' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Macao (1952)

Friday, June 20, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Macao (1952)

Telling Robert Mitchum that he's alone and sad and tired and must regret something in his past seems a bit redundant. It seems a bit like Miss Moneypenny observing that 007 enjoys martinis and a roll in the hay. He’s Robert Mitchum! That’s why you cast him! Because he comes to set with the cigarette clutching his lower lip for dear life and loneliness and sadness and sleep deprivation and regrets clinging to his being like condensation to his bourbon glass. So Jane Russell telling him in “Macao” that he's alone and sad and tired and must regret something in his past takes redundancy to a whole new level. Hell, ol’ cantankerous pants himself, Bosley Crowther of the wayback New York Times, says as much in the first paragraph of his original 1952 review: “All the other ingredients, including Miss Russell's famed physique, are pretty much the same as have been tumbled into previous cheesecakes with Jane and Bob.” But……what if we go to the five and dime diner and specifically ask for the Jane and Bob Cheesecake? What if the redundancy is precisely what lends the film its charm?

“Macao” was the last Hollywood film of Josef von Sternberg, the great Austrian-American director who made Marlene Dietrich his muse, and perhaps von Sternberg emulated a thirty-year man at the office mentally checking out by launching a pre-emptive in-office vacation ahead of retirement. Visually it’s just a trifle, taking its actors and putting them in the frame and standing back and letting us imbibe. Here again we quote Crowther: “’Macao’ is a flimflam and no more—a flimflam designed for but one purpose and that is to mesh the two stars.”

Its purpose is to mesh the two stars, no argument, but I object to the term “flimflam.” I object because Merriam-Webster tells us that flimflam is “deceptive nonsense” and while “Macao” might be nonsense, it is not deceptive. It is, in fact, forthright about its nonsense. Take the establishing sequence aboard a steamship bound for Hong Kong. Julie Benson (Jane Russell) - a nightclub singer if for no other reason than it gives Jane Russell a couple crooning scenes and without them the film would probably be sixty minutes - is in a cabin with a guy who mistreats her. Luckily Nick Cochran (Mitchum) happens by. Seeing the goings-on, he interjects, knocks out the abusing non-gentleman, exchanges a few bon mots with Julie, and then kisses her. Just like that. No warning. No real build-up. Plants one right on her sultry lips without asking. This might sound presumptuous on his part, sure, but is really just maximum screenplay efficiency. If these two are gonna be lovers why waste time trying to throw us off that scent? Thus, it ain’t flimflam. It's frank. And that’s the whole film.

Technically there are “surprises” but they’re the sort where you nod and think, “Well, of course.” The story itself revolves around an American gangster, Vince Halloran (Brad Dexter), laying low in Macao frightened of being drawn into international waters. He suspects this is precisely what Nick Cochran (Mitchum) has come here to do, an NYC detective posing as a down-on-his-luck. Show of hands if you actually thought Nick Cochran was an NYC detective when he’s fingered for being one? No one? Well, of course not. So the Bad Guy gets mixed up with Julie and Julie gets mixed up with Cochran and Cochran gets mixed up with Trumble (William Bendix), a traveling salesman whose mug sure does look less like a traveling salesman than an NYC detective's (whoops! spoiler alert!), and Margie (Gloria Grahame) is content to just stand off to the side and sigh.

So the villain’s yada-yada, the final fisticuffs are blah, and the plot charts a course as worn as an old trading route in the South China Sea. So what? All that crap doesn’t matter. Here, all that crap’s just the tin holding in the cheesecake. The cheesecake is Mitchum's performance, the embodiment of a man in a hammock. The cheesecake is Jane Russell being, you know, Jane Russell. The cheesecake is Gloria Grahame acting all glamorously discontent. The cheesecake is lines like: “You remind me of an old Egyptian girlfriend of mine. The Sphinx.” Maybe it's not a White Chocolate Raspberry Chocolate Chip cheesecake from Reuschelle's. Maybe it's just frozen New York Style cheesecake from Trader Joe's. It's still good.

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