Macao

1952, Movie, NR, 80 mins

Review

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This was not one of von Sternberg's favorite films, but the dynamic and utterly visual director made of MACAO, with its hodgepodge script and melodramatic meanderings, an exciting film noir entry, steaming up the screen with sultry, sexy Russell and a somnambulistic Mitchum who manage to clinch often, despite their sneering disregard for each other. Mitchum is on the run, having been convicted of a crime he did not commit. He meets nightclub singer Russell, who dislikes men in general, while both are on a steamer bound for Macao. Also on board is wisecracking detective Bendix, who uses both Russell and Mitchum to identify jewel smugglers operating on the Portuguese islands off the coast of China; he's really after Dexter, a kingpin of crime in Macao. Mitchum steps in to help the buxom Russell, who has difficulty resisting the pushy advances of a drunk; she repays Mitchum for getting rid of the pest by stealing his wallet while kissing him. Moreover, when the trio get to Macao, corrupt local police detective Gomez looks over the contents of Mitchum's wallet and concludes that he's another plainclothes detective sent to investigate Dexter's operations. He tells Dexter, who has already had three previous detectives killed, and, for her stealing efforts, Russell is rewarded with a job singing in Dexter's club. Dexter begins to make advances toward Russell, which infuriates his girl friend, Grahame, who works as a croupier in the club. Dexter next offers Mitchum a sizable sum to leave Macao but he stalls. When the real detective, Bendix, learns of the attempted bribe, he enlists Mitchum's help in setting up a trap for the smugglers and luring Dexter beyond the three-mile limit where he can be arrested. But the plan backfires, and Mitchum is beaten up and Bendix knifed. The mortally wounded cop tells Mitchum to bring in Dexter and, if he does, his trouble in the States will be cleared up. Mitchum sneaks onto Dexter's yacht and, just after Dexter and Russell board it en route to Hong Kong and a quick tryst, Mitchum steers a course beyond the limit, where, after a fierce battle, Interpol police pick up the crime boss and his remaining henchmen. Mitchum and Russell leave for the US, ostensibly to begin a tempestuous life together.

Russell got the usual sex-star buildup for this film, her role heralded with reams of publicity about a revealing gold and silver mesh dress which was put together, RKO's publicity department pointed out, not with needle and thread but with steel pliers! She sings throatily if not handsomely "One for My Baby" (Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen)), "You Kill Me," and "Ocean Breeze" (Jule Styne, Leo Robin). She and Mitchum compete in shedding their clothes, a battle of cheesecake against beefcake. Russell wins hands down, causing Mitchum to ogle her when she wears a very low-cut gown, revealing much of her famous topside, in turn causing Jane to give out with her usual sneer and the line: "Enjoying the view?" Mitchum's retort is a classic of sorts: "It ain't the Taj Mahal or the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, but it'll do." Von Sternberg directed this melodramatic film noir entry with less than an enthusiastic approach, wrapping it up in two months on the RKO back lot. The stylistic director later stated in his autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry: "After JET PILOT, I made one more film in accordance with the RKO contract I had foolishly accepted. This was made under the supervision of six different men in charge. It was called MACAO, and instead of fingers in that pie, half a dozen clowns immersed various parts of their anatomy in it." Nicholas Ray was brought in to shoot some of the final scenes, especially the fist fight between Mitchum and Dexter at the end, but most of the film remains von Sternberg's. His distinctive style is in evidence in scenes such as the one in which Bendix is seen being knifed through elaborate fishnetting, the one of a cleverly planned chase across water and through bobbing floats, and the ones showing the shadowy world of Macao and its denizens. He later denounced the film when Ray was given some credit. Von Sternberg was also unhappy with Russell and Grahame, who argued with him about his setups, failing to understand his motivations, which, in Russell's case, is not hard to believe. Russell delivers her lines like a huge windup doll but is as alluring as she is sullen. The best acting in the film is done by shifty, greasy-looking Gomez and ancient Sokoloff, who plays a blind coolie spouting platitudes while running Russell and Mitchum about Macao's back streets. leave a comment

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