Ronald Neame: A class act, a gentleman and a century in the cinema

by Mark Burger

It was 2004 and I was sitting at my desk at the Winston-Salem Journal when the phone rang.

“Hello, Mark?” I knew the voice immediately. It was filmmaker Ronald Neame, and I knew because I’d recently selected his 1960 film Tunes of Glory as my DVD Pick of the Week — a tradition that, I’m pleased to say, now continues in the pages YES! Weekly. I had listened to Neame’s interview on the Criterion Collection DVD before writing the article and, on a whim, I’d sent him a copy.

If you’re wondering how I had his mailing address, I’m not necessarily one to divulge my sources, but actually I’d written to him for his autograph when I was teenager. As he had so graciously signed and returned the pictures I sent (and which I still have), I knew the address was valid — but I didn’t know if it still was, after nearly 20 years.

“I sure do,” I answered him. “This is Ronald Neame!” “Indeed I am,” he laughed. Known to one and all as “Ronnie,” it didn’t take more than 60 seconds for me to start calling him that, too. He’d read the article, liked it, and just called to say thanks. (Even now I smile at that.)

What followed was an impromptu, informal interview, in which we discussed not only Tunes of Glory (a superb film, and the one that Neame was proudest of) but such others as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), for which Maggie Smith won the Oscar as best actress; the absorbing adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s The Odessa File (1974), which starred Jon Voight; and Hopscotch (1980), an espionage romp based on Brian Garfield’s best-seller which marked the first of two collaborations with Walter Matthau. (Incidentally, all of these films are readily available on DVD, and all of them are highly recommended.)

And then, of course, we talked about The Poseidon Adventure (1972). Like millions of others, I too love this film. It’s the quintessential disaster movie, with an all-star cast headed by my all-time favorite actor, the God of Cinema himself, Gene Hackman. And let’s not forget that supporting line-up: Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, Roddy McDowall, Stella Stevens, Carol Lynley, Jack Albertson, Arthur O’Connell, the unforgettable Shelley

Winters (who picked up an Oscar nomination) and Leslie Nielsen, as “The Captain.”

It was, Ronnie told me, his favorite film.

Not because it was the best or the most dramatic, “but because it gave me FU Money.”

The film was so profitable (and still is, to this day) that the studio didn’t have time for the proverbial “creative bookkeeping.” Therefore, Ronnie made more money from that film than any other, which meant that if he didn’t want to do a movie, he could tell whoever was offering it “FU.” (Reading between the lines is not necessary.)

Ronnie loved telling that story, and he had a lot of them. I couldn’t possibly begin to relate them all, but I can unhesitatingly recommend his 2003 autobiography, Straight from the Horse’s Mouth (named for another of his hit movies, the 1958 comedy The Horse’s Mouth).

In it, Neame details a life and career that literally personifies 20 th century cinema. As a teenager, he was an assistant to Alfred Hitchcock on his first talkie, 1929’s Blackmail. Working his way up through the ranks, he toiled as a cinematographer for the next decade and earned an Academy Award nomination for best special effects for One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942). Soon thereafter he turned to screenwriting, scoring back-to-back Oscar nominations for Brief Encounter (1945) and Great Expectations (1946), both directed by David Lean. He then graduated to becoming Lean’s producer, and after a falling-out with the mercurial filmmaker, became a director himself in 1950.

That is a career for the ages, and the books tells it in wonderful, compassionate fashion.

When I spoke to Ronnie, he’d been retired several years and was mildly surprised by my extensive knowledge of his work (“That’s the job, Ronnie,” I said), yet it cannot be stressed enough that a good writer needs to know extensively about what he writes.

I hadn’t written about that wonderful conversation until now. I made a half-hearted effort to convince an editor to consider it as a column, but she was unwell (a common occurrence at the time), and soon forgot about it. Besides, I’d only just written the Tunes of Glory column. Sometimes even show-biz legends don’t make the cut.

Nevertheless, it was one of those magical little moments that I cherish and have told many friends about since. There truly is something special about getting the opportunity to talk with someone whose work you’ve admired and enjoyed for so many years. The length and breadth of Ronnie Neame’s career was, indeed, breathtaking.

“Why didn’t you write about this?” friends asked.

I am now.

Ronald Neame passed away June 16, 2010.

He was 99 years old.