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.