died this year; Lee Thompson’s oeuvre gave a lot of pleasure to a lot of people over many years. His career waded into the shallow end of exploitation "B" movies in the Eighties but he had triumphed as an exponent of adult-themed melodrama thirty years earlier, bringing to prominence such sex-symbols as Diana Dors, the British Marilyn Monroe.

© Alex Grant September 2002

City By The Sea
Review by Alex Grant

Directed by Michael Caton-Jones

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