Things I read off the screen in “Lisa” AKA “The Inspector”

We have to give this film both titles, because neither one is remotely adequate: LISA could be anything, whereas THE INSPECTOR works only as a cop movie, and preferably one where there’s something a bit funny about the titular investigator. But this isn’t a cop movie — after the first ten minutes, our hero (Stephen Boyd) stops acting as a policeman and quickly becomes a fugitive from the law. But somehow the two titles conjoined have a pleasing effect.

The 1962 drama, adapted by Nelson Gidding (THE HAUNTING) from the novel by Jan de Hartog, and “helmed” as Variety would say, by screenwriter-turned-director Philip Dunne, suffers from several kinds of flatness, but maintains a trembling grip on the viewer’s interest via some unusual plot elements and a meandering, unpredictable narrative.

HOEK VAN HOLLAND.

This is kind of a road movie avante la lettre, and we begin on a train — the credits appear over weirdly blue-tinted railroad tracks rushing past, a little iris effect allowing us a bubble of natural colour in the centre of the (pan-and-scanned) Cinemascope frame. This seems a little psychedelic, but turns out to be cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson’s best stab at day-for-night rail travel.

VERBODEN TOEGANG

Lisa (Dolores Hart, whose brief gesture at movie stardom was about to burn out) is on this train, in the company of shady import-export man Marius Goring (who’s by this time grown into his increasingly sinister face) and being shadowed by cops Boyd and Donald Pleasence. The supporting cast of this film is an amazing array of Brit talent. Everybody alights at the ferry station to embark from England, and we get some Dutch signage.

FOR HIRE

These words are upside down, which signifies that the London cab is NOT for hire. Because upside down letters mean the opposite of right-side up ones! That’s an important thing for visitors to London to know. Boyd takes the taxi to Scotland Yard, passing some blitzed-out ruins, which give us a sense of period — the movie is actually set in the immediate post-war period.

DANGER: FALLING DEBRIS

Perhaps this sign, posted at the ruins, is a forewarning of Boyd’s condition. In the next scene we get exposition by the clog-full: Boyd’s fiancee is dead; Goring is an ex-Nazi white slaver exporting girls to South America, but the Brits have no evidence to hold him on; Lisa’s family died in the war and she’s a concentration camp survivor. Boyd vows to stop Goring by any means, even though he has no legal authority on British soil.

Anthony Mann, who directed Boyd in THE FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE, considered him “no movie star”. The problem is that Boyd, so effective in his death scene in BEN-HUR, is really a character actor who’s interesting when he’s BIG, and dull when he underplays. Mann thought it was something to do with the brown eyes. Certainly Charlton Heston, who lacked Boyd’s versatility and sensitivity, makes an impression with facial micro-movements that Boyd, will all his skill, can’t match.

BLUT UND EHRE

The slogan is printed on a fake S.S. dagger which Goring displays when Boyd calls on him. Goring’s “legitimate” business is this tacky souvenir trade, while his real job is providing flesh for “a kind of house” in Brazil. Boyd punches the guy out and barely restrains himself from shooting the fallen creep. Here he’s a little like Robert Ryan in ON DANGEROUS GROUND, but just enough to make you wish Ryan was playing the role.

Boyd finds Lisa outside — she’d already left by the fire escape. She tells him that Goring had promised to take her to Palestine, where Israel is being formed. She didn’t trust him, but was sufficiently indifferent to her life that she was willing to take a chance. When Boyd tells her Goring’s true plans, she LAUGHS: “Sorry, it’s a private joke,” and this teaser to the film’s biggest, weirdest plot point, kept me watching for a bit longer. So did Dolores Hart, who’s very natural and alive and immediate as Lisa. She doesn’t manage to quite portray the character’s journey from battered cynic to loving, revitalised girl, because she’s too vital at the start, but she’s a winning presence. Movie stars tend to control their faces and make each expression count, whereas her face is all over the place, and she throws smiles and frowns around as if leaving a trail. It’s refreshing.

5436970

Number tattooed on Lisa’s wrist.

Boyd, touched by Lisa, promises to get her to Palestine. Taking her back to Rotterdam, he brings her home to mother, who notes the girl’s resemblance to Boyd’s late fiancee, who was killed by the Nazis, and assumes Lisa is a prostitute who has bewitched her son. Lisa angrily explains that this is impossible — she was detained in Auschwitz’s medical wing.

Right. Yikes. The movie never goes into clinical detail, which is a relief, but also sets the imagination working horrible overtime. What kind of damage has been inflicted that would physically prevent Lisa from working as a prostitute? I can’t think offhand of another film whose plot hinges in this way on the condition of the heroine’s downstairs parts. Boyd is still unaware of this gynaecological bombshell, and the film makes much of the poignancy of his falling in love with Lisa as he tried to transport her to the new Jewish homeland, and her resistance to the idea, based on her belief that she can never have sex, let alone children.

