In a directorial career stretching for over forty years, Ronald Neame proved to be a reliable and versatile commercial film-maker but also one who defies easy categorisation. Efficient and craftsman-like, his films are well made but have lacked the individualism seemingly required to achieve auteur status. Instead he has been the epitome of the mainstream studio director, a model of professionalism whose output has often mirrored the ups and downs of the industry.
He was born in London on 23 April 1911. His father was the noted portrait photographer and film director Elwin Neame and his mother the actress Ivy Close. After his father’s early death in a car accident, he had to leave public school and went to work for an oil company. With his mother’s help, he entered the film industry at the Elstree studios of British International Pictures in 1927 and worked his way up from clapperboy to focus puller and eventually cinematographer. He photographed many quota quickies in the 1930s, along with a number of George Formby vehicles at Ealing. He established a solid reputation, winning his first Oscar nomination for his work on Powell and Pressburger’s One of Our Aircraft Is Missing (1942). With Major Barbara (1941), he began an association with the film’s editor, David Lean. He worked initially as his director of photography on three Noël Coward projects (he was nominated for a second Oscar for Blithe Spirit in 1945). In 1943 they founded the production company Cineguild with Anthony Havelock-Allen which operated under the Rank umbrella. After a fact-finding trip to Hollywood on behalf of Rank, Neame switched to producing and scriptwriting, making important contributions to Lean’s two Dickens adaptations and to the classic romance Brief Encounter (1945), picking up further Academy Award nominations in these new roles. Unfortunately, his partnership with Lean ended rather acrimoniously when Lean took over the direction of The Passionate Friends (1948) from Neame.
He made his debut as a director for Cineguild with Take My Life (1947), a more than competent Hitchcock-style thriller which showed Neame’s technical skill as a film-maker. Throughout his career his work was uneven, so that the routine action hokum of The Golden Salamander (1949) was followed by the excellent sub-Ealing comedy The Card (1952) featuring Alec Guinness. Based on Arnold Bennett’s novel, it is a sympathetic account of the nefarious rise of a humble clerk as he finds various ways to take advantage of the hierarchies of the British class system. Neame showed a real lightness of touch handling comic subjects, spinning out the thin premise of The Million Pound Note (1953) with some style and again drawing a fine performance from Guinness as an idiosyncratic painter in his pleasing adaptation of Joyce Cary’s novel The Horse’s Mouth (1958). In the 1950s he also made the intriguing wartime espionage tale The Man Who Never Was (1955), as well as having a brief, unsuccessful stint in Hollywood where he was eventually replaced as director on The Seventh Sin (1957).
Neame’s liking for non-conformist characters reaches its height in his most acclaimed film Tunes of Glory (1960), a compelling barrackroom melodrama which also shows his skill in handling actors; here he is rewarded with memorable performances by John Mills and Alec Guinness as the two officers engaged in a violent clash of personalities. Like The Horse’s Mouth, it was made for his own production company Knightsbridge Films. His 1960s output continued to be extremely variable. It included two Swinging London films, the amiable caper movie Gambit (1966) with Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine and the instantly dated risqué comedy Prudence and the Pill (1968), on which he worked uncredited. He directed Judy Garland in her last film, I Could Go on Singing (1963), and had another spell in the States where he completed two unremarkable projects, Escape from Zahrain (1961) and A Man Could Get Killed (1966). The best-received work from this period was The Prime of Miss Jean Brody (1969). This popular adaptation of the stage version of Muriel Spark’s novel provided Maggie Smith with a show-off role which duly won her an Oscar, but the film has considerable difficulty dealing with the essential theatricality of the story and characters.
After the middling musical Scrooge (1970) with Albert Finney in the title role, Neame took up permanent residence in Hollywood, eventually becoming an American citizen. He was responsible for establishing the ‘disaster movie’ genre with the immensely successful The Poseidon Adventure (1972), although he followed it with one of the worst examples of this cycle, Meteor (1979). He also made two enjoyable, lightweight pieces with Walter Matthau, Hopscotch (1980) and First Monday in October (1981). The best of his limited British work in this period is the tautly effective thriller The Odessa File (1974), from Frederick Forsyth’s bestselling novel, with Jon Voight uncovering a Neo-Nazi group. Nothing can forgive the atrocious sex comedy Foreign Body (1986) which looks like a relic from another era. His final film was The Magic Balloon (1990), a children’s adventure designed to show off the new ShowScan widescreen format which consequently only had a limited release.
Throughout his career Neame was always a smoothly professional film-maker, adopting an unostentatious approach which relied greatly on his actors and which frequently left him at the mercy of the script. When these were good he produced highly effective films which often showcased outstanding acting performances. Even on his poorer commercial assignments there is an ability to serve the narrative no matter how inadequate this might be. His achievements, which include his active role in the industry union ACT and with the British Society of Cinematographers, were recognised with a BAFTA Fellowship and the CBE, both awarded in 1996.
Guide of British Film Directors – Robert Shail