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Roy William Neill

Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Roy William Neill’s passport photograph, circa 1920.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for Roy William Neill’s film Black Angel (1946), one of most interesting and atmospheric noirs of the late 1940s, and the last film he made before his untimely death at the age of 59.

From Wikipedia, All Rovi and other sources: “With his father as the captain, Roy William Neill was born on September 4, 1887, on board a ship off the coast of Ireland. His birth name was Roland de Gostrie. Neill joined the film industry in 1915 as an assistant to Thomas Ince, subsequently directing 40 silent films. He made one talkie for MGM before moving to Columbia Pictures, where he worked until the mid ’30s. While at Columbia, Neill directed the atmospheric period chiller The Black Room (1935), arguably the best movie that Boris Karloff made away from Universal in the ’30s.

In 1935, Neill moved to England, where better opportunities existed for American directors, and spent the next three years there, working for Gainsborough Pictures and later for Warner Bros.-First National. Among the features that he made while there was the 1935 drama Dr. Syn, starring George Arliss and Margaret Lockwood, about a local vicar who has a connection with a long-missing pirate, and who tries to save his village from the oppression of the king’s soldiers.

In 1936, Neill got what could have been the best picture-making opportunity of his career. In May of that year, screenwriter and future director Frank Launder suggested that Gainsborough Studios buy the rights to Ethel Lina White’s new mystery novel The Wheel Spins, which they did and assigned Launder and his longtime associate Sidney Gilliat to adapt into a screenplay called Lost Lady. The script was completed in August of that year and Neill was chosen as director of Lost Lady, and a film unit was sent to Yugoslavia to shoot some summer exteriors under an assistant director named Fred Gunn. Unfortunately, Gunn broke his ankle in an accident, and in the course of investigating, the police found his script and demanded to review the manner in which it treated their country.

The opening pages — which found parallels between goose-stepping soldiers and geese waddling — offended the authorities, and the entire unit was expelled from the country. By that time, both Neill and the studio had lost much of their original enthusiasm for the project, and it was shelved while Neill went to to other thrillers. A year later, as he was finishing up Young and Innocent for the same studio, Alfred Hitchcock was looking for another film and asked the studio if they had any screenplay on hand that would be suitable for him. What they pulled out was Lost Lady which, after a few minor rewrites, became The Lady Vanishes.

Altogether, Neill helmed 107 films, a remarkable accomplishment by any measure; he was known for directing films with meticulously lit scenes and carefully layered shadows, a style that would become the hallmark of film noir in the late 1940s. After working in Hollywood for Universal in the early 1940s, mostly notably on films in the long-running Sherlock Holmes series with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, Neill returned to London, and a house he had just built for his retirement, only to die on the doorstep of a heart attack on December 14, 1946. Neill was a conscientious craftsman as a director, but his signature style of high key lighting, and his smooth, luxurious tracking shots set him apart from the more quotidian directors of the era.”

As Bruce Eder comments, “according to Rathbone in his memoirs and other survivors of the series over the years, Neill — who was known affectionately to Rathbone as ‘Dear Mousie’ — was the final arbiter in all things Holmes-ian on the set of the Universal series. In addition to being a master directorial interpreter of the character, Neill also got a joint writing credit (with Bertram Millhauser) for the screenplay of The Scarlet Claw, which is arguably the best entry in the entire Universal series. Neill also directed and produced Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man — considered by many to be the last wholly serious entry in Universal’s classic series of horror films. An instantly recognizable stylist, Neill’s work is characterized by meticulously lit scenes and carefully layered shadows, with restrained but mobile camera movements.”

Neill was one of the slickest visual stylists of the classical studio era, and his work has long been under-appreciated.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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