Macao (1952)

I’d been toying with the idea of a `star week’ for a while now, and who better to launch one with than Robert Mitchum? Mitchum was born on August 6th, 1917 (which is why I’m dedicating this week to him on my blog), and is one of my favourite Hollywood stars. Though burdened with—as he himself mentioned—lizard eyes and an anteater nose, not to mention a gut he was perpetually trying to hold in, Mitchum acted in some memorable films: drama, Western, war, comedy, and, most famously, noir.
Over this week, I’ll be reviewing a handful of Mitchum films, showing off some of my favourite Mitchum screen caps (yes, I do find this guy very handsome), and more. You’ll get a glimpse of why I like ‘Old Rumple Eyes’ so much, and I’m hoping some of you out there will be converted!
But, to begin with: Macao. A typical Mitchum noir, somewhat reminiscent of the Bollywood noir one got to see in the late 50’s. Exotic, sinister, not always coherent, but entertaining nevertheless.

Robert Mitchum in Macao

The film begins with an introduction to the Portuguese colony of Macao in South China. Macao’s glittering façade hides an ugly underbelly of crime, which flourishes because of the `Three Mile Limit’, an area surrounding the colony within which the international police have no jurisdiction. Macao’s own police is hand in glove with its arch criminals.
Therefore, the international police in nearby Hong Kong come to know of the murder of a New York police detective on the docks at Macao only when his body washes up one morning and they find his badge and ID.

A body washes up - with a badge on it

The scene now switches to a boat approaching Macao from Hong Kong, bearing three interesting passengers. One of them is ex-cigarette girl, ex-fortune teller, ex-singer Julie Benson (a sultry Jane Russell), who went off to see the world after inheriting a fortune. She’s broke now, but after a stint in Hong Kong, has decided to head for Macao to get a job. Julie’s wheedled a co-passenger into buying her fare, but when he starts getting fresh, she finds she needs helping in getting rid of him.

Julie tries to shake off an admirer

And who better to come to her rescue than the passing Nick Cochran (Mitchum)? Cochran saves her, and after the inevitable `stolen kiss’ (during which a canny Julie also steals his wallet), Julie goes up to the deck. Shortly after, Nick finds her in conversation with Lawrence C Trumble (William Bendix). Trumble is a travelling salesman who deals in coconut oil, pearl buttons, nylon stockings and other equally incompatible items.

Nick and Julie meet Trumble

When they arrive at Macao, Julie attracts the attention of the rotund and definitely sleazy Lieutenant Sebastian (Thomas Gomez). Sebastian is also intrigued by Nick, who, it turns out, has lost not just his money but also his passport. His only proof of identity is his credentials from when he served in the armed forces, but Sebastian is expansive and generous: Nick may stay on in Macao.

Gomez is generous

We soon discover the reason for Sebastian’s generosity: he hurries off to Macao’s biggest gambling establishment, The Quick Reward (what an apt name!), owned by the crooked Vincent Halloran (Brad Dexter). Halloran’s rolling in ill-gotten gains which he’s amassed with the help of Sebastian. Sebastian tells him about the newcomers and confides in Halloran: Nick Cochran, he suspects, is an American police detective who’s come in the wake of the man who’d been murdered.

Sebastian and Halloran have a tete-a-tete

They decide it would be sensible to keep an eye on both Nick and Julie. For Julie, Sebastian and Halloran figure out the best way would be to hire her as a singer at The Quick Reward. Sebastian goes to see Julie and meets Nick too, who’s staying in the same hotel as Julie. Having discovered that Julie was the one who’d robbed him, Nick’s come to her room to confront her and demand his money back.
Sebastian breaks in on this party and tries to get rid of Nick by accusing him of vagrancy. To Nick’s surprise, Julie slips him his money back, so Nick’s able to get out of that.

Nick and Julie get a visit from Sebastian...

Julie goes off to meet Halloran. Much to the displeasure of his girlfriend-cum-employee-cum-abettor Margie (Gloria Grahame), he hires Julie.

Halloran hires Julie

On Julie’s heels comes Nick, also looking for a job. Halloran, now certain that Nick’s an undercover cop, tries to convince Nick that he won’t be able to find a job in Macao. It’s best for him to return to Hong Kong. Nick, however, has a logical reason for why he can’t do that: he doesn’t have the money.
So that evening at The Quick Reward, Halloran tries to give Nick the money for the fare—and quite a bit extra. With Margie rolling loaded dice at Halloran’s orders, Nick almost `wins’ $12,250, but loses it when he gets just a mite too greedy.

