Gentleman Smuggler Steals All Of Your 90 Minutes, Rains Redeems
DIRECTED BY: RAY MILLAND/1956
STREET DATE: NOVEMBER 6, 2018
When I say Ray Milland is bland, I don’t mean he’s bland really – it’s just a nice rhyme. What I mean is he has a naturally sad gravitas that lends itself to melodramas or darker noirs, but certainly not to this film’s brand of romantic adventure. As the flippant American smuggler trading in shady commerce, the black marketeer bounding from port to port in search of easy cash, he seems ill at ease, like he’s fighting through a dour fog to come up to the level of his character’s colorful circumstance. In fact, I kept translating the entire shebang into a Hitchcock wrong-man special, with maybe a script by Ben Hecht and light switches manned by Robert Burke, or perhaps a Jimmy Stewart vehicle filled with his game presence, natural humor, and kind appraisals. Though Milland, also the producer and director, has clearly miscast himself, what we’ve got isn’t a disaster, just a case study in good material gone limp.
Once in Lisbon, where his initial bounty is a trove of contraband perfume, Milland’s Captain Evans drifts into the side-eye of not just the local law, but local Greek businessman Aristides Mavros, played with a deliciously mean smirk by the king of side-eye, Claude Rains. Mavros fancies himself the kingpin of all ill-gotten gain in the region, is threatened, and so tempts Evans into a sure-to-kill-him gambit for femme fatale-lite, Sylvia Merrill (Maureen O’Hara), whose millionaire husband has been detained indefinitely by never-seen Russians. It’s a noirish framework, with streaks of requisite patter like “Take it easy, Catnip, I have a very low boiling point,” all of which is near fatally neutered by Lisbon’s open, colorful palette. Shot by Republic Pictures’ Jack Marta using their so-called “Naturama” widescreen format – all of it shot in and around the city – Lisbon itself comes off sunny and inviting, justifying Kino Lorber’s investment in the title, but the pretty pictures too often outluster our prosaic characters in otherwise compelling compositions.
Milland spends half the movie playing hard-to-get with O’Hara, proclaiming his duty to her cause but distancing himself from her obvious longing for him with dull reminders of her current marriage – until they break the ice with a major backstory dump that plays as shorthand for intimacy in this television-era script. (The script was written by John Tucker Battle, who worked primarily on the small screen, and it shows: the plot unfolds and concludes with something of a perfunctory flatness that’s in line with a disposable TV show episode.) The other half, Milland’s allowing an ingénue, Maria (Yvonne Furneaux), one of Mavros’s in-house hangers-on, to sidle closer and closer to him. The juggling of women, Evans’ ambivalence, and the travelogue of romantic milieus are par for the course for what’s expected in this type of film – to watch Evans-as-player, at the expense of adoring women, is intended to uplift his character into some kind of blasé sexual warriorhood. But Milland is bland – I said it again – and his hangdog-slash-boring, sub-Spade moves never allow it to gel into sexiness, so instead of pizzazz the whole soup of romance the movie offers comes off as just a matter of course for ’50s-era chauvinism.
Rains is the only real saving grace of the movie, with his generally approachable screen persona played for perhaps the only watchable treat to be found: his character is introduced happily rising from bed, walking to a window to spread food for the birds, only to smash one with a tennis racquet and feed it to his cat. He’s that cold the rest of the movie, yet his innate charm never wavers, and we end up following his entitled machinations with more relish than those of the protagonist. To wit, it takes Mavros the better part of the movie to shovel up O’Hara’s actual goal – to have her husband’s millions in a big bearhug to herself – and when he finally hears her confess the black depths he always knew were there, his grin spreads wider than his bird-eating cat, and we are entertained. Sadly, every concentric circle emitting outward from that pleased grin becomes more and more faint and disposable.
Kino Lorber regular, Toby Roan, provides his usual in-depth commentary, providing actor bios alongside production anecdotes that paint a picture of a film on the ropes at almost every step. It was originally to be shot in Greece, which explains Rains’ character’s nationality and home décor of choice, until civic unrest was deemed too risky – but the ad-hoc replacement crew in Lisbon were untrained, equipment was scarce, and the new Christmastime shooting schedule was a big lump of coal for all involved. The disc is not a restoration, and it shows in nearly every scene: despite the colorful locations, the picture is continually marred with splotches, speckles, and noticably damanged frame sequences, often to a distracting degree. It’s a shame, since the photographic capturing of a beautiful city in a specific, mid-modernizing era should be among the more redeeming facts of Lisbon‘s existence.
All images courtesy of DVD Beaver.