Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Safecracker (1958)

No matter what role he’s playing, there’s always something faintly evil about Ray Milland. He first came to my attention as Grace Kelly’s murderous husband in Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder. That film had an acerbic black comedy feel to it, and Milland supplied most of the acid. There was something about the giddy way he proceeded with his plan to murder his unsuspecting wife that made the whole proceeding both scary and fun.

In John Farrow’s Alias Nick Beal Milland gets to play Satan, a role he seemed to relish. He was an actor who didn’t seem to require sympathy from the audience. He wasn’t smug in a Dick Powell way; he was more self obsessed. In that respect he reminds me a little of Kirk Douglas, the most self obsessed actor I can think of. Understand, I mean all of this as a compliment. There’s nothing wrong with being smug, self obsessed, or even evil as an actor. Someone has to play those emotions, so it’s good to know who can get the job done.

In his day, Milland was a big star, an Oscar winner (as an alcoholic in The Lost Weekend), and a dependable leading man. His popularity began to wane in the fifties, though, and today he holds a curious place in movie history as one of those actors who never became an icon. He looked a little like a middle-aged Jimmy Stewart and sounded like a slightly smoothed out Cary Grant (both he and Grant had an Anglo-American accent but Grant’s was far crisper). What was completely his, however, was that sense of evil. Most major actors have a certain safe quality. Milland always seemed as if he might do something bad just for the sheer hell of it.

A good example of this quality is in his film The Safecracker, one of the low budget films Milland directed in the fifties. It’s a good crime picture, starring Milland as an English safecracker named Colley Dawson. He lives a boring life at home with his mother, but on the weekends he gets around the countryside in expensive clothes and cars and cracks the safes of slumbering rich people. It all blows up in his face one weekend, and Dawson gets busted. He’s in the clink two years, with WWII getting underway, when the military comes looking for him. Turns out they need to parachute a man behind enemy lines to break into a German outpost and steal a list of all the German spies operating in England. Dawson isn’t much of a patriot (he doesn’t seem to care much about anything, really), but when the authorities offer to free him after the job is done, he accepts.

The remainder of the film concerns Dawson’s training with the elite squad who will take him into enemy territory, the mission itself, and the fallout. The film’s not perfect—the training scenes have the feel of a lighthearted war comedy, a break in tone from the rest of the picture—but the film is smart and always compelling. Above all, Milland the director knows how to use Milland the actor. Colley Dawson seems beset by a inborn restlessness. When he kisses his mother goodbye to go off to crawl through other people’s bedrooms, you get the feeling that the man just can’t help himself. Even after he’s busted, Dawson mostly seems bored. This is a man with a problem. Colley Dawson is a safecracker because the alternative is being boring. His problem is that he can’t imagine a life between those two poles. As ever, Milland doesn’t demand the sympathy or respect of his audience. He never gets cuddly. He simply gives you the character and lets you decide how to react to him.


For more on Milland, check out these link: one is an overview of his early career, and the other is his career as the star of low budget horror films in the sixties and seventies.

Here's a link to a short mock documentary called The Strange Case of Ray Milland

Finally, here's a link to a little cult classic Milland starred in called The Thing With Two Heads. When you watch it, try to remember that this man won an Oscar.

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