In 1952, Josef von Sternberg was one of the few American directors with the audacity to proclaim himself an artistic genius. In the 1930s and into the 1940s, von Sternberg rode the tsunami of his artistic pretensions through a decade-long string of Marlene Dietrich films at Paramount and concluding with 1941's sweetmeat of the outré, The Shanghai Gesture. After that, von Sternberg was hoisted up on his own petard and his imperious attitude left him unemployed until, of all people, Howard Hughes took the bait and hired him to direct the doomed films Jet Pilot and Macao. The latter was a Robert Mitchum-Jane Russell star vehicle that, in spite of a collection of subsidiary directors (Nicholas Ray, Mel Ferrer, Robert Stevenson) brought in for salvage work, permitted von Sternberg to indulge in his penchant for weird exotica and lurid lighting effects and camera angles. As a result, Macao is a load of atmosphere and malarkey in search of a coherent storyline.
Andrew Sarris has written about von Sternberg that "his characters generally make their first entrance at a moment in their lives when there is no tomorrow," and Macao toes the Sarris company line. In a story that could have been hatched by S.J. Perelman, Macao, after an under-cranked chase scene, settles in on an ocean liner breezing into the freakish Oriental port of Macao ("a fabulous speck on the earth's surface"), the dangers ahead cued by the ship's barometer which indicates "Unhealthy for Plants/Unhealthy for Humans." Since this is not a nature documentary, the focus is on two humans -- Nick Cochran (Mitchum), on the run from an unclear fate in New York City, and Julie Bensen (Russell), high-tailing it from Hong Kong (when a customs inspector asks what she did in Hong Kong, she responds, "You don't really want me to tell you, do you?"). The two meet cute after Julie hauls a stiletto heel at a randy cha-cha dancer's torso but instead manages to clip Nick's noggin, who is passing by her cabin at the time. Nick and Julie immediately gravitate to each other, since not only are they the stars but also the coolest and most unflappable characters in the picture. The half-assed plot involves something about enticing villainous nightclub owner Vincent Halloran (Brad Dexter, whispering his dialogue like an incantation) outside the three-mile limit so that he can be arrested, and Nick being mistaken for a New York detective and chased around by Halloran's sinister thugs (with Philip Ahn's knife-wielding Itzumi being particularly impressive).
Continue reading: Macao Review