Macao (1952)

Toronto Film Society presented Macao (1952) on Sunday, November 12, 2017 in a double bill with Dangerous Crossing as part of the Season 70 Sunday Afternoon Film Buff Series, Programme 3.

Production Company: RKO Pictures.  Producers: Howard Hughes, Samuel Bischoff, and Alex Gottlieb.  Directors: Josef von Sternberg and Nicholas Ray.  Screenplay: Stanley Rubin, Bernard C. Schoenfeld, and Robert Mitchum, based on a story by Robert Creighton Williams (as Bob Williams).  Cinematography: Harry J. Wild.  Music Directors: Anthony Collins and Jule Styne.  Editors: Samule E. Beetley and Robert Golden.  Release Date: April 11, 1952.

Cast: Robert Mitchum (Nick Cochran), Jane Russell (Julie Benson), William Bendix (Lawrence C. Trumble), Thomas Gomez (Police Lt. Sebastian), Gloria Grahame (Margie), Brad Dexter (Vincent Halloran), Edward Ashley (Martin Stewart), Philip Ahn (Itzumi), Vladimir Sokoloff (Kwan Sum Tang).

Jane Russell, Gloria Grahame and Robert Mitchum were less than enamored with Josef von Sternberg.  Russell and Mitchum had barely finished wrapping up His Kind of Woman when they started shooting Macao.  Mitchum told Jane that if it wasn’t for her, he wouldn’t have taken the role, saying the script wasn’t good and von Sternberg was “dated” as a director.  The crew did not find von Sternberg pleasant or likable and von Sternberg did not care for the happy family atmosphere on the set.  Both Russell and Mitchum recollect that von Sternberg would pull Mitchum aside and say, “Now we have to bolster this beautiful girl with no talent,” or “We both know this film is a piece of crap and we’re saddled with Jane Russell.  You and I know she has as much talent as this cigarette case.”  Mitchum, who was friends with Jane, would support and defend her by saying, “Mr. von Sternberg, Miss Russell survives, so she must have something more than a big bosom.”  (Well, they both used words to this effect, if in slightly cruder terms.)

Von Sternberg insisted there would be no eating on the set, so defiantly Mitchum would bring a picnic basket and spread it out.  At four o’clock someone else would appear with a pitcher of lemonade and vodka, making it all rather unpleasant for the director.  The atmosphere only got worse with von Sternberg’s belongings tampered with, going so far as to smear a reeking Limburger cheese through the engine block of his car.

Gloria Grahame thought that Howard Hughes, the producer of the film, was deliberately sabotaging her career.  He would not even look at her brilliant work opposite Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place, directed by her then-husband Nicholas Ray, and refused to loan her to Paramount to co-star in A Place in the Sun in the part that would bring Shelley Winters an Oscar nomination.  Instead of that, she was doing Macao and a part requiring only that she look sexy and blow on dice.

All von Sternberg had to say about the making of Macao in his autobiography was that after making Jet Pilot “I made one more film in accordance with the 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.  Their names do not appear in the list of credits.”

Since Jet Pilot was made in 1957, while Macao was made in 1952, this leads me to believe, although unlikely, that the film was either released after being held up for five years or, more probably, that von Sternberg was a wee confused.

Nicolas Ray was finally put on the picture and along with Mitchum wrote new scenes for the beginning of the film and added a new ending.  Now in the midst of a divorce from her husband, Gloria Grahame, when she heard he was reshooting and reediting the film, cracked, “If you can cut me out of the picture entirely, I won’t ask for any alimony.”  In fact, she would have to appear in some of the new scenes, these directed by yet another overseer—Mel Ferrer.

With all the above shenanigans going on, it’s quite a wonder that in the end, this film is never dull, and actually quite delightful!  So enjoy.

Sources: Fun in a Chinese Laundry by Josef von Sternberg (1965), An Autobiography, My Paths and Detours by Jane Russell (1985) and Robert Mitchum, “Baby, I Don’t Care” by Lee Server (2001)

Introduction by Caren Feldman

Production:

Producer Howard Hughes fired director Josef von Sternberg during filming and hired Nicholas Ray to finish the film, though Robert Mitchum contributed some scenes. Filming was completed in 1950, but the film was not released until 1952. Only stock footage (i.e., none of the action) was shot in Hong Kong and Macao. The film’s opening was narrated by TV actor and host Truman Bradley.