STRYDPERK VAN DODGE CITY

A book being read by Leo McKern, a smuggler who takes Boyd and Hart on as crew for his barge (Finlay Currie, the convict from Lean’s GREAT EXPECTATIONS, sets Boyd up with the position). This should get the duo as far as Morocco, but there’s a problem — Marius Goring has been found dead. According to later plot developments, Boyd and Hart each suspect the other of murdering the Nazi pimp (can there be a more unsavoury job description in any language? “What do you do for a living, Marius?”), but this potential source of suspense isn’t really brought out. Boyd’s old partner Donald Pleasence colludes in his escape from Holland and the group hit the seas.

LYNCH WET DE RED CREEK

Another of McKern’s paperbacks: he likes his westerns.

We get to Morocco and the signs disappear for a looong time. Hugh Griffith plays another, more sinister smuggler, a Welsh Dutchman (complimenting Boyd’s Irish Dutchman and Currie’s Scottish Dutchman) who offers to take the pair to Palestine but at a cost: Boyd must work for him for a year as payment for Lisa’s passage. But there’s an alternative: an American (Neil McCallum, a Canadian who made a steady living playing Yanks in Britain) will take them without such conditions — but Lisa must have a medical examination, since the Israelis don’t want any diseases coming in. The examination terrifies Lisa, I think partly because it’s to be conducted by a character apparently called DOCTOR METROPOLIS*. I certainly wouldn’t want anybody named after a Fritz Lang movie fumbling with my undercarriage. Although DR MABUSE would be worse, I guess.

The medical turns out to be a cathartic release for Lisa, who experiences a quasi-flashback as she tells Doc Metrop her story. Appropriately enough, this features a multi-image shot of eyes borrowed straight from Lang’s METROPOLIS. I wonder if the Doc’s character name preceded/inspired the reference? 

It all ends in a fade to white, and is the liveliest bit of filmmaking in the whole show. The need to treat the sequence allusively rather than directly unlocks some imaginative muscle in the director. Maybe the film has unseen compositional merits obscured by the wretched pan-and-scan treatment dished out by some long-ago TV broadcaster, but it’s the plot and guest-stars that allow it to survive a viewing. Malcolm Arnold’s score tries to convince us that THIS IS CINEMA, but actually just gets in the way.

(Once in a while I find somebody who wants to swap movies, but doesn’t have anything I particularly want, so I take pot luck, and thus I find myself with a film like LISA AKA THE INSPECTOR. And it sits, unwatched, for years, until the night I randomly pluck it out and slot it in the machine.)

Oh, I almost forgot, we also have Robert Stephens as a navy man, sloping around like a spy after Boyd. “You Dutchmen, always on the go!” he rejoices, and I think this may well be the line Robert Stephens was BORN TO SAY. There is such a line for all actors. Anthony Hopkins’ line is “I’m a mercenary ham with the head of a whale!” but no one has written it into a script for him yet.

Stephens informs Boyd that tests have show that Goring died accidentally, falling on his S.S. knife. The authorities would like Boyd to return and clear the matter up, but he’s not being charged with murder. And nobody much liked Goring anyway.

BUT! Browne the American doesn’t want Lisa to go to Israel: now that he knows her history he wants to pack her off to Nuremberg to testify about what was done to her.  It’s clear this would be destructive to her psychologically, and she still really wants to go to Israel, where she’ll finally feel safe. This part of the film was the most powerful for me: some well-meaning people are quite willing to destroy Lisa in order to create a powerful effect at the war crimes tribunal. A sensation of desperation.

At this point, signposts suddenly reappear, helping Boyd chart his way through the unfolding narrative:

AIR ATLAS

Stencilled on the plane to Germany which Lisa doesn’t get on, because Boyd realises she’s in love with him. They make a deal with the Welsh Dutchman and set sail with Arab Harry Andrews. After numerous examples of nationality-muddled casting, the film finally presents a Brit browned-up. Andrews is appalling casting. His accent fluctuates across the globe’s entire surface, and at one point he gets water splashed in his face and turns lighter. Absurd.

MADRE DOLOROSA

Not the most encouraging name for a ship (shades of Dario Argento!), but if Harry Andrews is the captain and he’s wearing body makeup, I guess things can’t get much worse. More double-dealings and plot twists turn up, but after the quasi-resolution of the love story, none of it matters too much. The final leg of the journey puts me in mind of Clouzot’s MANON, which likewise ends with a trip to the new state of Israel, but Clouzot’s conclusion is both bleaker and better. He’s a real director, and Philip Dunne just isn’t. Despite the strange lack of star-power in the central roles, his movie does deliver a couple of unusual characters who engage the interest and the sympathy. It doesn’t quite find a narrative structure that uses and resolves these people, but I’m still reasonably glad I saw it.

