If there were such a term as noir-lite then Macao (1952) would have to feature as a prominent example. Taking its lead from the likes of The Big Steal and, more especially, His Kind of Woman, the movie uses some standard characters and situations but drops the harder-edged cynicism and fatalism that one normally expects to find. As a result, we wind up getting a moderately entertaining picture that passes the time but never delivers the kind of sickening gut punch a film noir ought to. The chaotic nature of the production probably contributed significantly to the less than satisfactory final product. However, there are casting issues involved too, but more on that later.
Exotic settings have long been a favourite of Hollywood movies, and the Orient has a special flavour and mystique of its own. Macao, the Portuguese colony, had the kind of murky reputation that suits the world of noir down to the ground. The story revolves around the arrival of three strangers - Nick Cochran (Robert Mitchum), Julie Benson (Jane Russell) and Lawrence C Trumble (William Bendix) - in this corrupt and largely lawless locale. What’s not clear is the reason for these individuals turning up; Julie says she’s looking for a job as a singer, Trumble says he’s a salesman, and Cochran says he’s just hoping to turn a buck whatever way he can. Regardless of what they say, it’s soon apparent that one or more of this ill-matched trio is out to bring down local underworld and gambling kingpin Vince Halloran (Brad Dexter). He’s wanted by Interpol but can’t be touched as long as he remains within Macao’s three mile limit; so a plot involving stolen diamonds is cooked up to appeal to his avaricious nature and lure him far enough out for the authorities to nab him. At the heart of the story is the dynamic between Cochran and Julie - he helps her out of a tight spot and she repays him by lifting his wallet, he gets threatened with deportation and she bails him out, and so on. This cagey romance runs parallel to the business with Halloran, and it seems at times like there are two different movies fighting for dominance. In the end it’s the lighter elements that prevail and the more sinister aspects are only dealt with during the climax. Generally, it’s a schizophrenic kind of picture that fails to deliver adequately through its lack of decisiveness. There are a number of effective scenes that, taken individually, prove satisfying either for their smart-ass comedic dialogue or their tense stylishness. However, they sit uncomfortably side by side and the shift of emphasis is a clumsy affair.
It’s rarely good news when a film experiences a change of director during production, and the further along it is when the switch takes place the greater the damage is likely to be. Josef von Sternberg had already shot a significant amount of the script when on set disagreements led to his departure and replacement by Nicholas Ray. The credits show von Sternberg as the director but it’s hard to be sure how much of the finished movie is down to him; Cochran’s escape from Halloran’s clutches and subsequent pursuit through the docks at night do seem to carry his stamp though. That’s easily the most visually impressive sequence in the whole movie, as Cochran stumbles and slips through a set draped with trawler nets that resemble some massive spider web that’s been spun across the waterfront to ensnare him. Additionally, the scenes in Halloran’s gambling house hark back to von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture, but never achieve anything like the intoxicating decadence of the earlier film. On top of all the other turmoil, the script was undergoing constant revision and being written on the fly, with Mitchum apparently contributing. Mitchum and Russell were essentially playing to type and their chemistry is a large part of what ensures Macao remains watchable. I enjoy seeing William Bendix in anything but he overdoes the mugging in this one and his part suffers as a result. A bigger problem with the casting though concerns Brad Dexter and Gloria Grahame: Dexter is simply too wooden and passive to convince as the threatening figure he’s supposed to be, and Grahame is criminally wasted in an underwritten role that she reportedly didn’t want to play in the first place.
The R1 DVD of Macao from Warners is a good one that is sharp and has strong contrast in the crucial night scenes. If the film itself is a weak one then the disc extras go some way towards making up for that. There’s a nice commentary track with Eddie Muller, Jane Russell and Stanley Rubin. Also, we get a half hour of TCM Private Screenings with Russell and a very ill Mitchum chatting to Robert Osborne. I couldn’t recommend the movie to anyone just getting into film noir as it’s too watered down to be in any way representative. While it’s passably entertaining, it’s realistically more likely to appeal to Mitchum/Russell/von Sternberg (delete as appropriate) completists.