Macao Movie 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).

Circling around Mitchum and Russell like ravenous dogs and spending most of the time hiding in shadows or squinting around corners, lurching, peering, and pursuing, is a nightmarish supporting cast of character actors -- Thomas Gomez, dressed up like a Portuguese police inspector and looking like he just got off the set of The Colgate Comedy Hour; William Bendix, trying to remain inconspicuous in the lurking shadows by wearing a white suit and a Panama hat; and the tasty and off-kilter Gloria Grahame, posing in slinky dresses and negligees and enticingly shaking dice. And being a Howard Hughes production, the middle-aged male cast members devote most of their screen time ogling Russell and sighing deeply.

None of that matters to von Sternberg, who intercuts location footage with a mixture of studio gloss glamour shots and frames featuring his trademarked crazy lighting effects and head-spinning compositions. It all culminates in a mad chase between Nick and Halloran's goons through the Macao waterfront. But von Sternberg, unconcerned with building up even a modicum of suspense in the climactic scene, instead shoots the chase at the docks through a collection of shots taken through mesh netting. It's less a chase than a slow walk, Mitchum strolling unsteadily through the skiffs and the killers following him in a half-hearted lumber through the RKO backlot.

Von Sternberg once claimed his films could be appreciated even if they were shown upside down and without sound. I don't know if this experiment could be done with Macao, since it would take away from the film to see Mitchum and Russell performing on their heads. One thing's for sure. After watching Macao, this viewer certainly feels as if he were held upside down for 82 minutes.

The DVD also features an audio commentary with film historian Eddie Muller, screenwriter Stanley Rubin, and Jane Russell, along with a TCM Robert Osborne interview with Mitchum and Russell.

Cast & Crew

Producer : Samuel Biscoff, Alex Gottlieb

Comments

Macao Rating

" Grim "

Rating: R, 1952

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