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An apolitical Casablanca (1942) set in the China Seas, Macao (1952) offered a reteaming of the sizzling duo of Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell, who shared a sense of lazy sexuality uncommon on the hormone-fueled Hollywood screen.
Mitchum stars as Nick Cochran, a WWII vet traveling to the Far East to escape prosecution for a crime he didn't commit, while Russell is Julie Benson, a cynical lounge singer. She lifts his wallet on a steamer to Macao, and a romantic bond inevitably forms. Also on the voyage is a wisecracking salesman (William Bendix), who is traveling with a secret agenda of his own. They are all drawn into the gambling den of Vincent Halloran (Brad Dexter) who is the kingpin of a diamond theft/smuggling operation. When Halloran begins making passes at Julie, his newest lounge singer, it causes friction with his current flame, Margie (Gloria Grahame), who levels her gaze at Nick. A series of romantic and criminal cat-and-mouse games ensue, reaching a climax in the lawless international waters off the coast of Hong Kong.
Macao was shot almost exclusively on the RKO backlots, with a hefty supply of stock footage and rear projection to give the film the proper tone of exotica. Cameraman Dick Davol was sent to the actual locations to secure such footage, and found himself caught up in as much intrigue as the film's fictional characters. Davol was confronted with a host of petty and major officials who expected monetary compensation for permission to film. His distressed cable to the studio (warning them of the surge in expense) listed bribes paid to customs officials, immigration officials, police of various nations and even the pilots of the picturesque sampans and junks in the crowded waterways.
The degree to which Howard Hughes oversaw the costuming of his female stars is legend, and Macao was the occasion for one of his most notorious memos, in which he discussed every aspect of Russell's cleavage in excruciating detail. "It would be extremely valuable if the dress incorporated some kind of a point at the nipple because I know this does not ever occur naturally in the case of Jane Russell. Her breasts always appear to be round, or flat, at that point so something artificial here would be extremely desirable if it could be incorporated without destroying the contour of the rest of her breasts." In several scenes, Russell wears dresses that are low-cut, with a square-neck and halter straps, a look that Hughes found particularly suitable to her figure.
In choosing a director, RKO Studio Head Howard Hughes wanted someone with a gift for romance, glamour and foreign intrigue. He chose Josef von Sternberg, who had recently signed on at the studio following a decade-long exile from the film industry. Writer Herman G. Weinberg asked Sternberg in 1948 why he had stopped making films; the director replied, "My films were protests against other films of the time...Frequently they were attempts to investigate techniques which might broaden their appeal." A gifted stylist, but perhaps not the cinematic innovator he imagined himself to be, Sternberg demanded loyalty among his cast and crew, and ran his productions with the authority of a von Stroheim.
Sternberg may have been a great artist, but a Mitchum/Russell potboiler was really no place for an artistic temperament. Mitchum quickly shot holes in Sternberg's demanding, Teutonic demeanor. "Where did you get that [German] accent, Joe?" Mitchum needled the director, "You're from Weehawken, New Jersey." The man who discovered Marlene Dietrich and directed the legendary German film The Blue Angel (1930), was in fact Viennese by birth but had spent much of his life in New York, before getting his start in the silent film community of Fort Lee, New Jersey. Surely no amount of correction would have caused Mitchum to relent, for teasing, pranks and lazy stubbornness were the actor's tools for dealing with highly attitudinal directors.
According to Lee Server's 2001 bio, Robert Mitchum: Baby I Don't Care, the director placed his script upon a lectern and forbade anyone to touch it. To spite Sternberg, "Mitchum began having his lunch there, leaving half-eaten pickles and greasy wax paper all over the director's pages."
Russell remembered, Sternberg "wouldn't talk to any of the crew...according to Sternberg, we were not supposed to eat or drink on the set." Mitchum responded by doling out coffee, soft drinks and sack lunches to anyone bold enough to take them.
. Mitchum was comfortable in his knowledge that he was the more important commodity in the project. "If anyone gets fired," he reportedly told Sternberg, "it'll be you."
Macao was one of those products of the studio factory in which no single person was a guiding creative force. Hughes knew what he wanted but expected the work to be performed by his team of engineers. The script was written by no less than seven screenwriters -- eight if one counts Mitchum, who did some impromptu rewrites in the final days of the shoot, when the rest of the studio personnel had run out of ideas.
In his autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, Sternberg recalls "It was made under the supervision of six different men in charge... and instead of fingers in that pie, half a dozen clowns immersed various parts of their anatomy into it. Their names do not appear in the list of credits." One person he is alluding to (and was most scornful of) is director Nicholas Ray. After mixed responses at test screenings, Hughes hired Ray (In a Lonely Place ) to direct retakes and additional scenes. Ray was married to co-star Grahame, who was so dissatisfied with her role in Macao that she sent a telegram to Hughes, "You were misinformed that I liked a part designated for me in a picture called Macao...As described by one of your representatives, the part itself varied in interpretation from Eurasian to White Russian to 'Marge' in a mere fifteen minutes of laborious discussion. In the meantime, all I asked for was a release [from my contract] or a good part." She received neither. Ray was supervising the editing of the new footage while his divorce from Grahame was being processed. She told him, "If you can cut me out of the picture entirely, you won't have to pay me alimony."
Macao would prove to be the straw that broke Sternberg's back. After leaving the project, he retired from Hollywood (for the second time) and independently made a film in Japan (Anatahan ). He never made another film in the U.S.
In spite of the conflicts and challenges of its production, Macao is a stylish and deliciously tawdry melodrama that is certainly more enjoyable to watch than it was (by all accounts) to film.
Director: Josef von Sternberg
Producer: Alex Gottlieb
Screenplay: Bernard C. Schoenfeld and Stanley Rubin, based on a story by Bob Williams
Cinematography: Harry J. Wild
Production Design: Albert S. D'Agostino and Ralph Berger
Music: Anthony Collins
Cast: Robert Mitchum (Nick Cochran), Jane Russell (Julie Benson), William Bendix (Lawrence Trumble), Gloria Grahame (Margie), Thomas Gomez (Lt. Sebastian), Brad Dexter (Vincent Halloran).
BW-81m. Closed captioning.
by Bret Wood