Ronald Neame, 99

Ronald Neame, prolific British filmmaker and cinematographer, dies at 99

Director Ronald Neame said "The Poseidon Adventure" made him very wealthy, although he admitted the film was mediocre.
Director Ronald Neame said "The Poseidon Adventure" made him very wealthy, although he admitted the film was mediocre. (File Photo/los Angeles Times)
By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ronald Neame, 99, a prolific British filmmaker whose early work with luminaries such as Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean and Noel Coward led to a long and varied career, and whose credits as director included "Tunes of Glory," "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" and "The Poseidon Adventure," died June 16 at a hospital in Los Angeles.

His wife, Donna, said his health had declined after a fall at his Los Angeles home in early May. He had suffered a broken leg, which required surgery, and he never recovered.

As a cinematographer, producer, screenwriter and director, Mr. Neame's filmmaking career spanned about 60 years and 70 movies. He received three Academy Award nominations, including two he shared with Lean and Anthony Havelock-Allan for best screenplay writing on "Brief Encounter" (1945) and "Great Expectations" (1946). He won another for his aerial photography on the 1942 wartime drama "One of Our Aircraft Is Missing."

Mr. Neame was regarded as a proficient, understated director who occasionally drew critical praise with choice material and first-rate casts. One of his most popular early films was the 1953 comedy "The Million Pound Note," based on a Mark Twain story and starring Gregory Peck. He also directed "The Man Who Never Was" (1956), about the British effort to use a corpse planted with fake documents to fool Nazi intelligence.

He received some of his best reviews for "The Horse's Mouth" (1959), starring Alec Guinness as a rakish artist, and "Tunes of Glory" (1960), starring Guinness and John Mills as two rival officers of a storied Scottish military regiment.

"Neame's decisive coloring of the story from initial bantering to ultimate tragedy is as laudable as it is unusual," Washington Post reviewer Richard L. Coe wrote.

Maggie Smith won an Oscar for best actress in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (1969), based on Muriel Spark's novel about an unconventional schoolmistress, and Mr. Neame entered the highly popular disaster film genre with "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972), starring Gene Hackman and Shelley Winters. Mr. Neame earned 5 percent of the film's net profits, which made him very wealthy from a movie he admitted was mediocre.

"I thought it was just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill action picture," Mr. Neame told his friend Peter Bowes, a writer for the BBC. " 'Poseidon' was an astonishing success, and I still don't really know why. . . . But it is 'The Poseidon Adventure' that will go down in film history as Ronald Neame's disaster."

His other credits included "I Could Go On Singing" (1963), a musical starring Judy Garland; the drama "Gambit" (1966), with Michael Caine; the Frederick Forsyth thriller "The Odessa File" (1974), starring Jon Voight; and the spy caper "Hopscotch" (1980), starring Walter Matthau.

Even if Mr. Neame judged many of his own films as lackluster, his long career led to numerous lifetime achievement awards. "I'm just a reasonably good director," Mr. Neame told the trade publication Variety in 2001. "I'm a bloody sight better than many making pictures today. But that doesn't make me a Billy Wilder or a David Lean."

Ronald Neame was born in London on April 23, 1911. The son of a silent-film director and actress, he first got into show business as a teenager at the British studio Elstree, where he worked as a messenger and a hand-cranked projection-reel operator.

His introduction to film production began as the assistant cinematographer on director Hitchcock's 1929 film "Blackmail," which was the first British movie to include sound.

Mr. Neame spent the next several years gaining experience on "quota quickies," low-budget British films churned out after Parliament passed the Cinematograph Film Act in 1927 to spur domestic film production by setting quotas on foreign imports. By the late 1930s, he had risen to more prominent assignments as a cinematographer on films including "Pygmalion" (1938), "Major Barbara" (1941) and Coward's "In Which We Serve" (1942).

He collaborated with Lean, who was beginning his directorial career, on several of those films and then on many of Lean's celebrated early works, including the Charles Dickens adaptations "Great Expectations" (1946) and "Oliver Twist" (1948).

Mr. Neame's first marriage, to Beryl Heanly, ended in divorce.

Survivors include his second wife, Donna Friedberg Neame of Los Angeles; a son from his first marriage, film producer Christopher Neame of Provence, France; three grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Mr. Neame said that among the atrocities of old age was losing his taste for alcohol, which the Brit had long considered his fountain of youth.

"When people ask me about the secret to longevity, I say the honest answer is two large vodkas at lunchtime and three large scotches in the evening," Mr. Neame told Bowes. "All my doctors have said to me, 'Ronnie, if you would drink less, you'd live a lot longer.' And they are all dead, and I'm still here at 95."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company