Kino has released Republic Pictures handsome 1956 action melodrama Lisbon, actor/director Ray Milland’s follow up to his western, A Man Alone from the previous year. Again, director Ray comes off better than actor Ray but director Milland was able to rescue what turned out to be a very troubled production; not that you can tell by the final product.
The Production: 3.5/5
Lisbon was shot completely in Portugal. That’s refreshing because one of the memorable things about the movie is the unfamiliar locale. Shot in Republic’s TruColor and Naturama (Republic’s anamorphic process), the location photography by veteran Jack Marta is very attractive and like Lionel Lindon’s work in A Man Alone, one of the film’s highlights. According to Toby Roan in his informative commentary the movie location shifted from draft to draft in the script’s development.
Ray had some skin in this game and is also credited as producer; I’m guessing that Milland and Republic worked out some kind of sweetheart tax deal with the Portuguese government. I can’t remember if I read or heard actress Hazel Court in an interview talk about Milland’s frugality. She said that while shooting Premature Burial Milland used to take public transportation to and from the studio every day. This is a man who obviously knew how to stretch a buck.
Lisbon is the story of American Sylvia Merrill (Maureen O’Hara) who is trying to free her rich, much older, rich husband from a Communist prison – this vague plot point is as close as the film comes to saying anything political. After exhausting all the legal avenues, she turns to the shady Aristedes Mavros (the always wonderful Claude Rains). Mavros after working out a very profitable deal with Mrs. Merrill hires smuggler Captain Robert Evans (Ray Milland) to make the pickup on his boat. Evans who is under suspicion by local authorities, is being watched by Inspector Joào Foncesco (Jay Novello).
Arriving to discuss the deal with Mavros, Evans discovers the old grifter living an opulent life complete with what resembles a harem and a creepy henchman Serafim (Francis Lederer). Evans is quickly ensnared in a romantic triangle involving the prim Mrs. Merrill and one of Mavros’ young playthings, Maria (Yvonne Furneaux).
Lisbon is usually described as a film noir. I think that is an inaccurate label. Film noir is usually defined in one of two ways – stylistically, which utilizes expressionistic lighting and camera work with lots of shadows and thematic, which involves doomed characters who think they know all the angles but end up trapped in no-win situations resulting in tragedy. Unfortunately, it seems as if almost all post war to 1960 American black-and-white crime film are erroneously labeled noir because of the style regardless of the themes.
There’s a big difference between The Big Sleep (not noir) and Out of the Past (very much noir). Bogart’s Philip Marlow always knows the score while Mitchum’s Jeff is a pawn of fate. While the colorful Lisbon does not look like a noir, it does have some of the thematic elements of noir including a calculating and manipulative femme fatale; I would not label it a noir because the Evans character is always in control – there is no way he is going to be duped by anyone; whether it’s a criminal, a vulnerable or seductive woman, or a cop.
If there is any movie that Lisbon reminds me of its Howard Hawks’ version To Have and Have Not. Because the way Hawks uses actors as archetypes, Bogart is playing the Bogie role – he is too slick to be left holding the bag. The Evans character is similar to the Bogie character. His cynicism is a defense due to past mistakes. By the time we encounter these characters they are wised up. Contrast these two movies with Michael Curtiz’s remake of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, the fatalistic The Breaking Point. Truer to Hemingway’s source, John Garfield’s Harry Morgan doesn’t stand a chance.
The script for Lisbon like that of A Man Alone, both by John Tucker Battle, is a bit of a mish mosh of ideas found in other successful movies. I’m not sure if I buy the idea of a morally conscious smuggler – Evans doesn’t smuggle certain items like drugs, but I’m willing to accept the convention. If Lisbon had been made at Warners ten years earlier it would star Bogart in the Milland role, Lauren Bacall in the Furneaux role, Ida Lupino or Claire Trevor in the O’Hara role, Peter Lorre in the Lederer role, and here’s where the casting is a little eccentric, Sydney Greenstreet in the Rains role and Claude Rains in the Novello role.
Another reason Lisbon never achieves noir, is the tone – it’s all rather playful, similar to an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. These are characters who are engaged in some pretty slimy dealings, but it’s played very lightly. The opening scene, which may be my favorite scene in the movie has Mavros being awakened in the morning by his manservant. Mavros is living a life of luxury, his bedroom includes a view of the water. He gets out of bed and pets his cat. He then goes to the window overlooking this paradise and puts bird seed on the window sill. Once a couple of birds have gathered for their treat, Mavros picks up a tennis racket and smashes a bird and then feed it to his cat for breakfast. Rains is so perfectly nonchalant, so amoral that it is funny. It’s hard to top an opening scene like that.
