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Monday, September 9, 2013

Josef von Sternberg and Nicholas Ray | Macao


lonely, worried, and sorry
by Douglas Messerli
 
Bernard C. Schoenfeld, Stanley Rubin, and Robert Mitchum (screenplay), Josef von Sternberg and Nicholas Ray (directors) Macao / 1952

I think most critics today would agree with early commentators of Josef von Sternberg’s exotic adventure-tale Macao who found the story completely unbelievable and the direction confused. In the midst of shooting, producer Howard Hughes found the narrative plot so incoherent, in fact, that he got rid of the original director, replacing him with Nicholas Ray, and asking actor Robert Mitchum to help create some logical links between scenes, a process that almost seems to have doomed the work to critical disdain.

     There is no doubt that a great deal of this film, set in the exotic Macao, the former Portuguese colony now part of China, is pure hokum. Without any true explanation three seemingly suspicious people find themselves on a boat heading toward Macao, each keeping something from the others. Nick Cochran (Robert Mitchum), a former US serviceman, has a mysterious secret which involves, evidently, a murder and a red-head; Julie Benson (Jane Russell), a woman of many past careers—including even fortunetelling (the source of her ability is knowing that everyone is “lonely, worried, and sorry.”)—is now a nightclub singer inexplicably on the run or in search of something she can’t identify (as she cynically tells the local gangster Vincent Holloran: “my trust fund ran out”); and Lawrence Trumble, a self-admitted traveling salesman, who deals in silk stockings and contraband, but secretly, we soon discover, is the most duplicitous of the three, being a detective trying to lure the Macao-casino owner, Halloran (Brad Dexter), beyond the three mile limit in order to arrest him for numerous crimes, including the robbery of an priceless diamond necklace which he has sent on to Hong Kong. And then there’s Halloran’s current girlfriend, Margie (Gloria Grahame) who serves at times as his henchman, but at other times becomes an ally to Cochran.

      Hardly have these three exchanged verbal barbs than they are investigated, threatened, and nearly arrested, Cochran quickly being perceived by Halloran as the detective, while Benson is swept up into his personal world when she is suddenly offered a job singing in his casino. And so the plot, we quickly realize will be a playing out of their roles, confused by the evil forces in charge of decadent city. Despite the producers’ determination, however, to get that story properly sorted out, it really doesn’t matter. We already know that someone or everyone will attempt to murder Cochran, that Halloran will fall in love with Benson, and that Benson will fall in love with Cochran, while Halloran will surely be lured out of “the three mile limit” into his arrestment—or at least some variation of that!

     If that is your focus, however, you might as well forget it. This is not Casablanca; in Macao you get robbed even before you get off the boat. What it is, in hindsight, is a first-rate film, filled with a brilliant series of sarcastic-leaden and sexually charged interchanges between the sultry Benson and the always laconic Cochran, a dialogue, at times, that outshines many of the seemingly more sophisticated comedies of Garson Kanin, Preston Sturges, and others of the 1940s. And in some respects, one might describe this 1952 film, along with Orson Welles’ 1958 work, Touch of Evil, as the last of the great American film noirs. In one of their earliest encounters, for example, Cochran challenges the icy Benson: “Why don’t you take that chip off your shoulder?”

                                 Julie Benson: Every time I do, somebody hits me over
                                                       the head with it.

After another icy encounter, Julie sends Nick flowers, resulting in this interchange:
 
                                Nick Cochran: Thanks for the flowers.
                                Julie Benson: [sarcastically] I couldn’t afford a
                                      wreath.

Even minor characters get clever lines: as Lt. Sebastian (Thomas Gomez), who notes of Julie Benson: “Besides her obvious talents, she also sings.” And Halloran and Margie have a similarly light interchange:

 
                                Holloran: You don’t want that junk. Diamonds would only
                                      cheapen you.
                                Margie: Yeah. But what a way to be cheapened.

 

Or as Margie quips to Nick (who the night before has lost all of his money, even with loaded dice): “You’re up early for a loser.”

      At others times this film comes alive as a dark and sinister adventure tale, as Halloran’s murderous stooges chase Nick through the darkly lit streets, across rooftops, and through a whole flotilla of net-covered moonlit Chinese junks, a thrillingly shot episode that ends with the “accidental” stabbing and murder of Trumble—utterly ironic since the pursuers think they have got the wrong man. The inevitable battle between Halloran and Cochran, which occurs half on boat and half in the water, is brilliantly staged, as, in the end, the police scoop up the evil casino owner, and Cochran swims back, like an early James Bond, to collect his prize, Julie, still aboard.

      Macao may not be a profound movie, but it is most certainly an entertaining one, that perhaps, had both the film’s makers and critics been less focused on story, they might have recognized it for its numerous qualities. I’ve now seen this film three times, and I’ll gladly watch it again just to watch the sparks fly from the positively and negatively-charged leads through their loaded verbal comments. For if Corcoran-Mitchum is a born loser with dice, he is a born seducer with words: “My fatal charm. Never misses—except with women.” Benson-Russell’s response: “Well you annoyed me a little when you belted me with that blonde!”

      Frankly, I’ll take that kind of language over a fussy plot any day!

Los Angeles, September 7, 2013

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