John Guillermin (1925-2015)

The late British director is worth remembering for much more than latter-day blockbusters The Towering Inferno and King Kong – his early career was packed with lively dramas and thrillers.

2 October 2015

By Kevin Lyons

Director John Guillermin enjoying a cigarette

When British director John Guillermin died on 27 September 2015 at the age of 89 you’d be forgiven for thinking that he only ever directed big budget Hollywood action films, almost every obituary leading with The Towering Inferno (1974) and King Kong (1976). But this does Guillermin a great disservice. In a career that stretched back to the late 1940s, he steadily progressed from low-budget B movies to some excellent thrillers that deserve to be far better known than they currently are, to the blockbusters that he is in danger of being solely remembered for.

Born in London in 1925 to French parents, Guillermin joined the RAF on graduating from Cambridge at the end of the Second World War and took up filmmaking when he was demobbed three years later. In France, he started out working on documentaries before setting up a small production company, Advent Films, with Robert Jordan Hill at the end of the 40s. Together they co-directed Guillermin’s feature debut, High Jinks in Society (1949). The company was backed by Adelphi Pictures for whom Guillermin made four further features: Melody in the Dark (1949), which he scripted for Hill to direct; Torment (1950), known as Paper Gallows in the US; The Crowded Day (1954); and Song of Paris (1952).

The Crowded Day (1954)

It was a modest beginning but he soon hit his stride with a string of films that transcended their meagre budgets to reveal a genuine talent. The Crowded Day in particular is an entertaining soap opera detailing the lives of a group of shop workers in a London department store over the course of a single day. Town on Trial (1957) was the first of a series of underrated thrillers now ripe for rediscovery. John Mills stars as a no-nonsense cop investigating the murder of a young woman in an affluent Home Counties town. Detractors have too often accused Guillermin of being merely a journeyman, lacking any real style of his own. The defence would do worse than to offer Town on Trial as its Exhibit A, drawing particular attention to its breathtaking PoV shot of the killer stalking a second victim that anticipates the camera gymnastics of Dario Argento.

Rapture (1965)

The Whole Truth followed in 1958, a cracking film noir with Stewart Granger, Donna Reed and George Sanders caught in a deadly love triangle. Two years later Guillermin directed Peter Sellers in his first straight role, the memorably sadistic gangster Lionel Meadows in brutal crime thriller Never Let Go (1960). They would work again two years later in the less impressive comedy Waltz of the Toreadors (1962).

Guillermin soon found his forte in action films. Guns at Batasi (1964) and The Blue Max (1966) were unusual war films (the first set against the backdrop of a newly independent African state, the latter seeing the First World War through German eyes) and after a brace of Tarzan films (Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959) and Tarzan Goes to India (1962)), Hollywood came calling.

Rapture (1965) was atypical of his work of the period, a hard-to-categorise coming-of-age drama set on the Brittany coast and claimed by Guillermin’s widow Mary to be his “best and least-known work”. House of Cards (1968) boasts an impressive cast (George Peppard, Orson Welles, Inger Stevens) in an inventive conspiracy thriller about an attempted fascist coup in 60s France. The Bridge at Remagen (1969) was another war film, albeit a rather more traditional one.

The 70s saw Guillermin taking on bigger-budgeted fare but with more mixed results. Skyjacked (1972) was an early entry in the disaster movies cycle that Guillermin would return to with the Oscar-nominated The Towering Inferno (1974), while Shaft in Africa (1973) was an ill-advised third outing for Richard Roundtree’s iconic blaxploitation hero. Guillermin took a lot of the flak fired at the remake of King Kong (1976), which, despite proving a hit at the box office, attracted a critical drubbing that could have killed his career stone dead. Instead he returned, briefly, to the UK industry for the star-studded Death on the Nile (1978), by far the best of his latter day films and something of an anomaly amid the overblown action films he was making at the time.

Death on the Nile (1978)

Guillermin was a notorious perfectionist with a temper that saw him removed from at least two productions – Midway (1976), on which he was replaced by Jack Smight, and Sahara (1983), when Andrew V. McLaglen took over the reins. During the filming of his penultimate film, King Kong Lives (1986), his son Andrew was killed in a car crash and his behaviour became even more erratic, the director allegedly disappearing from the production for days on end. His career ended with the TV western The Tracker (1988) starring Kris Kristofferson, after which he retired from the industry.

“You know, there’s really nothing like an exciting film on a big screen,” he once said. “Hopefully, I’ve made a few in my career.”

John Guillermin: 10 essential films

  • The Crowded Day (1954)
  • Town on Trial (1957)
  • The Whole Truth (1958)
  • I Was Monty’s Double (1958)
  • Never Let Go (1960)
  • The Day They Robbed the Bank of England (1960)
  • Guns at Batasi (1964)
  • Rapture (1965)
  • The Blue Max (1966)
  • Death on the Nile (1978)
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