Friday, October 17, 2008

Target #34: Macao (1952, Josef von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray)

Directed by: Josef von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray (uncredited)
Written by: George Bricker, Edward Chodorov, Norman Katkov, Frank L. Moss (all uncredited), Walter Newman (dialogue, uncredited), Stanley Rubin (writer), Bernard C. Schoenfeld (writer), Robert Creighton Williams (story)
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, William Bendix, Thomas Gomez, Gloria Grahame, Brad Dexter

It seems an odd thing for a film noir to be set on a small peninsula off the coast of China, but Macao (1952) nonetheless fits the bill to an extent, in a similar vein to Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not (1944). Nick Cochran (Robert Mitchum) wanders in off a ferry, looking as weary as always, and is immediately suspected by the city's resident American crime boss (Brad Dexter) to be a dangerous detective from the States. Cochran, actually a vagrant fugitive traversing the globe, accepts these accusations without batting an eyelid, thus joining the ranks of film noir "innocents" would find themselves unwittingly entangled in a messy affair in which they have no rightful business. Meanwhile, Jane Russell, with a spiteful glare that suggests utter contempt for anything that moves, works hard to avoid falling in love with Cochran; but on whom the sultry singer will ultimately bestow her affection is never in doubt. This film was made purely to bring together the two big stars again, but fortunately it also works as a exotic adventure thriller.

According to the opening credits, Macao was directed by Josef von Sternberg. In actuality, producer Howard Hughes dismissed Sternberg before production wrapped up, and so the film was completed by an uncredited Nicholas Ray. Audiences have always loved to see their favourite stars dispatched to exotic locations – however short distance they were required to travel from the studio back-lot – and the obscure Asian peninsula of Macao adds a spark of Oriental charm to an already-outlandish locale. This is a city where dangerous criminals take sanctuary and open seedy gambling joints, where mysterious Asian henchmen kill their victims with knives rather than guns. Normal societal formalities hold no sway here: Mitchum gets a luscious kiss out of his leading lady within a minute of their meeting, and, incidentally, she gets his wallet. That the screenplay is completely predictable becomes irrelevant next to the strong characterisations and seedy, mysterious atmosphere. This being my first Sternberg film, I'm unsure of his particular directing style, but the dark foot-chases along the sleazy Macao docks struck me as being characteristic of Nicholas Ray's work.

Though Mitchum and Russell carry the film pretty well – and, indeed, are the only reason for the film's existence – an unfortunately-underused supporting cast also does a good job. William Bendix, playing a likable character for once, is a friendly travelling salesman to whom there may be more than meets the eye. Brad Dexter is serviceable as the primary villain, but he's not particularly sinister or intimidating, and his spur-of-the-moment decision to leave the Three-Mile Limit, especially after learning of a plot to capture him, seems utterly contrived. Gloria Grahame (Ray's then-wife, though not for much longer) has a disappointingly-brief role as the villain's shunted lover; early in the film, she and Russell exchange glares than communicate pure mutual contempt. Overall, despite an all-too-familiar storyline, the Oriental-flavoured setting and enjoyable performances make for a film with a fair amount of suspense and intrigue, with just enough laconic humour to keep the story moving along nicely {Mitchum himself reportedly wrote a few scenes to bridge the otherwise-muddled screenplay}. If this one ever comes up on the TV schedule, it's worth a gander.

Currently my #6 film of 1952:
1) Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly)
2) Limelight (Charles Chaplin)
3) Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica)
4) On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, Ida Lupino) *
5) High Noon (Fred Zinnemann)
6) Macao (Josef von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray) *

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