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Macao

Macao(1952)

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Macao A man on the run in the Far... MORE > $59.98 Regularly $59.98 Buy Now

Home Video Reviews

With a title like Macao (1952) and a directing credit for Josef von Sternberg, one might be forgiven for anticipating a film like the exotic Sternberg productions of old, such as Shanghai Express (1935). But the more important credit on Macao is that of the producer: Howard Hughes. This is a Hughes production all the way, which means less coherence and more over-the-top sensationalism. Sternberg, in fact, didn't even complete work on the picture.

Macao, now available on DVD, stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, who had just appeared together in another Hughes production, His Kind of Woman (1951). Macao is not as good a movie, but it's still somewhat mysterious and provides another enjoyable pairing of the two stars, who do make a great team. As commentator Eddie Muller says on his audio track, Russell is "the female equivalent of Mitchum" with her wisecracks and "tough-dame" demeanor.

Things start off on a tasty note with Mitchum happening by the ship cabin where Russell is being manhandled by a lecherous oaf. Mitchum rescues her and knocks the guy out, only to be pickpocketed by Russell. From then on, they and another passenger, William Bendix, become caught up in a plot involving stolen diamonds and mistaken identities in the East Asian port of Macao, whose underworld is run by gambling house owner Brad Dexter. Gloria Grahame is on hand as Dexter's girlfriend, and she is positively stunning; unfortunately she isn't given much to do.

Josef von Sternberg was working infrequently at this point in his career but still imposed his usual dictatorial rules on his cast and crew, such as positively no eating or drinking on set. Mitchum finally brought in a picnic basket one day and handed out food to everyone. "Do you want to get fired?" Sternberg threatened. "No," said Mitchum, "you'll get fired."

Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward, in their book Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference, say that Nicholas Ray was hired to re-shoot almost the entire movie, while Andrew Sarris, in his book The Films of Josef von Sternberg, writes that Ray merely took over "in the last stages of production," shooting scenes like the climactic fistfight between Mitchum and Dexter. ("This sort of thing was never Sternberg's cup of tea," Sarris notes.) For his part, Sternberg later wrote that the picture "was made under the supervision of six different men in charge... Instead of fingers in that pie, half a dozen clowns immersed various parts of their anatomy in it. Their names do not appear in the list of credits."

In any event, Sternberg was indeed replaced at some point by Ray, and all that remains of Sternberg's presence are glimmers of his old trademark visual style. One can see it in the scenes at the docks, with shots made through netting or veils; in a few shots on the street crammed with extras in a Far East setting; and in shots of a gambling house with baskets dropped down from above to pick up money, a la The Shanghai Gesture (1929). But these are mere sporadic moments, and Macao really is not a major Sternberg film in any way, shape or form.

On the DVD's very worthwhile commentary track, film noir authority Eddie Muller discusses the movie with its writer, Stanley Rubin; occasional and welcome comments by Jane Russell are edited in. The commentary is not scene-specific, with the men instead going over the movie in general and touching on a host of tangential subjects such as Howard Hughes, stories about the stars (that lucky devil Rubin briefly dated Gloria Grahame), and Rubin's career.

Rubin was attached to produce Macao as his first such effort, but when Mitchum and Russell came on board, the studio decided it was too big a picture for an inexperienced producer. Ultimately Rubin agreed to produce The Narrow Margin (1952), a B film, instead -- a good transaction, for The Narrow Margin is one of the finest noirs ever made, a movie that moves like lightning from beginning to end. It also singlehandedly got Rubin a new contract at Fox when Darryl Zanuck saw it and was impressed. That was fortuitous for at around this same time, Rubin had a creative falling-out with Howard Hughes over another picture, The Whip Hand. (Rubin ended up taking his name off that film altogether.) Rubin is eminently clear and lucid while relating all these tales, and Muller also knows his stuff. Strangely, however, there is no discussion of Sternberg being replaced by Nicholas Ray until Jane Russell refers to it in her closing comment.

Also included on the DVD are a trailer and an episode of TCM's "Private Screenings," with Mitchum and Russell interviewed by Robert Osbourne. Mitchum recalls how he rewrote a few scenes for Macao after Nick Ray took over the directing reigns. Mitchum and Russell remained great friends right up to Mitchum's death.

Macao is available individually or as part of Warner Home Video's Robert Mitchum: The Signature Collection, which also includes Home From the Hill (1960), The Sundowners (1960), The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969), The Yakuza (1975), and the masterful film noir Angel Face (1952), a true must-see directed by Otto Preminger. A number of commentaries and featurettes abound. Technical quality and artwork are tops.

For more information about Macao, visit Warner Video. To order Macao, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold