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In the '50s Lillian Gish solidified her position as one of the world's top character actresses, though her best work would be on television and the stage. Despite strong performances in 1955's The Cobweb and The Night of the Hunter, however, she would be off the big screen for three years. Her return (it could hardly be called a comeback) was a role as leading man Paul Massie's mother in the taut 1958 World War II thriller Orders to Kill. But though the film was well received at the time and is still valued in the UK today, her involvement was minimal.
Orders to Kill was inspired by writer Donald Downes's service with the OSS during the war. The Yale graduate and former prep school teacher had joined British Intelligence in 1940. Among his assignments were supervising break-ins at neutral embassies in Washington, DC, the infiltration of Northern Africa and Spain and work with Darby's Rangers in Italy. Although he was involved in the biggest disaster in OSS history, the loss of 18 men abandoned in Spain, he received five commendations for his work. After the war, he turned to writing, drawing on his wartime experiences to create the story for Orders to Kill, which he novelized after the film's release, and the novel The Easter Dinner, which was filmed in 1962 as The Pigeon That Took Rome.
For Orders to Kill, he wrote of the experiences of a grounded U.S. pilot (Massie) recruited for an undercover position in Paris. After training at the hands of officers Eddie Albert and James Robertson Justice, he is airlifted into France, where his Resistance contact, Irene Worth, gives him his mission, the assassination of a suspected informant (Leslie French). When Massie meets the man, however, he doubts his guilt, leading to a series of tense confrontations.
Gish was thrilled to be contacted by director Anthony Asquith with an offer to appear in the film. He was one of England's most respected film directors, having co-directed Pygmalion (1938) with Leslie Howard before helming such acclaimed stage adaptations as The Browning Version (1951) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952). She was less thrilled with the small role, Massie's mother, who appears only in a flashback at the film's beginning. Nonetheless, the part as written had a few strong moments and the film brought Gish an expense-paid weeklong trip to England to film her one scene. When Orders to Kill was completed, however, most of her scene had been cut. Asquith apologized for the loss of her best work in the picture, claiming it was necessary to keep up the pace, but she still felt the loss, particularly since she was billed as one of the film's stars. This was a problem facing many aging actors from Hollywood's peak years. Although the roles offered them were usually minor (even in the '50s, filmmakers courted younger audiences that they feared would not identify with older characters), their names had enough marquee value to merit prominent billing for what ended up little more than cameos. Joan Crawford would suffer the same fate on The Best of Everything (1959), while Bette Davis steadfastly refused such roles after her cameo in John Paul Jones (also 1959).
The billing was particularly embarrassing since the film's real leading lady, Irene Worth, was relegated to fifth position in the cast. She and Massie would emerge the real stars of Orders to Kill with their passionate arguments over whether or not to kill French, and their work would be suitably rewarded by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts with BAFTAs for Best British Actress and Most Promising Newcomer.
The American-born Worth had moved to England in 1944, where she became a star doing the classics at the Old Vic and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Although her film appearances were few, her busy stage career brought her three Tony Awards, for Edward Albee's Tiny Alice, a revival of Tennessee Williams's Sweet Bird of Youth and Neil Simon's Lost in Yonkers.
Massie had his first billed role in Orders to Kill. The Canadian actor was building a solid career in England, starring opposite Kim Stanley in the British company of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and playing the lead in Hammer's updating of the Jekyll/Hyde story, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960). After starring as Hawkeye in a British miniseries adaptation of Hawkeye, the Pathfinder (1973), however, he abruptly retired from acting to teach, eventually becoming a revered theatre professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Producer: Anthony Havelock-Allan
Director: Anthony Asquith
Screenplay: Paul Dehn, George St. George
Based on a story by Donald Downes
Cinematography: Desmond Dickinson
Score: Benjamin Frankel
Cast: Eddie Albert (Major MacMahon), Paul Massie (Gene Summers), Lillian Gish (Mrs. Summers), James Robertson Justice (Naval Commander), Irene Worth (Leonie), Leslie French (Marcel Lafitte), Lionel Jeffries (Interrogator).BW-93m.
by Frank Miller