Lisbon

There were lots of changes taking place in filmmaking in the mid-50s. Actors were trying heir hand at directing and/or producing, location shooting was growing ever more popular and Europe, with the tax breaks offered, drew many, and then there were all the widescreen processes coming to the fore as the studios struggled to compete with the challenge posed by television. Lisbon (1956) is one movie which offers an illustration of all these factors at work. It’s a handsome-looking Cold War thriller made by Republic Pictures in the period when the studio was sliding into terminal decline and only a few years away from ending feature production altogether.

It’s early morning in a luxurious villa on the outskirts of Lisbon, and Aristides Mavros (Claude Rains) has just been awakened by his manservant. While sitting on the side of his bed, shaking the sleep out of his head, his attention is drawn by the gentle chirping of songbirds on the windowsill. Smiling indulgently, he sprinkles some seed for the birds to feed on and withdraws to the side. As the tiny creatures gather for the unexpected treat, Mavros brings a tennis racquet crashing down on them before offering the mangled bodies to his cat for breakfast. The wrong-footing of the audience, by turning a potentially sweet pastoral scene into something more macabre, is attempted a few more times throughout the movie, but never quite as successfully or shockingly. It is thus established that Mavros is a villain, although viewers will have to make up their own minds by the end if his brand of ruthlessness is any worse than that of other characters. The central plot is relatively straightforward as Cold War films go: Sylvia Merrill (Maureen O’Hara) is a rich American, whose elderly husband has been abducted and is being held somewhere behind the Iron Curtain. Mrs Merrill wants her husband back and is prepared to pay Mavros a substantial sum of money to arrange it all. For his part, Mavros engages the services of the one man in Lisbon with a boat fast enough to guarantee pick-up and delivery of the frail tycoon. Robert Evans (Ray Milland) is a smuggler using a converted torpedo boat to run whatever is profitable into Lisbon beneath the suspicious but powerless eyes of the Portuguese authorities. Evans’ usual cargo is the likes of perfume and tobacco, but he’s not above widening his interests to encompass people, as long as the price is right. As the complex business of negotiating and arranging the handover gets underway, trust and betrayal, those perennial bedfellows, come into the equation. Is Evans the kind of man to be relied on with so much money floating around? If Mavros is a crook, is he at least a dependable one? And what are Mrs Merrill’s real motives?

Lisbon was Ray Milland’s second feature as a director, following on from his impressive debut in A Man Alone, and it’s a reasonable effort, although it lacks the tightness of the earlier movie. Of Milland’s five feature films, I’ve now seen three (Hostile Witness is unwatched on my shelf and The Safecracker has eluded me so far) and I feel he was pretty good behind the camera. However, in my opinion, there’s a bit too much stodge in the middle here as the nature of the various relationships is explored and defined. While all this is necessary for the plot to make sense, the execution lacks a bit of snap but is just about rescued from descending into tedium by the very attractive location photography. As widescreen filmmaking became the norm, various studios were developing their own versions of the process. Republic Pictures came up with what they called Naturama, an anamorphic scope form, although the screencaps here show that the copy of the film I watched, sadly, didn’t provide the chance to see the full effect.

In all five of his directorial features, Milland also took top billing, a smart move for an actor nearing the end of his time as a leading man. His advancing years actually work out well enough here as he’s playing a slightly shopworn and tarnished hero. Overall, I wouldn’t call it a demanding role; there’s a smidgen of ambiguity, by dint of his character’s profession, but it’s standard action/romantic stuff for the most part. Claude Rains has the choice role – although my feeling is that even if it weren’t so written, he would still have managed to make himself the most interesting figure on view – and dominates every scene he’s in from first to last. Ever suave and urbane, Rains was also capable of adding a calculating, reptilian quality when the occasion demanded. His Mavros is a terrific piece of perverse sophistication, utterly unscrupulous and delighted by his own sadism; there’s a lovely moment when he orders the burning of two of his “secretary’s” favorite dresses because she had committed an indiscretion, and then changes his mind and makes it just one on learning that she also kicked the pompous manservant. I was less satisfied by Maureen O’Hara – not because of her acting, but due to the script having her character complete the kind of volte-face that seems far too abrupt to be credible. There’s a nice turn though from Yvonne Furneaux (The Mummy, Repulsion) as Mavros’ companion, who finds herself falling for Milland. In support we get Edward Chapman, Francis Lederer, Jay Novello and Percy Marmont.

