After working as a light leading man in the 1930's and first part of the 1940's Ray Milland became accepted as a serious dramatic actor following his Oscar-winning role as Don Birnam in Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend. Not a man to rest on his laurels, Milland turned to directing in the early 1950's, starting with the Western A Man Alone in 1955. Although it was cheaply made for a minor studio (Republic) the film had some interesting features, and Milland got a second chance to direct (again for Republic) with this 1956 drama of international crime and intrigue. In a charming touch of - possibly - modesty, the film stars 'Ray Milland', it is produced by 'R. A. Milland', and is directed by 'R. Milland'.
The plot revolves around Captain Robert John Evans (Milland - his three names are always emphasised, for some reason) an American who has settled in post-war Lisbon and lives a comfortable life smuggling unavailable luxuries (perfume, watches, and the like) into Portugal. However, he never deals in narcotics and doesn't kill people, so we can accept him as a lovable rogue. The Portuguese police know he's up to something but he has the fastest boat on the coast, and they never arrive in time to catch him with the goods.
Evans is approached by Greek criminal 'Mr Big' Aristides Mavros (Claude Rains), with a proposition worth $10,000. (Mavros' male secretary is played by Norman Wisdom's future Mr Grimsdale, Edward Chapman.) He is to smuggle Lloyd Merrill, the oil-industrialist husband of Maureen O'Hara, into Lisbon from a ship which has brought him from behind the Iron Curtain.
While this is being arranged Mrs Merrill takes a distinct fancy to Captain Milland and decides that a future with an older husband is not quite so attractive, but the $25m she would be left with certainly is. She arranges with Mavros that her husband will meet with an unfortunate accident at the hands of Seraphim (Francis Lederer), Mavros's heavy, when the exchange takes place. Unknown to her, Mavros adds Evans himself to the casualty list (women with $25m do not grow on trees).
Meanwhile Evans is falling for one of Mavros's female 'companions', Maria Maddalena Masanet, (Yvonne Furneaux), who returns the compliment and warns Evans of Mavros's double cross. The final scene reunites Mrs Merrill with her unwanted but still unsuspecting husband, Mavros fingered by an informant for Evans's smuggling, and Evans swearing to go straight with Maria Maddalena.
As a film, this is definitely a second feature. The story is rather predictable, and after an interesting set-up it all becomes slow, talky and a bit tedious. The 86 minute running time feels at least 10 minutes longer. The details of Merrill's imprisonment, and the pressure brought by the State Department on Mrs. Merrill to leave things to the professionals is never explained – presumably Republic didn't want to risk upsetting anyone by getting too political.
Milland makes a good charming hero. He seems to attract more than his fair share of lovely ladies, but when you are star, producer and director, why not turn things in your favour? Claude Rains plays his smooth, silky villainous character for all it is worth (he feeds his cat by leaving a trail of breadcrumbs on his window-sill and whacking a hapless sparrow with a tennis racquet as the cat licks its lips – the most interesting moment in the film, unfortunately just two minutes in). Maureen O'Hara apparently relished the chance to be a Bette Davis-type bitch but isn't really venomous enough to be a convincing ice maiden. Francis Lederer is rather too granite-faced as the 'sinister' Seraphim.
The film's biggest point of interest today is seeing the locations around Lisbon as they were sixty years ago. So much green space which is now crowded with offices and apartment blocks (at one point Evans is driven from Belém to Lisbon via Cascais, a 40-mile detour, but it adds local colour). In fact, despite a special title which announces the film was made in Portugal by the Republic Corporation, most of the film is disappointingly set-bound. There are a couple of nice shots of the Palácio da Pena in Sintra, an effective sequence in the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, but otherwise the film is firmly inside the studio – even Mrs Merrill's hotel, the Palácio in Estoril (where James Bond checks in at the start of 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'), while mentioned by name, is never actually shown. A limited budget is also in evidence as Evans's boat always seems to be sailing along the same stretch of coastline. (The film is well-shot in the Republic colour process, Trucolour, and its answer to CinemaScope, Naturama.)
Never even mentioned, of course, is that when the film was made Portugal was living under a right-wing dictatorship complete with secret police (the PIDE) and prison colonies in West Africa.
This film is a decent, second-rate potboiler with some historic interest, but rather flat dramatically. The theme tune, by Sinatra musical director Nelson Riddle, proved popular in instrumental versions, and as a vocal recording by famed Portuguese fadista Amália Rodrigues.