There was a brief moment towards the end of the fifties when it looked like J. Lee Thompson was going to be a major director. Somehow it never quite happened.
John Lee Thompson was born in Bristol and educated at Dover College. After leaving school he went on the stage. This got him writing for the theatre and his second play Double Error got a brief West End run in 1935. The film right were purchased by BIP before the run and Thompson was employed at Elstree in the scriptwriting department. He also made his only screen appearance at this time in Midshipman Easy. He also had a stint as dialogue coach on Jamaica Inn (must have been a fun job!).
The war interrupted his film career. He spent most of it in the RAF, but still found time to write for the stage. He resumed his film writing career after demob at Associated British and was given a chance to direct his own script for Murder Without Crime.
Murder Without Crime was scarcely noticed on release. His next, The Yellow Balloon, was a big hit and showed Thompson's gift with child actors.
His next film, The Weak and the Wicked, was moderately successful, but a significant landmark in his personal life. The writer, Joan Henry, on whose life the film is based, became his second wife.
During the 50s he went from strength to strength. There were a few bland musical comedies forced on him by the studios, but his talent was for gritty social dramas. He brought out the best in actresses such as Yvonne Mitchell, Diana Dors, and Sylvia Syms. Gradually his work moved towards action blockbusters, reaching a climax with The Guns of Navarone.
The success of this, though he was only brought in as director at the last minute, sent him to Hollywood. Gregory Peck wanted to make a film of the book The Executioners and got Thompson over to do the job. This became the film Cape Fear, which established him in Hollywood.
He continued to work there for the next thirty years. He popped back for the occasional film, but never managed to hit the heights he achieved in the 50s. Most of his work consisted of low budget action pictures, notably a string of films starring Charles Bronson and a couple of Planet of the Apes sequels.
This body of work has tended to obscure the quality of the best of his 50s work. Thompson was never part of some great cinema movement, but he managed to put some grit into the bland world of 50s British cinema. And no one with Ice Cold in Alex on his CV has any need to apologise for under-achieving.
plus a review of J. Lee Thompson book
|1951||Murder Without Crime|
|1953||The Yellow Balloon|
|1954||The Weak and the Wicked|
|1954||For Better, For Worse|
|1955||As Long as They're Happy|
|1955||An Alligator Called Daisy|
|1956||Yield to the Night|
|1957||The Good Companions|
|1957||Woman in a Dressing Gown|
|1957||Ice Cold in Alex|
|1959||No Trees in the Street|
|1959||North West Frontier|
|1960||I Aim at the Stars|
|1961||The Guns of Navarone|
|1962||Cape Fear (U.S.)|
|1963||Taras Bulba (U.S.)|
|1963||Kings of the Sun (U.S.)|
|1964||What a Way to Go (U.S.)|
|1964||John Goldfarb Please Come Home (U.S.)|
|1966||Return from the Ashes|
|1968||Eye of the Devil (U.S.)|
|1968||Mackenna's Gold (U.S.)|
|1969||Before Winter Comes|
|1969||The Most Dangerous Man in the World|
|1972||Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (U.S.)|
|1973||Battle for the planet of the Apes (U.S.)|
|1974||Huckleberry Finn (U.S.)|
|1974||The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (U.S.)|
|1976||St Ives (U.S.)|
|1977||The White Buffalo (U.S.)|
|1978||The Greek Tycoon (U.S.)|
|1980||Cabo Blanco (U.S.)|
|1980||Happy Birthday to Me (Can.)|
|1983||10 to Midnight (U.S.)|
|1983||The Evil that Men Do (U.S.)|
|1984||The Ambassador (U.S.)|
|1985||King Solomon's Mines (U.S.)|
|1986||Murphy's Law (U.S.)|
|1987||Death Wish 4 (U.S.)|
|1988||Messenger of Death (U.S.)|
|1989||Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects (U.S.)|
J. Lee Thompson at Amazon UK
J. Lee Thompson at Amazon US