The English writer Angela Carter, reviewing Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract in 1982, wrote that Greenaway had “leapt over the great stumbling block to good British cinema—that is, the entire tradition of British theatrical acting. [...] British actors usually mess up movies by persistently acting—they never stop, they act all the time, always doing busy things with their hands, twiddling their pencils, fidgeting with props, they seem to think that if they keep still, they’re not earning their keep.” (Greenaway gets around this, Carter argues, by embracing and even exaggerating the “high, artificial theatricality” of British acting to unsettling and comic effect.) But even though we’re used to thinking of the British theatrical tradition of Olivier as antithetical to the subtlety and emotional truth of the American Method actors (recall the stories about Olivier and Dustin Hoffman butting heads on the set of Marathon Man), there are certain performances that seem to confound such a distinction.
In Carol Reed’s masterful Odd Man Out (1947), James Mason plays Johnny, an Irish political criminal who is shot and dropped out of a moving car during a botched heist in the film’s opening sequence, and who spends the next two hours quietly staggering from one hideout to the next. In contrast to Mason’s later roles—witness his brilliantly histrionic turn in Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956)—he is remarkably subdued here, and not only because he’s playing a suffering victim. As the tormented, roughly handsome Johnny, Mason looks ahead to the brooding anti-heroes of 1950s Hollywood, the kinds of sullen, conflicted men played by Brando, Clift, and Dean. It’s possible to see the seeds of those characters and that acting style in Mason’s performance, which--like Greenaway's Draughtsman's Contract--miraculously jumps the hurdle of British theatricality.