James Mason

James Mason Headshot

Actor

Birth Date: May 15, 1909

Death Date: July 27, 1984

Birth Place: Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England, UK

Gifted with one of the most mellifluous and distinctive voices of his era, James Mason managed to convey volumes of emotion while often remaining surprisingly understated. Following some stage experience and roles in British B-pictures, Mason became a star in his homeland via films like "The Man in Grey" (1943), "The Wicked Lady" (1945), and "Odd Man Out" (1947) and was eventually lured to Hollywood. His performances in "The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel" (1951), "A Star is Born" (1954), "North by Northwest" (1959), and "Lolita" (1962) ranked amongst his very finest. He also appeared in such projects as "Heaven Can Wait" (1978), "Murder by Decree" (1979), and "The Verdict" (1982), all of which made excellent use of attributes that had long endeared Mason to audiences worldwide. Mason's uniqueness and versatility were his greatest assets and served him well throughout his career, particularly when he aged into being one of the finest character players in cinema.

James Neville Mason was born in Huddersfield, Yorkshire, England on May 15, 1909. Following his graduation from Cambridge University, Mason seemed poised for a career in architecture, but the experience of acting in several of Cambridge's dramatic productions prompted him to more thoroughly explore performing. West End exposure led to Mason appearing regularly at the Old Vic Theater in London and with the Dublin-based Gate Theatre Company. He made a very inauspicious movie debut in a 1933 movie directed by Alexander Korda, who fired Mason not long into shooting and recast his role. Thus, Mason's official cinematic bow actually came two years later in the low-budget crime drama "Late Extra" (1935), but the intelligent and well-spoken young actor quickly progressed to starring roles in other "Quota Quickies," along with supporting assignments in grander efforts like "Fire Over England" (1937) and "Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel" (1937). He also became one of the first British actors seen on the brand new medium of television when he was featured in a handful of live dramas broadcast on the BBC in 1938 and 1939.

While starring in the thriller "I Met a Murderer" (1939), Mason fell in love co-star Pamela Kellino, wife of the film's director, Roy Kellino. After separating from her husband, she wed Mason in 1941. During that time, Mason also raised some eyebrows by registering with the British government as a conscientious objector, a move that alienated him from his family for a number of years. Following some additional stage work, he really began to hit his stride in the movie world via roles in pictures like "The Night Has Eyes" (1942) and "Thunder Rock" (1942). Genuine notoriety came via his sadistic upper class antagonist in "The Man in Grey" (1943), and subsequent turns in "The Seventh Veil" (1945) and "The Wicked Lady" (1945) further solidified Mason's reputation and popularity with audiences. He was also particularly well utilized as a determined I.R.A. member in Carol Reed's superb thriller "Odd Man Out" (1947). Thanks to projects such as these, Mason was voted the most popular British star from 1944 through 1947. He eventually succumbed to overtures from Hollywood and relocated to America, but opted to remain a free agent, rather than be locked down by the often restrictive Hollywood contract player system of the time. Mason also accepted an invitation to perform on Broadway, portraying David in the play "Bathsheba" (1947).

However, movies remained his primary focus and Mason would not return to the Great White Way for more than 30 years. Wife Pamela Mason was one of his co-stars in "Bathsheba" and the pair authored the humorous and affectionate book The Cats in Our Lives (1949). Mason half-apologetically stated that he wrote it strictly as a way to make money during a slow patch in his career, but he genuinely loved cats and owned a dozen at one point. Although he occasionally returned to England for local productions, Mason concentrated mainly on Hollywood assignments, which earned him snooty criticism from former colleagues who felt that he was more concerned with money than advancing himself as an actor. Mason copped to the financial incentive years later in an interview, but still showed them up with a series of excellent performances in some fine films, beginning with his turn as celebrated tactician Field Marshall Erwin Rommel in the World War II drama "The Desert Fox: The Story of Rommel" (1951). He was also strikingly good as a valet selling secrets to the Nazis in the superior spy thriller "5 Fingers" (1952), made for the perfect embodiment of Brutus in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's all-star version of "Julius Caesar" (1953), and impressed once again via an encore as Rommel in "The Desert Rats" (1953).