Plot:

The film is set in the oriental port of Macao, where three strangers arrive on the same ship. Nick Cochran (Mitchum) is a cynical, but honest, ex-serviceman who is fleeing the law for a crime he did not commit. Julie Benson (Russell) is a cynical, sultry nightclub singer, and Lawrence Trumble (Bendix) is a travelling salesman who deals in both silk stockings and contraband. All three become involved in a complex plot of betrayal and mistaken identity.

Critical Response:

Bosley Crowther, the grumpy chief critic of The New York Times, disliked the film intensely, lambasting it for its plot: “A flimflam designed but for one purpose and that is to mesh the two stars…[and exploit] Miss Russell’s famed physique.” Crowther also commented: “The story itself is pedestrian–a routine and standardized account of a guy getting caught in the middle of a cops-and-robbers thing. And except for some well-placed direction by Josef von Sternberg in a couple of scenes, especially in a ‘chase’ among nets and rowboats, the job is conventional in style.”

A more recent critic, Dennis Schwartz, disagreed, praising the casting of Mitchum and Russell in “a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, scripted RKO adventure story in which the pair create movie magic together through their brilliant, nuanced performances…. She’s the good-bad girl, while he’s the hard-luck innocent who can’t even win when playing with loaded dice. They’re both film noir characters, [so] if you’re looking for an underrated film noir gem–that somehow got swept under the rug–this is it.”

Josef von Sternberg (1894-1969):

Born in Vienna, he emigrated with his family to join his father in New York when he was seven, but was sent back to Austria for a few years, returning in 1908, when he changed his original first name, Jonas, to Josef. He found employment with the World Film Company in Fort Lee, New Jersey, rising steadily through the ranks to the status of assistant director. He enlisted in the army during World War I and made training films. After the war, he travelled widely in Europe before settling in Hollywood and adding the “von” to his name. After working as an assistant director, he made his own first film as director, The Salvation Hunters (1925), in a semi-documentary style that impressed Douglas Fairbanks, who persuaded United Artists to distribute it. He was then offered a contract by Metro, but objected to their interference with his work and was released from his contract. Meanwhile, Charlie Chaplin, who had also admired The Salvation Hunters, financed his next film, A Woman of the Sea, but disliked it and never released it. He then signed with Paramount, where he made one of the earliest gangster films, Underworld, starring George Bancroft, which was very successful and a huge influence on subsequent works in this genre. Other well-received silents included The Docks of New York and The Last Command (both 1928).

In 1930, von Sternberg was invited by producer Erich Pommer to make a film in Berlin at the UFA studios. The result was The Blue Angel, filmed in both German and English, “a raw portrait of sexual degradation in which a distinguished professor (Emil Jannings) is brought low by his obsession with the sultry nightclub singer Lola Lola, played by Marlene Dietrich in her breakthrough [though not her first] role.” Dietrich was then signed by Paramount and moved to the United States, where she collaborated with von Sternberg in Morocco (1930), a huge commercial success. That was followed over the next few years by Shanghai Express, Blonde Venus, The Scarlet Empress, and The Devil is a Woman, among others, in which Dietrich continued in the role of unscrupulous femme fatale in films that are “among the most visionary ever made in Hollywood,” though audiences began to find them lacking in dramatic interest and Paramount insisted on separating the duo in 1935. Dietrich went on to a successful independent career, while von Sternberg, though making Crime and Punishment and The Shanghai Gesture, along with this afternoon’s Macao and several uncompleted projects, found his career going into terminal decline, though the reputation of his work with Dietrich remains high.

Robert Mitchum (1917-1997):

Rightly described as “an underrated actor of enormous ability who sublimates his talents beneath an air of disinterest,” Mitchum was one of the finest of all American film actors. His achievements were, perhaps unfairly, overshadowed by his death occurring one day before that of the better-known and more highly popular James Stewart, relegating Mitchum to a secondary role in the eyes of the media. Despite a deceptively laid-back and casual attitude to his work, he was totally professional, hardworking, and committed to his acting, and appeared in several of the best and most challenging films of the 1940s and 1950s, specialising in films-noir, thrillers, and westerns, but in most other genres, as well.

