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Macao

Macao starring one of our favorite half-asleep actors, Robert Mitchum, is an exceptionally good thriller, not exactly a noir film but a solid old school crime thriller with good pacing, cool characters, and a great twist. Despite the exotic setting, it doesn’t bank too heavily on the “shadowy Chinatown” style of filmmaking, and there are no Caucasians in fake eyelids parading about. Actually, no, there is apparently one, but it’s so well done that i didn’t even notice. In fact, there are very few Asian characters at all, other than a couple of assassins and a lot of background extras. Instead, the film focuses on a small group of ex-patriots who have converged on the infamously decadent and borderline lawless Portuguese colony.

Big time crook Vincent Halloran runs an upscale gambling parlor in the colony, where he must stay, a spider trapped in his own web, for fear of the British police waiting to arrest him for a whole host of crimes committed in Hong Kong, the most recent of which involved the murder of an undercover cop from New York. Unfortunately for the Brits, they have no jurisdiction in Macao, and the corrupt Portuguese officials are happy to have Halloran in their country. Enter a trio of Americans who arrive via steamer for a variety of reasons. Tough talking brunette Julie (Jane Russell) is looking to start over as a singer, after wandering the world and becoming disillusioned with its inhabitants. Goofy salesman Lawrence Trumble (William Bendix) is looking to set up shop and make some cash selling an array of junk. And mysterious wanderer and ex-soldier Nick Cochran (Mitchum) doesn’t seem to have any real purpose in Macao, though the fact that he is from New York clues Holloran and his toadie police chief Sebastian (Thomas Gomez) into the fact that Cochran is there looking to take Holloran down for the murder of the other New York cop.

So begins a cat and mouse game involving guys in awesome old suits. Halloran hires Julie to sing in his nightclub and tries to pay Cochran to get the hell out of town. Cochran never seems overly interested or disinterested in Halloran’s offers, but the two become wary business partners when Trumble — who seems to be slightly more crooked than his “golly gee” exterior lets on — brings Cochran in on a deal to sell a posh diamond necklace to Halloran. The only hitch is that the necklace is in Hong Kong, and if Halloran leaves Macao, the Hong Kong cops will nab him as soon as he’s three miles off the coast. The only problem Cochran runs into with the deal is that Halloran recognizes the diamonds as coming from a necklace he himself is the owner of.

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I’m frequently impressed by how lean yet well-developed the plots of so many old movies are. I mean, this is a pretty basic story: gangster kills a cop, hides out in a lawless haven, and another cop goes in to bring him out. And yet the plot is so expertly executed, the dialog is so good, and the actors are so committed to their roles that the movie becomes substantial. Modern movies rely heavily on convoluted, tangled plots and sub-plots to flesh out running time and compensate for bland or shallow characters. In Macao, the plot is secondary, just a way to explain why these people are here. The movie belongs to the actors, and it’s a pretty fabulous cast. Russell is picture perfect as the femme fatale of the piece, tough and sassy but also kind and romantic when the time is right. She plays the disillusioned woman of the world well, never veering into the realm of caricature or over-the-top cartoonishness. She’s thoroughly believable as Julie. Ditto our man Mitchum. Robert Mitchum is probably my all-time favorite actor. Everything about him is cool, and no man ever made high-waist pants look so slick. When he was younger, my grandpa Harley used to style himself after Mitchum as much as possible: same style of clothes, same hair, same swagger, and I have to say, if ever there was a man worthy of emulation, Robert Mitchum was certainly him. Brad Dexter is deliciously sinister as the big boss, who is equal parts businessman and gangster, more than happy to avoid conflict if he can bribe his way out of it. Rounding out the core cast, William Bendix is great as the amiable traveling salesman who is revealed to be more than he seems.

Mitchum and Russell were the reason the movie was made. After their successful pairing in His Kind of Woman (which is similar to Macao in some ways and features an outstanding performance by Vincent Price, among others), legendary producer and batshit insane dude with Kleenex boxes on his feet, Howard Hughes, was keen on making the most of the success of and chemistry between the two — though it would seem that his primary goal was oriented far more around Russell than Mitchum, who was already an established leading man’s man. And most of Hughes interest in building up Russell seemed to be focused on his enormous bustline rather than her acting prowess. Russell does a good job here, despite where Hughes’ eyes may have been. I referred to her as a femme fatale, but that’s not entirely correct, just as Macao isn’t really film noir. She’s not there to lead the hero to his destruction or anything. If the film has anything close to a femme fatale, it’s Gloria Grahame as Holloran’s number one dice thrower. For my money, Grahame’s looks blow Russell out of the water, and her character here is a good mix of femme fatale and wounded lover. I would have loved to see her get a more substantial role in this movie.

And this movie belongs to them, the actors, not to the plot. This is definitely an actor’s film, and the story is there to serve the development of these characters and their interaction with one another. The only real subplot involves Margie (Gloria Grahame), a woman in the employ of Halloran and who seems to be in love with her dashing but dangerous boss. She is none too happy when Julie shows up and catches Halloran’s eye. But other than that, screenwriters keep things nice and streamlined.