Mason's brilliant, but fanatical Captain Nemo ranked among the highlights of Walt Disney's big-budget epic "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" (1954) and the actor earned an Academy Award nomination for his moving performance as alcoholic fallen star Norman Maine in the first remake of "A Star is Born" (1954), co-starring an equally magnificent Judy Garland. That year, Mason also made another rare return to the stage when invited by Canada's Stratford Festival to star in their productions of "Measure for Measure" and "Oedipus Rex." In the wake of middling reviews, he decided to return to movies and deftly rode an emotional rollercoaster in "Bigger than Life" (1956), an early depiction of prescription drug addiction that found Mason convincingly swinging from wild euphoria to paranoia induced threats of violence.

As he progressed further into middle age, Mason became a much desired character player. He gave one of his most understated and wholly effective performances as the cultured villain responsible for Cary Grant's travails in Alfred Hitchcock's classic "North by Northwest" (1959) and Mason's customary degree of authority and persuasiveness helped viewers to overlook the occasional juvenile silliness of "Journey to the Center of the Earth" (1959). In the midst of all that activity, Mason suffered a heart attack in 1959, but had no lasting ill effects and soon resumed working. He was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his film and television achievements in 1960 and gave a remarkable (and remarkably brave) turn as pathetic pedophile Humbert Humbert in Stanley Kubrick's controversial adaptation of "Lolita" (1962). During that time, Mason moved to Switzerland, citing tax concerns as one of the main factors in his decision, but he was also candid in his dislike of Los Angeles and the whole nature of Hollywood.

In 1964, Mason filed for divorce, alleging infidelity on his wife's part. However, it was Pamela Mason who emerged victorious in the end, winning such a large settlement that he was effectively wiped out. In need of money, Mason agreed to appear in some less than stellar films in the years that followed, but also continued to operate at the height of his craft in more ambitious fare like the historical adventure "Lord Jim" (1965) and the hit romantic comedy "Georgy Girl" (1966), for which he earned a second Oscar nomination. Luckily for Mason, much of the worst work he did during that era - notably, the disastrous 1970 black comedy "The Yin and the Yang of Mr. Go" - was not widely seen. However, that was not always the case. In regards to the spaghetti Western "Bad Man's River" (1972), Mason stated that he had signed on to the lowbrow action comedy for some quick cash and a trip to Spain. Thinking it would never be widely distributed, he was mortified when "Bad Man's River" got a large and well-publicized theatrical release in England.

Whatever damage was done to Mason's reputation by these weak movies was fairly minimal, thanks to the fine dramatic turns he continued to give in productions like the twisty movie industry mystery "The Last of Sheila" (1973) and the large scale made-for-TV feature "Frankenstein: The True Story" (NBC, 1973). In keeping with the established pattern in the American phase of his career, that work was followed by his casting as a slave owner in the embarrassingly racist and inane exploitation film "Mandingo" (1975), perhaps the nadir of Mason's entire career. Good fortune soon smiled upon him again, however, and he was wonderful as an otherworldly bureaucrat in "Heaven Can Wait" (1978), Warren Beatty's popular remake of the 1940s classic "Here Comes Mr. Jordan" (1941), effectively unsettling as an exiled Nazi in "The Boys from Brazil" (1978), and offered an effectively contrasted Dr. Watson to Christopher Plummer's Sherlock Holmes in the underrated mystery "Murder by Decree" (1979).

