Thursday, April 19, 2007

Macao (1952)

It's a shame the Siren didn't see Macao when she was about 16 years old. It has every ingredient her teenage self ever looked for in an old movie. Gorgeous leads, fabulous dresses, exotic locale, some musical numbers, a nice romance. I probably wouldn't have cared as much as about things that bother me now, like a so-what villain, a plot that telegraphs its every twist and a visual style that just doesn't know what it wants to be.

This is often classified as noir on DVD and rental sites, which must cause the occasional truth-in-packaging dispute. It is many things, but thematically it ain't really noir, more straight-up adventure story. There are no tormented loners or soul-sucking character flaws, no depredations of pitiless fate. Institutional corruption is played for laughs. Director Josef von Sternberg's The Shanghai Gesture is more noir than Macao. Then again, The Shanghai Gesture is more Sternberg than Macao. Like Come and Get It, this is a movie that was taken away from one celebrated director and finished by another, Nicholas Ray. Unlike the logging epic, with this one you don't get a clear stylistic delineation. There are Sternberg moments, and Not Sternberg moments. Little or nothing suggests Ray's innovative framing, his characters' intense sexuality or his interest in the psychology of violence. The younger director appears to have phoned in Macao from a very, very long-distance connection.

Macao's plot and setting had a lot for Sternberg to relate to, little to interest Ray. A hard-bitten beauty with a taste for high rolling and low company (Jane Russell) escapes to an exotic locale, battling and then teaming with a stranger escaping his past (Robert Mitchum). There they meet a traveling stocking salesman who dabbles in smuggling (William Bendix, in the movie's most enjoyable performance). Then they run afoul of a mysterious crime kingpin (Brad Dexter, not nearly mysterious or menacing enough, which really hurts the movie). The beauty goes to work in the kingpin's cabaret. Occasionally we encounter the kingpin's moll, Gloria Grahame--given nothing, and I do mean NOTHING, to do aside from wearing a spectacular bolero jacket, the sleeves of which terminate in a glittering pair of gloves. Otherwise Grahame mostly glares from doorways. Songs are sung, wisecracks are traded, wallets are lifted, a negligee is tossed over a dressing-room screen. (That last is one of the Siren's favorite old-movie cliches. It's even better if the heroine gets to pop her head and bare shoulders over the top, or if she sends a filmy something sailing over the top to hit the hero in the head.) Anyway, I ask you, does this sound noir? Macao has some crime, some moody lighting and some night shots. Otherwise it is a heck of a lot closer to something like Morocco.

The story of the filming is more dramatic than Macao itself, but that doesn't mean the movie is without interest. Any fan of The Shanghai Gesture (Siren pal Girish is one) should see Macao to compare its casino, full of railed landings going further and further up, with Mother Gin Sling's Dante-like gambling hell, a series of circles leading inexorably down. Again and again in Macao we see light coming through Venetian blinds, casting vertical bands on the characters. In noir this effect is usually suggestive of prison, either literal or figurative. In Macao the light-through-blinds seems more like a cobweb--beautiful, hemming in the characters, but nothing a determined adult can't break through. The most striking sequence, one that truly screams Sternberg, is a dockside chase that closes the movie. In the opening sequence (maybe Ray, maybe not) the actors race over floating docks, bobbing and weaving on the unstable piers. The end has the characters running around the same docks, but now the sets are strung with close-knit fishing nets. Sternberg's camera glides around this new obstacle, no more trapped by it than the characters are.

This was made at RKO and Howard Hughes' fingerprints are all over Russell's wolf-whistle costumes. One gold lamé dress was the subject of a memo from Hughes so schoolboyishly detailed the Siren is embarrassed to quote it. Russell's breasts somehow stay in frame no matter what else is going on. Still, Sternberg's most famous collaboration had been with Marlene Dietrich, and together they paid obsessive attention to her lighting and costumes. Russell was nowhere near the screen presence of a Dietrich--her chief asset was likability, her persona a Buddy with Boobs--but having the camera dawdle over a gorgeous woman was second nature to Sternberg.

What a pity, then, that according to film historians Russell disliked Sternberg, and Mitchum positively hated him. Sternberg's precision, his fastidious and haughty demeanor struck them as ridiculous. His career was in fadeout, his celebrated movies more than a decade in the past, and the rising young stars saw no reason to take orders from the ceremonious old has-been. Together with Bendix they made Sternberg's set a torment to him. The Bad and the Beautiful, a book on Hollywood in the 1950s, tells of the trio toppling von Sternberg's tent when he was changing clothes and rubbing Limburger cheese on his car engine. In his Mitchum biography, Lee Server describes how Mitchum mocked Sternberg's speaking manner: "Where did you get that accent, Joe? You're from Weehawken, N.J." (Sternberg grew up in Vienna and New York.)



Jane Russell remembered, 'According to Sternberg, we were not supposed to eat or drink on the set. No grip was allowed to have a Coke in the corner. Nobody.' Mitchum began bringing in bags of food and coffeee, and handing them out to one and all. Sternberg was enraged, told MItchum he was going to be fired. Mitchum said, 'If anyone gets fired, it'll be you' ... Mitchum began having his lunch [at Sternberg's lecturn], leaving half-eaten pickles and greasy wax paper all over the director's pages.


