For ten years Ray Milland worked in Hollywood, a charming, romantic supporting actor in light comedy-dramas, steadily being groomed for better things. Fame came, but from an unexpected direction with The Lost Weekend. Billy Wilder’s nightmarish and adventurous journey into the taboo world of the alcoholic.
It won Milland an Oscar, and opened doors which had previously been closed to him though, curiously enough, few of his subsequent films, excepting Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, had much beyond his presence to recommend them. After several interesting low budget films as director, he moved increasingly towards character parts, lending weight to otherwise turgid projects like Love Story. His autobiography, Wide-Eyed in Babylon, charts his progress from Guardsman to star with delightful self-deprecating humour.
Here is our pick of five of his best movies.
Beau Geste (1939)
An oft-filmed adventure tale that tells the story of three brothers who “confess” to stealing a rare gem in order to save the female culprit. The brothers in arms battle the elements and their enemies to live long enough to clear the family name. The haunting opening sequence is one of the most famous in film. The sweeping desert vistas near Yuma, Arizona, (previously utilized for the 1926 version of P.C. Wren’s story) stood in for the sands of North Africa. Academy Award Nominations: Best Supporting Actor: Brian Donlevy; Best Interior Decoration.
Director: William A. Wellman
Cast: Gary Cooper, Brian Donlevy, Susan Hayward, G.P. Huntley, Ray Milland, J. Carroll Naish, Donald O’Connor, Robert Preston, James Stephenson, Heather Thatcher
Reap the Wild Wind (1942)
In a DeMille potboiler at sea, 19th-century ship captain Wayne fights for his reputation with shipping company investigator Milland, for his ship with salvage pirates Massey and Preston, and for his life with a giant red octopus. Salvage-company owner Goddard nurses Wayne back to health after a shipwreck, though she loses him to the sea creature. Reap the Wild Wind was planned as a vehicle for frequent Cecil B. DeMille star Gary Cooper; however, Cooper was committed to Pride of the Yankees and John Wayne took his place. Academy Award Nominations: 2, including Best Cinematography.
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Cast: Charles Bickford, Paulette Goddard, Susan Hayward, Raymond Massey, Ray Milland, Lynne Overman, Robert Preston, John Wayne
The Lost Weekend (1945)
This portrait of alcohol’s deadly grip is perhaps the greatest of the social-problem films, and a rewarding, harrowing movie experience. Milland gives the performance of a lifetime as a writer who encounters the depths of his soul on a weekend alone in New York. When his brother (Terry) goes on vacation, leaving Milland alone to write, the bottles come out before the typewriter. Before the weekend is over, Milland will have lost his money, his freedom, and his grip on reality as he descends into the alcoholic abyss. Justly praised upon its first, limited release, the movie was almost scrapped when the alcoholic beverage industry offered millions for the negative, and studio executives questioned its commercial potential. Milland explored the darkest corners of society researching the role, spending the night in New York’s Bellevue Hospital (the setting for some of the most disturbing sequences) on the alcoholic ward. Based on Charles Jackson’s 1944 novel. Its multiple honors include the Cannes festival award for Best Actor: Ray Milland, and the Palme d’Or; Golden Globes for Best Director; Best Actor: Ray Milland; Best Motion Picture, Drama. Academy Award Nominations: 7, including Best Editing; Best Cinematography.
Director: Billy Wilder
Cast: Howard Da Silva, Frank Faylen, Ray Milland, Philip Terry, Jane Wyman
Dial M for Murder (1954)
Hitchcock’s intriguing cinematic adaptation of Frederick Knott’s play about a woman who slowly comes to realize that her husband is trying to murder her for her money. She foils an intruder with a sharp pair of scissors in a scene even more electrifying in the original 3-D. Hitchcock constructed an oversize wooden hand and telephone dial to film the opening of Dial M for Murder because the 3D camera could not achieve close focus normally.
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: Leo Britt, Robert Cummings, Anthony Dawson, Grace Kelly, Ray Milland, John Williams
X – The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963)
One of the better examples of both Roger Corman’s work and science fiction films in general, X stars Ray Milland as Dr. Xavier, a scientist who’s forced, from lack of grant money and animal subjects, to try a drug on himself designed to improve vision. Though the obligatory party scene ensues where Milland can see through clothes, philosophical dilemmas are also suggested at least superficially, and his struggles careen through myriad fantastic locations – a carnival, a Las Vegas casino and a revivalist house. First place, Trieste Science Fiction Film Festival.
Director: Roger Corman
Cast: John Hoyt, Ray Milland, Don Rickles, Harold J. Stone, Diana Van Der Vlis