Friday, April 17, 2020

Noir/ Russell Watch: Macao (1952)

Watched:  04/15/2020
Format:  TCM on DVR
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1950's
Director: Josef von Sternberg/ Nicholas Ray

I've been trying to track this movie down for years.  Fortunately, this month on TCM, Jane Russell is Star of the Month on TCM.  And, in any circumstance, Jane Russell is just an excellent idea.

This one has not just Russell as a lounge singer, she co-stars with Robert Mitchum, with whom she was apparently pretty good pals.  It also has Thomas Gomez and Gloria Grahame in an oddly small role for her chops (this is five years after Crossfire and the same year she got an Oscar nom for The Bad and the Beautiful).   Throw in William Bendix (as one always should) and Brad Dexter, and you've got an interesting cast.  Not to mention the large cast of Asian and Asian-American extras and supporting roles.

Maybe the most interesting thing is how far and long the story sticks with the "case of mistaken identity" set-up, and to the last frame, our villain still has no idea he hasn't wrongly pegged Mitchum's vagabond ex-pat for a cop come to Macao to take him back to the States.

But if you were coming to see how Russell and Mitchum play off one another, the answer is: very well indeed.  It's a sparring match of devil-may-care attitudes, and there's a natural air to their chemistry.  Honestly, either of them would do great today in TV or movies - there's nothing dated about their approach to acting, even if it's not exactly Meisner-method.  Russell is *funny*, y'all.  Which I think classic film fans know, but if all you know about Russell is her pin-up career and stills from The Outlaw, you're going to never know (which is why Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is essential viewing.  That movie is amazing).  But she's also buyable in dramatic beats, especially against Mitchum.

The movie features Russell singing, maybe not what she's best known for, but a requirement of the era for everyone who wasn't Bette Davis and working at the time.  So, do look for her take on "One For My Baby".

The plot does feel exceptionally light, which is a surprise as the film is credited to Joseph von Sternberg (and was completed by Grahame's then-husband, Nicholas Ray when von Sternberg walked off).  There's also a bit of straight up sexual assault at the film's opening that is treated surprisingly lightly, and arguably to tell us a bit about Russell's character as well as Mitchum's (as he pops in and slugs the guy).  It's one of those things that both marks it as a Howard Hughes film and a part of it's time as Russell shrugs off what would now be considered assault and a tough way to start a movie.  But overall, the movie *is* entertaining and delivers on what you were probably hoping to sign up for with an exotic locale, shady characters and a small but strong cast.

That said, I have a hard time actually categorizing it as noir as much as noir-adjacent.  That's okay.  "Noir" as an idea is fluid, as is any genre categorization.  But if you're looking for a bit of star power and low-stakes drama, this one fits the bill.

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