Server says Sternberg chose the wrong way to develop a rapport with Mitchum, trying to make chitchat by remarking that the warmed-over script was a "piece of shit" and comparing Russell's talent to that of his cigarette case. Mitchum responded tartly, "She must have something. Lots of ladies have big tits." Actually, at the time what Russell had was Hughes and his breast monomania, but Mitchum's on-and-off sense of gallantry had been offended.

Throughout his book Server makes his relish of Mitchum's bad-boy attitude very clear, but the Siren is resolutely uncharmed. Sternberg was obviously a difficult person, but he was also a great talent, and when the Siren reads about the stars' juvenile behavior she wants to go back in time and ground them. Mitchum never did have enough respect for himself or his profession, which is why for every great performance (and he was often superb) there is another where he's a shambling bore, drifting by on his looks and sexual magnetism. The actor has developed a cult in recent years, but the Siren subscribes only to the acting part of the fan club (well, okay, the eye-candy part too). "It was just a crummy melodrama," Mitchum carped in later years. Well, the atmosphere on the set undoubtedly helped ensure that.

The film tested poorly in previews, Sternberg either pushed off or was pushed, and Hughes, the perpetual tinkerer, brought Nicholas Ray on board for retakes. Server estimates that about one-third of the finished movie was directed by Ray. At the time Ray was married to Grahame, but the couple was divorcing. Grahame, thoroughly sick of her insipid part, told Ray she'd forego alimony if he would cut her out of the movie. Scenes went in, scenes went out, Mel Ferrer (!) directed a few more scenes, Mitchum started to complain that "his character would come through a door and run into himself on the other side." (Server) The script, already worked on by George Bricker, Edward Chodorov, Norman Katkov, Frank L. Moss, Walter Newman, Stanley Rubin, Bernard C. Schoenfeld and Bob Williams, got additional dialogue from Mitchum. No wonder the movie feels aimless, even though the action stays in Macao.

19 comments:

OutOfContext said...

I agree with you on much of what you said about Macao, but there is one thing I've always liked about it: I find the movie relaxing. I think it has to do with the extremely low key soundtrack, especially the almost muted dialogue. Always a nice movie for a late afternoon nap. Visually, it is typically overlit like much of it's non-noir fifties contemporaries and has nothing to do with the rest of Sternberg's work.
Sternberg's early 30's movies have a real luminescence about them that I love. There is a scene early in Morocco where the men in white robes are seen filing down a long covered street and kneeling down to pray that is one of my favorite scenes in all cinema. The shadows crossing the oversaturated white clothing and the peace of the sound and movement are as beautiful as anything I've seen.

Campaspe said...

Thanks for stopping by! Morocco is gorgeous, I agree. I do see some of the old Sternberg in Macao (like the way the camera moves, and definitely in the way he photographs the casino at first) but then you get something so banal you knew Sternberg would never have done it. Like a couple of scenes of Russell hailing a rickshaw outside her hotel; so prosaic, the whole thing overlit as you say which makes the set look totally set-like. Makes you realize how in other Sternberg movies, nothing ever looked dull or boring. Every moment is played to the visual hilt.

Rebel Without a Cause said...

Great review of this fascinating though not very good film. Ray did shoot the opening scene, but Ray claimed that he consciously tried to shoot that scene and others in the style of Sternberg. Ray was also a bit distracted during the shooting as he and Grahame were embarking on a particular nasty divorce after Ray caught her in bed with his 13-year-old son from another marriage, Tony, which we describe in a bit more detail in our book Live Fast, Die Young: The Wild Ride of Making Rebel Without a Cause. Ray's problems with his son sparked his interest in troubled middle-class teens, which would lead him to direct Rebel Without a Cause four years later. Grahame and Tony Ray married ten years later.

vival said...

My almost favorite line of dialogue ever uttered in ANY film is in the scene when Mitchum and Russell take a ride in a sampan(?). He says, "I've been lonely in Times Square on New Year's Eve."

Campaspe said...

Rebel - thanks very much for commenting. I had NO idea Grahame's liason with Tony Ray started so early. I'm ... pretty much speechless. I will have to read your book. I'm pleased that I guessed right about the opening. It is pretty obvious that Ray was not putting his own vision into the movie, but between the umpteen screenwriters and all the retakes it is hard to say what Macao is a vision of.

Vival: yes, that was a good line. Nobody did world-weary quite like Mitchum.

Rebel Without a Cause said...

Write to me at alwnyc@gmail.com and I'll send you a free copy of the book.

Peter said...

I'm currently reading Victoria Price's biogaphy about dad Vincent. According to her, Mitchum, Russell and Price were all under direct contract to Howard Hughes in the early Fifties. The version of His Kind of Woman that was released was primarily a refilming by Richard Fleischer, although original director John Farrow got the credit. It's another example of Hughes and RKO. It's almost like for Hughes, a completed film by one director was a first draft which a second, or third or fourth director was to improve upon.

