Category Archives: Ray Milland


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.


Posted by on April 16, 2015 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Ray Milland


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The River’s Edge


Some movies are especially difficult to define or categorize. Allan Dwan’s The River’s Edge (1957) is certainly such a film; it’s a blend of modern western, noirish thriller, and lush and lusty 50s melodrama. While it’s possible to argue over which one of those labels comes closest to summing it up, it’s clear enough that this is a B movie which was given the glossy treatment. As such, this is an impressive piece of budget film production, dealing with those classic themes of money, greed, jealousy, love, and there’s a level of casual brutality not usually found in films of the period.

The story concerns three people: Ben Cameron (Anthony Quinn), his new wife Meg (Debra Paget), and Meg’s former lover Nardo Denning (Ray Milland). Right away we can see that Cameron’s relationship with his wife is not all it should be; she’s tottering around his ramshackle ranch house in high heeled slippers, struggling with the lack of modern conveniences, while he’s struggling with steers outside. The thing is Meg is a city girl, actually she’s con artist on the lam, while Cameron is a salt of the earth type whose greatest ambition is to make something out of his fledgling ranch. These two have hooked up together and are trying to make a go of it, but it’s starting to come unravelled. At the critical moment, who should turn up at Cameron’s door but his wife’s old flame Denning, apparently looking to hire a guide to take him on a hunting trip into Mexico. Meg takes off with Denning, at least as far as the nearest motel, and it’s unclear at this point whether she truly means to leave her husband for good. At any rate, she never gets to fully decide as a car ride results in Denning killing a border patrol man in a fairly shocking manner. With Meg now implicated in the crime, and with the knowledge that Denning is carrying a suitcase stuffed full of cash, Cameron has a change of heart and decides that he’ll take the two former partners over the border to safety. The rest of the film charts the shifting nature of the characters’ relationships and motives. At the begining none of them act out of anything but naked self interest: Denning just wants an out and doesn’t especially care who he has to buy or kill to achieve it, Meg wants to escape from the drudgery and dullness of the remote ranch, and Cameron has his hungry eyes on the cash. Everything is complicated by the fact that both men are still love with Meg, and she has no qualms about playing one off against the other and flitting back and forth between them. The real turning point, for her character at least, comes after she gets a serious infection from a cut arm. When Cameron hacks away the poisoned flesh in a storm ravaged cave it’s as though some of the poison also drains away from Meg’s heart. From then on, the positions are clearly defined and the only question remaining is who will survive the hazards of the wilderness and walk away with the money.

More dangerous than a rattlesnake? Milland, Quinn and Paget in The River's Edge

In the latter years of a very long career Allan Dwan specialised in churning out slick little B movies on a budget, and The River’s Edge is a good example of this work. He packs a whole lot of story into less than 90 minutes and makes it all look a good deal more expensive than it has any right to. The combination of location shooting and studio sets blends together well and the use of colour is stunning in places. He also displays what might be termed a more modern approach to violence and death than was normally the case at the time; the three killings which take place, although not graphic in the current sense, occur with an abruptness that retain the ability to shock. The three leads are very professional and do their level best to lift the movie above its pulp roots. Ray Milland was of course in his twilight years as a leading man but just about pulls it off, his charming sadist who may yet have a small grain of decency buried deep is effective enough to distract you from the fact that he was probably too old for the part. Debra Paget (with a flaming red hairdo) is a fine femme fatale who’s by turns calculating, ruthless and affectionate. Her character arguably goes through the greatest arc of the three, and she handles the move from a scheming bitch to a woman who’s regained some sense of honour quite capably. Anthony Quinn starts off as a basically weak loser who can’t even summon up the will to hang onto his woman, but by the end he comes good and redeems himself somewhat. I say somewhat because there’s still an element of doubt and a shadow of greed hanging over him.   

The River’s Edge came out on DVD in the US a few years ago from Fox in a very attractive edition. The transfer is anamorphic scope and the print used is very clean and colourful. The disc has a commentary track from James Ursini and Alain Silver, and a few trailers and a gallery. This is the kind of movie that probably wouldn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of seeing a DVD release in the current climate, all the more reason to appreciate its availability. There is no way that The River’s Edge could ever be termed a classic movie, but it is a tight and entertaining little thriller given a highly professional polish. Everything moves along at a lick and there are far worse ways of spending an hour and a half. All in all, it serves as a pretty good introduction to the later works of Allan Dwan.


Ministry of Fear


The ‘entertainments’ of Graham Greene have provided a rich source of material for makers of Film Noir. The Third Man, This Gun for Hire and Brighton Rock have all been derived from his works and, if you want to stretch the point, a case could also be made for the inclusion of The Fallen Idol and Confidential Agent. This all goes to prove that there is enough darkness and pessimism in Greene’s writings for them to lend themselves to the shadowy world of noir. And so we come to Fritz Lang’s 1944 adaptation of Ministry of Fear, where a frightened Ray Milland blunders through the bombed out streets of wartime London in pursuit of fifth columnists.