Lisbon isn’t the most widely available title – I have this Spanish DVD, and I don’t think it’s been released anywhere else to date. However, as I mentioned above, the aspect ratio is compromised – the titles play in proper scope but switch to 16:9 as soon as the actual feature kicks in. The lack of headroom suggests cropping mainly at the sides of the image, although there may well be some zooming taking place too. I once caught a TV broadcast of the film, similarly cropped to fit a 16:9 screen, so I think it’s reasonable to suppose the DVD is derived from a master prepared for television. Under the circumstances, I can’t honestly recommend this as a purchase. The film is a reasonably entertaining thriller with a good opening and finish, but the mid-section is a bit slack. Despite some weaknesses, the location work and Claude Rains add lots of value – it’s just a shame a better version isn’t available.

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31 thoughts on “Lisbon

  1. Given the great cast, I’d like to see this, especially after reading your review. According to amazon.co.uk there is an Italian DVD available, with removable subtitles, as well as the Spanish one. But there’s no information about the aspect ratio.

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  2. I normally refrain from commenting on films that I have never seen,or films that I have seen
    at the time of release that I simply cannot remember a darn thing about (TONY ROME)
    I have seen LISBON however (as a 4×3) on TV and recall it being pretty dull.
    Furthermore I am not at all fond of the “adventurer caught up in intrigue in an exotic (usually
    backlot) location” genre.
    There is a certain attraction to LISBON if it was available in its correct 2.35 ratio.
    Milland’s involvement in front of and behind the camera is an attraction as is the fact that the
    film is a Republic picture.
    Despite my dislike for the aforementioned genre I would also welcome a release of Joseph
    Pevney’s ISTANBUL which was shot in CinemaScope and color. I do remember seeing that one
    as an 8 year old and remember really enjoying it plus the fact it was double billed with
    FRANCIS IN THE HAUNTED HOUSE another childhood favorite.
    Colin,you may or may not have seen my recent rants over at Toby’s regarding all these great
    Republic pictures suddenly appearing in Germany with mostly German only soundtracks.
    I have no doubt LISBON will eventually surface there and let’s hope its in its in it’s correct
    ratio and in English.
    At the moment it would seem that two first rate Rod Cameron Forrest Tucker Westerns will
    have an English soundtrack. If that’s the case BRIMSTONE and RIDE THE MAN DOWN get
    my highest recommendation.
    The one Milland directorial effort you did not mention Colin,was PANIC IN YEAR ZERO
    a black & white widescreen American International picture that I remember as being pretty
    good at the time. I have not seen it since its time of release and I guess it will turn up on
    Blu-Ray pretty soon as most of these AIP/Corman/Price titles seem to be surfacing in that format.
    I understand Corman and Milland’s THE PREMATURE BURIAL is available on Blu Ray in three
    territories,and their X-THE MAN WITH X RAY EYES will surface soon. The latter title has just been
    given a most positive review on DVD Beaver.
    Sadly Milland’s later forays into Horror/Sci-Fi territory did not maintain the high standards of
    the titles that I have already mentioned.
    THE SAFECRACKER I have seen but only as an “off air” copy someone sent me. Its a quiet
    impressive little film with Milland in good form both in front and behind the camera.
    As an MGM production it should be eligible for a Warner Archive release but I think there are
    “clearance” issues involved,yet again.
    Although an MGM release THE SAFECRACKER was a Coronado production. These Coronado
    titles seem to now be released by Network in the UK.
    They have also given us Coronado’s YOUR WITNESS (which was originally a Warner Brothers
    release) and CIRCLE OF DANGER,also with Milland.
    I think Network will be the best bet for a forthcoming release of THE SAFECRACKER and it will
    fine to see this film remastered from original elements in it’s correct ratio 1.66.

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    • John, I’m a bit of a sucker for these “foreign intrigue” type films myself, and generally lap them up. Of course, as with everything, your mileage may vary.
      Panic in Year Zero is a good little movie in my opinion. It’s an extremely low budget effort but Milland uses what must have been extraordinarily limited resources very well indeed.

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  3. Colin,just as an add on to the above I think you will really enjoy YOUR WITNESS the transfer
    is not Network’s best but it’s far,far superior to all the horrible “off air” copies that were floating
    around. I don’t think the master elements were in great shape but the film is more than watchable
    and is a rather droll and charming little film. It’s also essential for Michael Ripper completists
    as it features one of his most “normal” roles.
    I might add and I’m sure that I speak for everyone here that it’s fine that we have now returned
    to “regular” Colin. (frequent as opposed to infrequent as was the case last year 🙂

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  4. Ha! Yet another mention of the dreaded “to be viewed” heap. So Colin you have HOSTILE
    WITNESS waiting there un-watched. I remember it as an OK little programmer but even at the time
    it did seem very old-fashioned,which may be part of its appeal these days.
    I do remember Milland being interviewed at the time and he thought HOSTILE WITNESS’s
    Sylvia Syms as being the most professional actress that he had ever worked with.
    Praise indeed,considering the Hollywood greats that he worked with back in his glory days.
    Another very interesting although little known Milland Fifties film is HIGH FLIGHT.
    Laura kindly sent me a copy of this film and I found it hugely enjoyable.
    It’s almost like a recruitment project for the RAF and for the life of me I cannot understand
    why its never had a domestic release. Widescreen,color and an on form Milland,really what’s
    not to like.