After an absence from the stage of more than 20 years, Mason headlined the Broadway play "Faith Healer" (1979), opposite his second wife, Clarissa Kaye-Mason (an Australian actress whom he married in 1971), but it attracted little notice and closed after only 20 performances. As the 1980s dawned, Mason published his autobiography entitled Before I Forget (1981) and gave his finest late career turn as Paul Newman's imposingly formidable courtroom foe in "The Verdict" (1982), earning a third and final Academy Award Nomination. When Paul Scofield broke his leg in an accident during the production of "The Shooting Party" (1985), Mason stepped in to replace the stage veteran as the lead in a middling adaptation of Isabel Colegate's novel about the change in British society brought about by World War I. "The Shooting Party" turned out to be Mason's final motion picture. He suffered a heart attack at his home in Vevey, Switzerland and was taken to the University Hospital of Lausanne, where he died on July 27, 1984. In his will, Mason left everything to Kaye-Mason with the understanding that Portland and Morgan Mason, the two children from his first marriage, would then receive what remained after her passing. However, when Kaye-Mason died in 1994, it was revealed that she had put Mason's £15 million estate into a trust apparently overseen by the Sathya Sai Baba religious sect. In November 2000, after much legal wrangling and more than 15 years having passed since his death, the children were able to claim Mason's ashes, which had been secured inside a bank vault in Switzerland. The actor's remains were then buried in a cemetery on the shores of Lake Geneva.

By John Charles

Credits

ORF III - Spezial

Actor
Kaiser Franz Joseph
Show
2014

The Assisi Underground

Actor
Bishop Nicolini
Movie
1985

The Shooting Party

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Sir Randolph Nettleby
Movie
1984

La Partie de chasse

Actor
Movie
1984

Alexandre

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The Father
Movie
1983

Dr. Fischer of Geneva

Actor
Dr. Fischer
Movie
1983

Yellowbeard

Actor
Captain Hughes
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1983

The VerdictStream

Actor
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1982
89%

Evil Under the SunStream

Actor
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92%

A Dangerous Summer

Actor
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1982

Ivanhoe

Actor
Isaac of York
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1982

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Admiral Brindsen
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1980

Salem's LotStream

Actor
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Miniseries
1979

Bloodline

Actor
Sir Alec Nichols
Movie
1979

Murder by DecreeStream

Actor
Dr. John H. Watson
Movie
1979
86%

Salem's Lot

Actor
Richard K. Straker
Movie
1979

The Passage

Actor
Prof. John Bergson
Movie
1979

The Water Babies

Actor
Mr. Grimes/Voice of Killer Shark
Movie
1978

Heaven Can WaitStream

Actor
Mr. Jordan
Movie
1978
85%

The Boys from BrazilStream

Actor
Eduard Seibert
Movie
1978
69%

Slip Slide Adventures

Actor
Mr. Grimes/Voice of Killer Shark
Movie
1978

Cross of Iron

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Oberst Brandt
Movie
1977

Voyage of the Damned

Actor
Dr. Juan Remos
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1976

Kidnap Syndicate

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1976

People of the Wind

Narrator
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1976

Inside Out

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1975

Autobiography of a Princess

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1975

Mandingo

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1975

The Flower in His Mouth

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Avv. Antonio Bellocampo
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1975

La Main gauche de la Loi

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1975

11 Harrowhouse

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1974

Great ExpectationsStream

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Magwitch
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The Destructors

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1974

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Actor
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1973

The Mackintosh Man

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1973

The Last of SheilaStream

Actor
Philip
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1973
90%

El Muñeco Infernal Chucky

Actor
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1972

Child's Play

Actor
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1972

The Yin and Yang of Mr. Go

Actor
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1972

Bad Man's River

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1971

Cold Sweat

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1971

Spring and Port Wine

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1970

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1970

Age of Consent

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1969

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Producer
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Guest
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The Legend of Silent Night

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Mayerling

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Emperor Franz-Josef
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The Sea GullStream

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Duffy

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1968

The London Nobody Knows

Narrator
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1967

Cop-Out

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1967

The Uninhibited

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1967

Bas les masques

Actor
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1966

Georgy Girl

Actor
James Leamington
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1966

The Blue MaxStream

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1966
100%

The Deadly Affair

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1966

Lord Jim

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1965

Los pianos mecánicos

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1965

Genghis Khan

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1965

The Fall of the Roman Empire

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1964

Torpedo Bay

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Captain Blayne
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The Pumpkin EaterStream