Having recently seen an Arab documentary, THE ARABIAN DREAM,  which as you might expect took a more sceptical view of the founding of Israel, this was also fascinating to see as a time-capsule from an era before the Israeli dream really started to turn sour…

*Actually it’s “Dr. Mitropoulis”, silly.

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16 Responses to “Things I read off the screen in “Lisa” AKA “The Inspector””

  1. There are some very entertainingly snarky comments about Lisa in “The Cleopatra Papers” by Jack Brodsky and Nathaniel Weiss. They were the PR guys assigned to the Mankiewicz maudit when 20th Century Fox thought the movie wasn’t getting enough publicity. Then Liz met Dick and such thoughts went right out the window.

    Lisa was the sort of film that was sinking Fox fast.

    In the George Cukor files at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences there’s a quite interesting correspondence between Mr. Cukor and Dolores Hart after she left Hollywood to become a nun. He was quite fascinated by her choise.

  2. Fascinating. With the ‘scope format, exotic locations and Malcolm Arnold score, it feels like somebody was thinking “David Lean”, but there’s really no sweep or scale to it. Someone like Norman Foster could have done it all in the studio and it would have benefited from the intensity.

    Didn’t realise Hart nunned out! Talk about from one extreme to another. Certainly not a lifestyle choice that would have appealed to Cukor, unless they have pool parties in the convent.

  3. What was the name of your special category for odd double-bills? Perhaps Dunne’s “Lisa,” as you decribe it, should go on a double-bill with Bava’s “Lisa and the Devil.” Here’s a review of the latter with some plot details:

    http://dvdtalk.com/dvdsavant/s122lisa.html

    “[Lisa] encounters the first of a film-length succession of malevolent hallucinations.” Sounds like as good a description of Goring and McKern and Currie and Andrews *et alia* as any.

  4. First you sin, then you repent!

  5. I love the idea of “one” lines that actors were born to say. James Mason’s “Potassium Cyanide!” from Journey To The Centre of the Earth always rings in the head. Likewise Patrick Stewart’s “Let the BOY try!” from Excalibur (so I was a little disappointed on my last viewing to see that he doesn’t actually say it.) I need to give this more thought.

  6. She was only about 25, how badly could she have sinned?

    Lisa and the Devil is too hallucinatory to make a Fever Dream Double Feature with Lisa AKA The Inspector. I’d pair Lisa with Manon, which shows how it SHOULD be done.

    Bava’s film is so weird it’s hard to pair with anything, although it can be paired with itself: the very poor re-edit, incorporating new footage, known as House of Exorcism, which becomes more interesting if viewed alongside the original cut.

  7. Curiously, the single of Flash! by Queen, from the film Flash Gordon, features a number of actors saying the lines they were born to say —
    Brian Blessed: “Gordon’s alive!”
    Mariangela Melato: “Despatch Rocket Ajax to bring back his body!”
    Melody Anderson (who should have went on to greater things, and instead went on to Manimal, the poor bitch): “Flash I love you but we only have 16 hours to save the Earth!” (boldly delivered without punctuation, and it WORKS.)

  8. And Timothy Dalton’s “Freeze, you bloody bastards!”… although that might not appear on the single.

  9. Thinking of Robert Stephens leads me to Morgan: A suitable case for Treatment. David Warner was surely born to say “We got this duck in Camden Town… This is a Camden Town duck.”

  10. My fave is Ornella Muti: “I like you Flash. I like you a lot.”

  11. “I wike you a wot.”
    David Wingrove saw her make a public appearance at a tribute to her talents in Romania, where she is still big. Various personages came on and said how wonderful she was. Then she came on… and posed. He thought, “She’s just smart enough to realise that if she opens her mouth, she’ll ruin it.”

  12. I think a post on “the things they were born to say” may be in order.

  13. She was perfection in Scholondorff’s otherwise tepid Un Amour de Swann and I adore her in Marco Ferreri’s Tales of Ordinary Madness too.

  14. […] Lisa aka The Inspector dcairns.wordpress.com […]

  15. Michael Clement Says:

    The location scenes were supposed to be shot in Morocco, but because of the Jewish storyline had to be filmed on The gower peninsular, near Swansea.In Fact it was three Cliffs Bay and Swansea docks. I was asked to be an extra and became a machine gunner on board a ship.Great fun for a thirteen year old boy

  16. What larks! Did you meet the stars?

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