He was born in Connecticut to a mother who was the daughter of a Norwegian immigrant and sea captain and a father who was a shipyard and railroad worker, who died in an accident when his son was two years old. He had a rough and ready childhood, shuttled around between relatives, and was often in trouble with authorities. He was expelled from high school at the age of 14, and travelled the country during the Depression years on railroad cars as one of “the wild boys of the road,” taking whatever odd jobs he could find. At one point, he was arrested for vagrancy in Georgia and put on a chain gang, from which he claimed to have escaped, and after which he returned to his family. In 1936, his sister Julie introduced him to a theatrical career and he worked as a stagehand and occasional bit player for some years. He married and had a child, and worked for a time for the Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, but, bored with a conventional existence, turned to the movies and appeared in several Hopalong Cassidy B-movies in 1942 and 1943, among other films. After attracting attention for his role in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, in 1944, he signed a contract with RKO and made several westerns for the company.

Next, he appeared in The Story of G.I. Joe for United Artists, for which he received the only Oscar nomination of his career, after which he was drafted into the military until the end of the war. The late 1940s and the 1950s brought some of his finest work in film-noir and westerns; sometimes, as with Blood on the Moon, a mixture of the two, where “his unique blend of strength, slow-burning sexuality, and devil-may-care attitude helped to make him the personification of the noir hero.” Undercurrent; The Locket; Pursued; and, especially, Out of the Past remain classics of the genre, thanks largely to his performances in them. An unwelcome interlude in this period brought him arrest for possession of marijuana in 1948, followed by some time in jail and a prison farm. The conviction was later overturned, after it was exposed as a set-up, and it did not seriously affect his career. He continued his primary role as an anti-hero in the many films he made in the 1950s, several of which stand out: The Lusty Men; Angel Face; River of No Return; Track of the Cat; Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison; and, above all, Charles Laughton’s directorial masterpiece, Night of the Hunter, which gave him one of his finest roles as a crazed and murderous fake preacher.

The 1960s and 1970s were more uneven, though again a few films remain memorable: The Sundowners (for which he received the National Board of Review award for Best Actor); Home From the Hill; Cape Fear; The Longest Day; El Dorado; Ryan’s Daughter; The Friends of Eddie Coyle; The Last Tycoon; and two remakes of novels by Raymond Chandler, in which he played a near-perfect Philip Marlowe: the excellent Farewell, My Lovely and the terrible The Big Sleep. He also had a small role in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear. In addition, he worked extensively in television during his final two decades.

Gloria Grahame (1923-1981):

Born Gloria Hallward, her professional acting career began while she was still in high school and was signed by Louis B. Mayer to an MGM contract under the name of Gloria Grahame, in 1944. Her first real screen success came as the flirtatious Violet Bick in It’s a Wonderful Life, in 1946. She moved to RKO in 1947 and gave one of her best performances in Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place with Humphrey Bogart, and had prominent roles in Fritz Lang’s Human Desire and The Big Heat, but began to get a reputation for being difficult to work with on Oklahoma! in 1955, after which her career began to go into decline. She married director Nicholas Ray in 1948, but they were divorced after he found her in bed with his 13-year-old son, Tony (whom she married some years later, in 1960). She later worked almost exclusively on stage and in TV, and died of stomach cancer at the age of 57.  

Jane Russell (1921-2011):

One of Hollywood’s leading sex symbols in the 1940s and 1950s, she had her first film role in The Outlaw (1943), directed by millionaire businessman and film producer Howard Hughes with assistance from Howard Hawks. The main attraction for reportedly scandalised audiences was the obsession with the actress’s cleavage, which remained her predominant feature for most of her career [see critic Bosley Crowther, quoted above]. Her most successful roles were in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), directed by Hawks, and Nicholas Ray’s Hot Blood (1956). She also had a moderately successful musical career on Broadway, and was a strong Republican and Christian fundamentalist who described herself, after treatment for alcoholism in her 70s, as “a teetotal, mean-spirited, right-wing, narrow-minded, conservative Christian bigot, but not a racist.”

William Bendix (1906-1964):

Born in Manhattan, he turned to work in the theatre after his grocery business failed in the Great Depression, and made his first appearance on Broadway in 1939. He was never a major star in movies, appearing almost always in supporting roles, usually as a tough guy, but sometimes in comedies, and in radio and TV shows. His best film performance was in Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) as a shipwrecked survivor whose gangrened limb has to be removed without anaesthetic.

Notes by Graham Petrie

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