Stephen Neale (Milland) has just been released from an asylum after having been confined for the mercy killing of his wife and, naturally, is anxious to avoid any further entanglements with the law. As he waits to catch a train to London, he wanders into a charity fete where a palmist helps him to guess the weight of a cake and win it. With this seemingly innocuous incident Neale finds himself drawn into a nightmare world of murder and espionage. It turns out that the fake spiritualist had mistaken Neale for a Nazi agent (Dan Duryea) and that the cake contained something worth killing for. Neale’s curiosity leads him to follow up the matter in London where he attends a seance in the company of, among others, the aforementioned agent. When the spy is murdered Neale is falsely accused.  He believes that due to his past conviction no one will believe him innocent of the murder and so he goes on the run. His only assistance comes from an Austrian refugee (Marjorie Reynolds), and while the pair try to seek out the truth they are all the time dogged by a shadowy figure in a bowler hat.

The nightmare begins for Ray Milland

Ray Milland’s star was in the ascendancy at this point and he would win an Oscar for his performance in The Lost Weekend the following year. His role here allows him to get in a bit of practice in psychological anguish and the natural affability of the man means that it’s easy to sympathize with the plight of his character. Marjorie Reynolds is fine as his Girl Friday but the forced Austrian accent does begin to grate a little at times. Dan Duryea is always good value as a villain and the only complaint that could be made is that his character is not given nearly enough screen time. Indeed the same could be said for much of the support cast who seem to breeze in and out of the picture, but all leave lasting impressions. A notable feature of so many films of this period is the marvellous gallery of eccentrics that cropped up time and again. These people, whose faces are immediately recognizable yet whose names escape us, were character specialists who usually played similar parts in every movie and their presence added enormously to the enjoyment.

Anyone up for a bit of kirigami?

Fritz Lang’s background in expressionist film-making serves him well here and is most notable in the early scenes of the picture. The charity fete provides that slightly surreal quality that continues throughout the film. The parts with the fake blind man on the train and the ensuing chase over the fogbound moor are also beautifully photographed. Everything seems to have been shot on studio sets but this is no criticism as it helps heighten the unreal, otherworldly feel of the movie.

Optimum released Ministry of Fear on DVD in R2 last year. The transfer is not bad but it could use a clean up. All in all, this is a highly enjoyable mix of noir and espionage and it’s always good to see more of Fritz Lang’s movies making it out onto the market.


Posted by on February 26, 2008 in 1940s, Dan Duryea, Film Noir, Fritz Lang, Ray Milland


The Big Clock

The Big Clock is a 1948 thriller about a race against time; a manhunt where the protagonist is essentially hunting himself. Does that sound complicated? Well, the plot is complex but it never becomes incomprehensible.

George Stroud (Ray Milland) is the overworked editor of a crime magazine who yearns for a holiday with his family. Just when this seems in sight his boss, time-obsessed media tycoon Earl Janoth (Charles Laughton), insists that he postpone his vacation and follow up on a breaking news story. In a fit of pique, he tenders his resignation and ends up spending a drunken evening with Janoth’s mistress. While exiting the girl’s apartment Stroud sees his boss arriving, while the boss sees only a silhouette. Goaded into a rage by the mistress, Janoth clubs her to death. On the advice of his reptilian chief executive (George Macready) he now plans to pin the deed on the shadowy stranger he glimpsed in the corridor. To this end, Stroud is recalled to co-ordinate the manhunt.

Ray Milland, running out of time inside The Big Clock

This is a great suspenseful picture, and you really sense Milland’s mounting horror as he is forced to use his own investigative team and techniques to gradually build up a profile of the mystery man; a man who he knows better than anyone. The two principal female roles are taken by Maureen O’Sullivan (who was married to director John Farrow) as Stroud’s wife, and Rita Johnson as the ill-fated mistress. I always enjoy anything with that inveterate scene stealer Charles Laughton, and he gives one of his more restrained performances here. There are lots of familiar faces in the support cast, not least Laughton’s real life spouse Elsa Lanchester as an eccentric artist and her turn damn near steals the whole show. Harry Morgan also shows up as a darkly menacing gunman on Janoth’s payroll, made all the more sinister by the fact that his character utters not a word on screen. Seasoned noir watchers may also recognise Harold Vermilyea who remains forever memorable, for me at least, as the doomed Waldo Evans from Sorry, Wrong Number.

If the plot to this movie seems slightly familiar that may be due to the fact that it was remade in the 80’s as No Way Out, with Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman in the Milland and Laughton roles respectively. That film was not bad but, to my mind at least, not a patch on the original – isn’t that usually the case?

The Big Clock is available in R1 as part of the now, apparently, defunct Universal Noir line. If any fans of classic noir/suspense don’t already own this, I can only ask – Why?


Posted by on January 15, 2008 in 1940s, Film Noir, John Farrow, Ray Milland


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