And the climax is unusual in that you’re not certain if any of the villains are going to be punished by the law, similar to the fate of one of the characters in A Man Alone. There is no sense of tragedy or futility that one finds in typical noir. That isn’t a criticism because it is the intention of the filmmakers – it is intended as a light entertainment and it succeeds on those terms.
One wonders how the business side of choosing the location affected the tone of the script. Jack Marta’s beautiful color photography of Lisbon is like a 90-minute travelogue. Who wouldn’t want to visit? Had it been shot in one of Europe’ war torn cities, like The Third Man’s Vienna, would the tone be so light?
Director Milland does more than a commendable job. Toby Roan’s commentary explains the troubled nature of the production. They were enticed by the Portuguese government with the promise that there were modern production facilities and experienced crews; there were neither when they arrived. It sounds like a shoot from hell with one problem after another. With the exception of the sound in one public scene you wouldn’t guess the production had been so difficult.
In my review of A Man Alone, I wrote of the transformation of the Ray Milland persona over the course of his career. I can’t think of a leading man whose persona changed so drastically as did Milland as he went from leading man to character actor. Almost like a Jekyll and Hyde transformation from light, romantic leading man to villainously sour character roles. Compare his roles 12 years apart in Major and The Minor and Dial ‘M’ for Murder; in Dial ‘M’ it’s hard to imagine Milland attracting someone as young and beautiful as Grace Kelly, let alone thinking about bumping her off! Lisbon was produced at the peak of this transformation – in fact it might be Milland’s last conventional leading man role, but unfortunately in Lisbon we don’t get Cranky Ray and that’s a bit of a problem.
Evans is something of an insolent ne’er do well character with a touch of everyman. Milland retains an aristocratic air whether playing heroes or villains. Ironically, Bogart from a wealthier background than Milland could pull these roles off effortlessly. Errol Flynn also could sleepwalk through these kinds of roles. Milland however, seems strained when bantering with shipmates and is downright creepy when leering at Furneaux. And then there are some scenes the two share where he comes off almost fatherly. I’m guessing Ray the producer nixed the idea of hiring a younger leading man hired Ray the actor to save the second salary. His scenes with O’Hara are far less problematic.
As I wrote above, Claude Rains is always wonderful, and this is no exception. In his hands Mavros is rascally, almost like a naughty child in a role that could easily been played as psychotic. Imagine someone like Raymond Burr in the role.
Maureen O’Hara is overwrought as Sylvia. O’Hara is usually a fine actress but here she is mannered and obvious. Maybe this is due to the change of pace role? Francis Lederer, while no Peter Lorre is fun as Serafim. He is the one truly menacing character in the movie.
Last but not least, Lisbon was scored by Nelson Riddle, one of his first. It’s an upbeat and lively score. The theme, Lisbon Antigua was a hit at the time reminded me of the song Brazil, but had it had been written by Nino Rota.
3D Rating: NA
Kino has released Lisbon in what is advertised as a 4K scan off of the Trucolor negative. It looks very nice with rich colors and good contrast. Grain is present. It doesn’t look like Paramount gave it the same clean up they gave A Man Alone; I spotted a fair amount of damage on the print including scratches and nicks and there is one particular scene with Milland and Furneaux in which the shots of Furneaux look distorted. It’s presented in the original 2.35:1 ration which Milland and Marta use well.
The audio is DTS-HD Master 2.0 and sounds fine with the exception of a scene mentioned above of Milland and Furneaux in a restaurant. Instead of relooping the sound in post they went with the location sound, but that’s a production decision and not a flaw of the disc.
Special Features: 3.5/5
I’m rating the extras a little higher because of the quality of the commentary. Extras include:
A commentary by historian and collector Toby Roan. It is similar to his A Man Alone commentary and is very good; it’s a relaxed and conversational commentary with a great deal of production along with cast and crew information. Because of the nature of the two Milland productions there is some natural overlapping information and material from the earlier commentary is reused, but that is completely understandable. Again, Roan refrains from interpretive remarks and sticks to documented facts.
A group of trailers from other Kino releases are included.
Lisbon is the kind of movie that used to pop up on The Late Show all the time in the 70s. When watched late at night these movies often blurred together. Other than the location and opening scene there is nothing original about the film, it nonetheless is satisfying if a little short on action. I can think of far worse ways of spending 90 minutes, though I shudder to think how compromised the lovely widescreen photography would be in a pan and scan TV print and am glad that this was my first viewing. It’s exciting that this type of relatively obscure movie is getting such TLC from both Paramount and Kino and given the state of broadcast television and physical media I am both surprised and thrilled with its releasehttps://www.amazon.com/Lisbon-Blu-ray-Ray-Milland/dp/B07H612W4Y/ref=sr_1_12?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1545501045&sr=1-12&keywords=lisbon
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