Campaspe said...

Rebel, you are too kind. I am intrigued and will definitely drop you a line.

Peter, that sounds like excellent reading too. Price was such a character, with a wonderful dry wit. He was a notorious ham, but damn if he wasn't incredibly watchable in a lot of films, good and bad. And His Kind of Woman is definitely a good one, one of his best performances. That film survived Hughes's meddling a lot better than Macao. Hughes was someone who proves the talent of other studio heads by counterexample. The others meddled to far better effect, and knew when to step away.

The Shamus said...

Great post, Siren. I've never seen this one or The Shanghai Gesture, and I've been very remiss. I love Von Sternberg, even visited his grave once. A small little tombstone as I recall, with no key lighting or anything. Ah, well, Norma Desmond was right.

Campaspe said...

Oh, you must see The Shanghai Gesture. I am always irked when I read critics denigrating it--Pauline Kael called it "hilariously, awfully terrible." I strongly disagree. It's so mesmerizing and decadent, like Von Sternberg was cramming every erotic impulse he ever had into one movie. The melodrama is played at a pitch so far over the top you rub your eyes in disbelief, but it is somehow very, very beautiful.

Emma said...

Great post. I haven't seen this movie, but I'm certainly interested after reading this.

Campaspe said...

Emma, thanks very much! I need to pay a call at your place. I have been remiss in my blog reading but am currently catching up.

The Derelict said...

Another line with a great delivery in this one is the part where Gloria Grahame's character is looking at some diamonds and Brad Dexter is all like, "Diamonds would only cheapen you," and Grahame goes, "Yeah, but what a way to be cheap." I just love the way she says it.

Campaspe said...

Yes! her delivery is perfect, because she has a just a little bit of sourness about it ... like, "I'm not the one being cheap here, buddy."

Daniel said...

This movie is a fascinating mess, but I have to admit as a big Grahame fan that the biggest disappointment wasn't how little of Sternberg there remains in the film (though that pains me greatly) but rather that it seems Sternberg never turned on his charms for photographing and directing women when Grahame is on the screen. As you say, she has *nothing* to do.

This is what I wrote in my notes for a Sternberg retro in regards to the film: the film does indeed re-create somewhat the feel of those insular studio films of Sternberg's of the 1930s (this is tagged film noir but really it is like Sternberg showing how proto-noir his 30s films were) rather than the street and location driven noirs of the 40s/50s. The main disappointment is that Sternberg really doesn't do anything with the gorgeous Gloria Grahame, she doesn't even get a single Sternbergian close-up! Her finest moment in the entire film though is a fabulous Sternbergian gesture the director affords her: Grahame flipping her cigarette to signal her betrayal, the last action we see her do in the film.

Joseph said...

Nicholas Ray was teaching at SUNY Binghamton when I was there in the early 1970s. The student film society had recently screened "The Scarlet Empress," and one of the other professors (Ken Jacobs?) asked Nick if he had any memories of von Sternberg from his Hollywood days. Ray's response was this: When Howard Hughes asked him to salvage "Macao," his first act was to screen the unfinished movie for the cast ... at which point his Gloria Grahame passed him a note saying not only would she forego alimony, but that she would screw him right there on the screening room floor if he would only take her out the picture. Next, he phoned von Sternberg to make sure he was okay with anohter director taking over. Von Sternberg assured Ray that he knew "Macao" was a huge mess and he was glad to be rid of it. Years later, the Cahiers du Cinema crowd decided that von Sternberg was their auteur du jour, and they asked him what he thought of one of their other favorite Hollywood directors, Nicholas Ray. Von Sternberg's response? "Nicholas Ray?!? That's the man that ruined 'Macao'!!"

The Derelict said...

What's also frustrating, re: Grahame, is that apparently Marlene Dietrich was her favorite actress (according to the Vincent Curcio bio of Grahame), and here she is acting with Sternberg and he ends up doing nothing with her. I don't remember if Curcio's book went into detail about her attitude on set, but it must have been frustrating for her to be working with Dietrich's mentor and ending up with such a zero part.

Campaspe said...

Daniel, thanks for reminding me of that cigarette! it is a fab moment, and Grahame gives it her all (no doubt grateful to have a moment that actually required her talent).

Joseph, what a hilarious story. I believe every word. I wasn't just making a lip-service qualifier--according to everything I have read Sternberg was cap-D difficult.

Derelict- Grahame's career always did zigzag between roles that wasted her and roles that she tore into. Maybe she was getting used to it at that point; she also did The Greatest Show on Earth in 1952 and lord knows that probably wasn't a stretch for her, though at least De Mille did her sex appeal justice.

David C said...

Great piece!
In Sternberg's autobiography, the index directs you to this para:
"After 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, ha;f a dozen clowns immersed various parts of their anatomy in it. Their names do not appear ibn the list of credits."

I would suppose, from Mel Ferrer's coda to Vendetta, that any really incredibly bland bits in Macao are his work, and any non-Sternbergian bits with good dialogue are Ray, since for a few scenes they had Robert Mitchum writing it. For all his eccentricities and vices, Mitchum had a good ear.