Movie Critique - Macao

Stars: 4 / 5

Recommendation: A must watch film noir centering on intrigue and treachery bound by threads of humor and love, thoroughly entertaining the viewers from start to finish and keeping the viewers on edge wondering what will snap next.

Macao is a 1952 American adventure film noir directed by Josef von Sternberg and uncredited support by Nicholas Ray; and produced by Howard Hughes, Samuel Bischoff and Alex Gottlieb. It stars Robert Mitchum, Jane Russell, William Bendix and Gloria Grahame among others.

Nick Cochran (portrayed by Robert Mitchum) an ex-serviceman, Julie Benton (portrayed by Jane Russell) a night club singer and Lawrence Trumble (portrayed by William Bendix) a traveling salesman; all arrive at the Portuguese port of Macao. Casino owner Vincent Halloran (portrayed by Brad Dexter) thinks one of them is an undercover cop out to get him, and he zeroes in on Nick. And that begins a roller coaster life for Nick at Macao, running to save himself.

Robert Mitchum as Nick Cochran fits perfectly to the role just like his myriad of roles he had done as a cop or a mercenary or an army guy or an investigator. This was no different role for him, yet he made it as unique as possible he could. The only other movie I saw of Mitchum was the 1951 American film noir The Racket in which he certainly left an impression. Despite seeing him in two films so far, I still am unable to place him in what movie or tv show I saw prior to these two films. 

This is my first film I am watching of Jane Russell. She plays the part of Julie Benton, a cynical and sultry night club singer with a huge chip on her shoulder. She sang beautifully though. She plays Benton smoothly like strings on a guitar. 

In my recent watching of film noir movies this year I had the privilege of seeing Gloria Grahame in classic movies that showcased her acting. In the 1950 In a Lonely Place, she played lead actress Laurel Grey along-side Humphrey Bogart's Dixon "Dix" Steele - a psychological film noir that required her to show tons of emotions. And in the 1952 The Bad and Beautiful she plays Rosemary Bartlow, Dick Powell's James Lee Bartlow's wife. A short role that earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Each and every film role was unique and needed a lot of acting by Grahame proving her why she was so successful. She is a charming femme fatale in this as well, playing the role of Margie, the casino owner Vincent Halloran's girl friend. Pretty blonde with heart set on the wrong guy, and doesn’t hesitate to do anything to get him. Her role is short even in this compared to normal femme fatale. 

William Bendix as Lawrence Trumble, the traveling salesman, is sweet, affable and happy go lucky type of character in the film. Felt sad at the way his character ended, almost got me in tears. I have heard him in may old time radio podcast episodes that I have been listening to lately. 

The film was based on a story by Robert Creighton Williams for which screenplay was written by Stanley Rubin, Bernard C. Schoenfeld and uncredited contribution by Robert Mitchum. There were constant arguments and tension among the crew at the time of the making of the film. The hate, anger, angst and frustration clearly seeped into everyone's acting capability in the film. 

This was the first film for director Josef von Sternberg in almost 11 years. His previous film was the 1941 The Shanghai Gesture. Yet he was the hardest person to work for what with his constant condescending behavior towards the cast and crew.

The opening credits roll on a seascape with several boats in the distant. Truman Bradley, TV actor and host, narrated the film's opening.

The opening scene in the film has Itzumi (portrayed by Philip Ahn) and his hood (uncredited performance by Spencer Chan) chase an undercover agent in the night. Just as the agent is about to get away, Itzumi throw a knife in his back killing the agent as he falls into the river. This scene was closely replicated in the opening of the 1983 British spy film Octopussy, the thirteenth film in the James Bond Series. I have to watch the film again to see the scene.

There are two musical numbers in the film both sung by Jane Russell - One for My Baby, a ballad originally written by Harold Arlen and music by Johnny Mercer for the 1943 hit musical The Sky's the Limit. Second one is You Kill Me originally written by Jule Styne and Leo Robin.

I am always charmed at the varied costumes that the female counterparts in the film noir wear. Even in the black and white film you can imagine the color and shades so vividly. I would say it’s the artistry of a costume designer to make the viewers feel so. In this film Michael Woulfe did nothing less with his gowns and dresses for both Russells' Julie Benton and Grahame's Margie. Here are a few stills from the film.

Also note the accessories, they are simply marvelous. Be it this sparkly choker on Benton's neck or the jeweled artistry along the arms of Margie's shrug or the beautiful hanging earrings on Benton; they are enchanting and beautiful. 

The film was a box-office failure when it was released. But over the years this film has come to garner recognition, specially the casting of Jane Russell for Julie Benton role and Robert Mitchum for Nick Cochran; and the magic they created on the screen with their electrifying chemistry and comic banter.

An underrated film noir gem that somehow was ignored and forgotten in many years before someone realized it's significant film making, casting, cinematography, story plot and direction; and above all exotic location of film shooting. 

A must watch film noir centering on intrigue and treachery bound by threads of humor and love, thoroughly entertaining the viewers from start to finish and keeping the viewers on edge wondering what will snap next.

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. Here is the theatrical poster for the film that Eddie Muller on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) showed it prior to the airing of the film. 

b. TCM's Eddie Muller hosted this film as part of Noir Alley on Oct 25 2020 from Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, CA. His question to viewers was - Did Macao release in Grand Lake Theater in 1952 or any other time? I couldn’t find anything related to it online at least. May be in person if I can go might find more.

c. Note the instrument on the ship which has the range split into three parts - Unhealthy for Plants, Healthy for Humans; Normal for Plants and Humans; Healthy for Plants, Unhealthy for Humans. Interesting. What is that instrument called? Couldn’t figure the name. And also why that very curious range names.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. When the undercover agent is falling into the water after Itzumi throws a knife at him, you can see the knife clearly sticking out of his back. In a later scene when the goons throw his body back into the water after checking if he was really dead or not, the knife is no longer there.

b. When Nick splashes water over the unconscious guy who was trying to rape Julie, that guy flinches a second before the water actually hits his face.

c. Gimpy was never introduced to Julie as a piano player, just that he should make sure she gets the right costume for the singing at the casino. Yet a moment later when she meets Nick at the casino, she introduces Gimpy as her piano player. 


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