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Macao was directed by Josef von Sternberg, last seen here as the director of another fabulous “Orient noir” set in a lawless Casbah-esque location, 1941’s The Shanghai Gesture. The two films would make a fabulous double bill (one could imagine that you’d catch a steamer from Shanghai to Macao and find it captained by Clark Gable a la China Seas). As with The Shanghai Gesture, and as with all of his films, von Sternberg applies meticulous detail to the look of his film.

Despite the title and the setting, Macao is not steeped in Orientalism or exoticism. The key locations are a hotel and Halloran’s nightclub, and although both bear the obvious stamp of being Chinese in design, neither is excessively so. The primary function of Macao isn’t to be alien or exotic; it’s to serve as a criminal haven. One could have just as easily set this film in The Casbah, or 1930s Shanghai, or any place where the threads of international law begin to fray and those who would cut them are able to find sanctuary. Unlike The Shanghai Gesture, Macao doesn’t revel in or become intoxicated by the decadence of the setting. It is fairly sedate by comparison, though this shouldn’t imply that it is in any way less elegant in its design. The men all look sharp, clad in tuxedos and pale, tropical weight suits. Jane Russell parades through the film in a number of swanky looking dresses and ornate pieces of jewelry.

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Where as the casino in The Shanghai Gesture was a hallucinogenic, near dreamlike palace of vice and shady, doomed souls, Halloran’s casino in Macao is much less symbolic affair. It is, by and large, simply a casino, treated by the art design as a place of business rather than as some twisted den of pleasure and destruction. Halloran’s office is an office. It has nice decor, but it’s just an office — a far cry from Mother Gin Sling’s ornate office that bordered on throne room. But both settings serve their inhabitant well. Halloran is, after all, a very real-world crooked businessman, and his main concern is maintaining his power and making cash. Gin Sling was a half-mad woman bent on revenge, and her primary goal was to destroy in the most elaborate way possible those she saw as having ruined her. Running a casino was little more than a means to the end of revenge.

I said earlier that Macao, despite coming from the era of the noir film and being a film about cops and criminals, isn’t exactly noir. It certainly has elements of the noir film — the mysterious and flawed protagonist, the powerful businessman/criminal, crooked cops, and a hard-as-nails dame — but it lacks a certain claustrophobic bleakness (and close-ups of the faces of sweating guys in undershirts) that informs the noir film. We may have haunted characters, but they are not hopeless or self-destructive. Von Sternberg infuses Macao with less a sense of desperation and more a sense of adventure. Julie and Nick Cochran would be more at home among the ranks of globe-trotting thrill-seekers than they would the damned and depressed denizens of noir, and Macao has more in common with high-spirited adventure fare like China Seas than with noir films like A Touch of Evil. Despite being a crime film, Macao is just too snappy, and too much fun, to really be considered noir. It also sports a sense of humor, though it’s hardly a comedy. Bendix’s Trumble is the closest thing the movie comes to having a comic relief character, and he’s hardly comic relief. He just gets in a few jokes. What comedy there is, is subdued and pretty effective. And there are no “wacky Oriental” characters (just an assassin and an old man), and at no point do I recall that musical snippet — you know the one — that usually plays whenever an Asian character enters a scene.

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This was von Sternberg’s final film, and by all accounts, it was a troubled production. Von Sternberg himself hadn’t worked for a while when the infamous Howard Hughes tapped him as director for this film. Von Sternberg found Hughes an impossible producer who forced too many “meddling clowns” into the affair, and both Mitchum and Russell developed an intense dislike for von Sternberg on account of the way he treated his crew. Things got so bad that, at some point, Mitchum flat out refused to work with von Sternberg any further, and von Sternberg was summarily dismissed and replaced by top notch noir director Nicholas Ray (They Live By Night, In a Lonely Place, and later Rebel Without a Cause and King of Kings). Despite this, the film still remains largely the vision of von Sternberg. As with The Shanghai Gesture, it seems Macao is largely overshadowed by what many critics dwell on as his signature masterpiece, The Blue Angel.

Despite the troubled production and the need to call in Ray to finish (and reshoot much of) the film, I found Macao to be an extremely enjoyable adventure film, with a decent sense of romance, nice sets, and great cast anchored by the chemistry between Mitchum and Russell. A snappy script with a good sense of humor and a great (and surprising) twist make it, if not must-see swanky cinema, then at least should-see cinema.

Release Date: 1952 | Country: United States | Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, William Bendix, Thomas Gomez, Gloria Grahame, Brad Dexter, Edward Ashley, Philip Ahn, Vladimir Sokoloff, Don Zelaya | Screenplay: Bernard C. Schoenfeld, Stanley Rubin | Director: Josef von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray | Cinematography: Harry Wild | Music: Anthony Collins | Producer: Alex Gottlieb, Howard Hughes | Availability: DVD (Amazon)