Actor
Bob Conway
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1964
67%

Alfred Hitchcock HourStream

Actor
Series
1962

Hero's Island

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1962

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Producer
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1962

Escape From Zahrain

Actor
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1962

Tiara Tahiti

Actor
Capt. Brett Aimsley
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1962

LolitaStream

Actor
Prof. Humbert Humbert
Movie
1962
91%

Golden Showcase

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Show
1961

Theatre '62

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Show
1961

Dr. Kildare

Guest Star
Dr. Maxwell Becker
Series
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A Touch of Larceny

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The Marriage-Go-Round

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The Trials of Oscar Wilde

Actor
Sir Edward Carson
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1960

The June Allyson Show

Actor
Show
1959

Journey to the Center of the EarthStream

Actor
Sir Oliver S. Lindenbrook
Movie
1959
84%

North by NorthwestStream

Actor
Phillip Vandamm
Movie
1959
97%

Terror en Alta Mar

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Movie
1958

The Decks Ran Red

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Capt. Edwin Rummill
Movie
1958

Cry Terror

Actor
Jim Molner
Movie
1958

Panic!

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1957

Island in the Sun

Actor
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1957

G.E. Summer Originals

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1956

Forever Darling

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The Guardian Angel
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1956

Bigger Than Life

Actor
Ed Avery
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1956

Bigger Than Life

Producer
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1956

Star of Bethlehem

Actor
Show
1954

The Star of Bethlehem

Actor
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1954

The Star of Bethlehem

Director
Movie
1954

The Star of Bethlehem

Producer
Movie
1954

The Star of Bethlehem

Screenwriter
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1954

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Actor
Capt. Nemo
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A Star is BornStream

Actor
Norman Maine
Movie
1954
98%

Prince ValiantStream

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Sir Brack
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1954

The Man Between

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Ivo Kern
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1953

Botany Bay

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Capt. Paul Gilbert
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1953

The Desert Rats

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The Story of Three Loves

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Charade

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Charade

Producer
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1953

Charade

Screenwriter
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Julius Caesar

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The Tell-Tale Heart

Narrator
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Lady Possessed

Actor
Jimmy Del Palma
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Face to Face

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The Captain
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Five Fingers

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Ulysses Diello
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1952

The Prisoner of Zenda

Actor
Rupert of Hentzau
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1952

The Desert Fox

Actor
Field Marshal Erwin Johannes Rommel
Movie
1951
71%

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman

Actor
Hendrik van der Zee
Movie
1951

What's My Line?Stream

Guest
Game Show
1950

One Way Street

Actor
Dr. Frank Matson
Movie
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Caught

Actor
Larry Quinada
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The Reckless Moment

Actor
Martin Donnelly
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1949

East Side, West Side

Actor
Brandon Bourne
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1949

Madame Bovary

Actor
Gustave Flaubert
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1949

Odd Man OutStream

Actor
Johnny McQueen
Movie
1947
100%

The Upturned Glass

Actor
Movie
1947

The Wicked Lady

Actor
Captain Jerry Jackson
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1946

The Seventh Veil

Actor
Nicholas
Movie
1945

A Place of One's Own

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They Were Sisters

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Fanny by Gaslight

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Hotel Reserve

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Candlelight in Algeria

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1944

The Man in Grey

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1943

They Met in the Dark

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1943

The Bells Go Down

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1943

The Night Has Eyes

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1942

Secret Mission

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Thunder Rock

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Alibi

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Andre Laurent
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1942

Hatters Castle

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1941

The Patient Vanishes

Actor
Mick Cardby
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1941

I Met a Murderer

Actor
Mark Warrow
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1939

The Return of the Scarlet Pimpernel

Actor
Jean Tallien
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1938

Alto Mando

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1937

The Mill on the Floss

Actor
Tom Tulliver
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1937

The High Command

Actor
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1937

Secret of Stamboul

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Larry
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1936

Father and Son

Actor
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Blind Man's Bluff

Actor
Stephen Neville
Movie
1936

Troubled Waters

Actor
John Merriman
Movie
1936

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