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  5. Milland, O’Hara, Rains – fabulous cast but I too found the film a tad dull when I first saw it. Liked it a bit better the second time (but only a little). I very much like “A MAN ALONE” and have seen “THE SAFECRACKER” but cannot remember anything about it. Milland was a strong talent.

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    • Jerry, I think it’s mainly the middle section of the movie which bogs things down a little – something that other films have suffered from too – but the opening and close are strong.
      Milland is always watchable as far as I’m concerned, even in later life when the better roles became fewer and farther between – I’m enormously fond of his appearances on Columbo, for example.

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  6. Thanks Colin, really enjoyed this as it’s the one of Milland’s directorial efforts that I have missed. Shame the DVD isn’t better, I remember thinking HOSTILE WITNESS was OK if a bit flat, but it has been a looong time since I caught that one on TV.

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    • Cheers, Sergio. Its definitely turned up on UK TV – I remember seeing it maybe 5 years ago or so on, probably, Film4 during one of my summer visits.
      Of those I’ve seen, Panic in Year Zero & A Man Alone are easily the best. This one has its moments though.
      Milland also directed an episode of Thriller, and I think I’m going to have a look at it right now.

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        • Well something could be arranged 😉
          Actually, I’m on a bit of a Milland kick at the moment and plan to watch some episodes of his TV show, Markham, on YT too.

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          • Forgot about that show! Actually, speaking of Milland, I just got the Koch Noir Blu-ray set of MINISTRY OF FEAR, BIG CLOCK and DARK MIRROR. All three offer decent PQ though, the leats of them (still good) is my favourite, CLOCK. Better than the murky DVD ever was though!

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            • That’s good to know as i plan to pick that set up myself at some point.
              Just finished Milland’s Thriller entry, and I quite enjoyed it. Story by Robert Bloch, adaptation by Barre Lyndon, score by Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams in the lead, and nice atmospheric direction by Milland – what’s not to like!

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    • Yes, the cast is a big attraction, Mike. Add in the excellent location work and there are good things to take away from it. A decent transfer wouldn’t hurt it any, and might even enhance the positive points.

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  7. I missed this one even though I have always like a Maureen O’Hara movie. I also enjoyed two westerns from Ray Milland i.e Copper Canyon and A Man Alone. Am wondering when you would review any of these. Best regards.

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    • Thanks, Chris. I have copies of both those Milland westerns, along with California & Bugles in the Afternoon, so I’ll probably get around to one or more of them in the future.

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  8. CALIFORNIA is overblown nonsense but I do like BUGLES IN THE AFTERNOON.
    The latter title seems to have fallen into p.d. hell are any of the Euro versions floating around
    any good. I also really like THE RIVER’S EDGE but don’t know what the p.q. is like
    or the ratio on DVD versions.
    I find it strange that Milland took a four break from films after THE SAFECRACKER,
    and then resurfaced in THE PREMATURE BURIAL.
    During those four years he did extensive TV work.

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    • My Spanish DVD of Bugles in the Afternoon is quite poor John. You can see a selection of screencaps <a href="

      Bugles

      “>here.

      The River’s Edge is an excellent movie and I think the DVD is just fine. I wrote about it here.

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  9. Many thanks Colin,
    Those Bugles screencaps do look fuzzy don’t they.
    I notice that it was a William Cagney Production and most of those (ONLY THE VALIANT,
    KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE) have ended up with Paramount Republic and those two
    did get an Olive Films release.
    Now Olive seem to have given up on the Republic stuff hopefully someone else will
    considering releasing them.
    The Republic library (now owned by Paramount) features not only Republic titles but also
    a huge chunk of Allied Artists and Monogram plus several RegalScope titles plus even
    a few films that were originally released by Warners (BUGLES IN THE AFTERNOON)
    I understand Sidonis are soon to release THE RIVER’S EDGE.which I should imagine will
    be a newly remastered version. Then again there are those darn “forced” subs.
    Hopefully someone might give us a Blu-Ray of THE RIVER’s EDGE,perhaps one of the
    Boutique imprints. After all Colin,anything’s possible these days…whoever would have thought
    we would have got a Blu-Ray of Roy Baker’s very impressive INFERNO.

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    • My copy of Bugles looks like an old VHS master – watchable but weak.
      Yes, the number of relative obscurities getting Blu-ray releases is something of a surprise, but in a good way.

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  10. Thanks for the heads up here as I don’t believe I have this on any of my lists. Always enjoy hearing about new titles. Nice review too.

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