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Macao Review

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).

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Run Silent, Run Deep Review

Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster are on fire in this slow burner about a WWII-era U.S. submarine chasing down Gable's nemesis: a Japanese destroyer. Tame by today's standards, Run Silent, Run Deep paved the way for films like Crimson Tide.

House Of Bamboo Review

The limits of the lengths to which dazzling camerawork and curled-lip noir bluster can make up for thoroughly ham-fisted dialogue are tested in Sam Fuller's 1955 gangster picture, House of Bamboo. It's the familiar tradeoff with Fuller's scripts (though here he was working off one mostly written by Harry Kleiner): They're hard-boiled as all hell, but given just the slightest mistake in mood or pacing, the whole can seem so ridiculous as to be laughable. This film never quite gets to the laughable point, but by the end it's not far off.

As the first American feature to be shot in Japan after WWII (its home-grown film industry had been trucking right along since not long after the peace treaty was signed), House of Bamboo makes the most out of its setting, and its spell-binding Cinemascope compositions make up most of the reasons to see it. The film opens on a supply train puffing across a snowy landscape that's hijacked by a gang of thieves who are more than happy to garrote the Japanese and U.S. guards on board before making off with the loot, .50-caliber machine guns. It's a sharply executed piece of work and ends with a hammer blow: achingly beautiful Mount Fuji, as shot between the boots of a dead soldier.

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Lady Sings The Blues Review

Billie Holiday experts have lots of quibbles with Lady Sings the Blues, but this melodramatic biopic has plenty of emotional payoffs, even if they're slightly obscured by the triumph-and-tragedy clichés of the heavily fictionalized screenplay.

Credit Miss Diana Ross for her guts. In this, her first screen performance, she tosses all vanity aside, kicking things off by wearing a straitjacket and writhing around on the floor of an asylum (that writhing earned her an Oscar nomination). What has brought Billie Holiday to this lowly state? The flashbacks will tell us.

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The Magnificent Seven Review

The Magnificent Seven isn't a great movie, but it is a very cool movie. An explanation: Schindler's List is a great movie, but I think we can agree that we're not going to spend a Saturday afternoon with the guys eating chips and running lines from Spielberg's tribute to the Jews. Watch an hour of The Magnificent Seven and you'll pop open another can of Pringles and consider buying a six-shooter.

A cowboy retelling of Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, the movie takes place in a Mexican farming village which has been overrun by bandits. The outlaws take the villagers' food, making a grueling life that much tougher. Tired of getting pushed around, several men consult the resident wise old man. "Fight, you must fight," he says.

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