Loaded dice - and Nick loses

He also eventually loses later in the evening, when escorting Julie back to the hotel. Nick invites her for a ride in a sampan; Julie agrees; they chat a little, there’s a sudden shower of fireworks (figuratively speaking) and voila!—they’re in love. Nick tells Julie he’d been offered a job as a plantation manager on a Far Eastern island, and she agrees to the unspoken invitation. All’s bliss and roses, and Julie can already imagine the white beaches, the blue seas and green forests of that faraway isle…

A romance blossoms

Then Nick spoils it all by saying he’ll go alone and return for Julie after a month. This peeves Julie off no end, and Nick finds his dreams come down to earth with a thud.
The next morning, although Julie has severed ties with Nick by sending him a farewell bouquet of flowers, Trumble turns up. And he’s got something interesting: a very fine, very large diamond that’s part of a necklace safely stowed away in Hong Kong.

Trumble pulls forth a surprise

The diamond’s worth $100,000, but Trumble will settle for $40,000—and if Nick will sell it for him, he’ll give Nick 10% of the proceeds. Nick, says Trumble, won’t have a problem finding a buyer once he’s revealed the whereabouts of the rest of the necklace. All the buyer has to do is go to Hong Kong and pick up the remaining diamonds… and all Nick has to do is find a buyer. And who better than the obviously crooked Halloran?

Halloran considers Nick's proposition

What’s happening in Macao? What’s Trumble’s game? And where does Nick fit in? Is he really the cop Halloran and Sebastian think he is, or is there another angle to all of this?

Not a great noir film (not even a good one, really), but entertaining enough—and a classic watch for Mitchum fans.

What I liked about this film:
Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum: I like the chemistry between them, and they look awesome.

Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell in Macao

The songs. Even though Macao isn’t a regular musical, it does have three easy-listening songs. Ocean Breeze, which is my favourite of the three, is unfortunately only a sort of background tune, but You kill me and One for my babyboth picturised on the luscious Jane—are very easy on the eyes too!

Jane Russell singing and dancing in Macao

What I didn’t like:
Oh, I hate having to put in so much of the `didn’t like’ stuff for a Mitchum film. Unfortunately, Macao isn’t the best scripted or best directed of films. Worst of all, it makes the mistake of going overboard on the `foreign locale’ bit. True, an exotic and distant land—the `Monte Carlo of the Orient’ as the film dubs Macao at the beginning—would’ve been a great setting for a noir flick, but it’s peopled by Chinese hoodlums who throw knives at the drop of a hat; a blind beggar who (for unexplained reasons) trails Nick about; and all the other stereotypical symbols of China—junks, rickshaws, conical hats, fans, paper lanterns, et al. Even more irritating is the fact that a lot of it is very plainly a set, and not Macao at all.

Secondly, the story itself: it’s not coherent. There are the twists and turns one expects of a thriller, but they don’t make much sense, and I came away with the feeling that a lot of the action happened just for the sake of the action, and not because it added any value to the story. The crux of the matter—the reason behind all of this action—is hidden away beneath so many layers and subplots and contrivances that even when it surfaces (very briefly), it barely makes an impression on the viewer before the film’s over.

And this shot, just as the boat is drawing into Macao, is unbeatably corny:

The weather in Macao...

But. As I said, an entertaining film, even if you don’t remember much of what it’s about once you’ve done watching it.

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13 thoughts on “Macao (1952)

  1. Yay! For Mitchum week. Lizard eyes and an anteater nose notwithstanding, he was just so dishy! ;-)

    I saw this one a few months ago on TCM and enjoyed it. Its fairly engaging, though I had completely forgotten the plot. As you’ve pointed out, the story isnt all that memorable, Mitchum is. :-)

    I hope you mean to write up The Grass Is Greener – Mitchum+Cary Grant+Deborah Kerr=filmi heaven!

  2. Unfortunately, The Grass is Greener is one Mitchum film I’ve not yet seen – sob, sob!! Am trying to get my hands on it, but haven’t managed to so far. But the three other reviews I have lined up are all of very good (and very different from each other) Mitch films.

    Thank you for the vote on the new header. ;-) I hadn’t planned on one (and anyway, the old header did have Mitchum in it, anyway), but then I decided if I was doing a Mitchum Week I had to have a Mitchum header. I look at my header now with even more affection – this guy’s just so dishy, as you say.

  3. O thats sad. If only we could afford to buy the entire TCM library – that way we could have EVERY Hollywood classic we desire (and loads that we dont as well!). Do you get TCM on cable in India? I remember they had discontinued it sometime in 2001/2 and I was heartbroken over it! Dont know if they ever resumed.

  4. Yes, TCM aren’t around in India. I lived with that until Tata Sky also discontinued Zee Classic (which used to show old Hindi films – especially from the 50’s and 60’s). Now I don’t even look at the TV listings: I know if there’s a Jaanwar, Jab Pyaar Kisise Hota Hai, Waqt or Haseena Maan Jaayegi listed, it’s going to be the new one. The furthest back any channel seems to go is the late 70’s. Sab TV shows a few old films now and then, but they’re the same ones, again and again.

    So all my film viewing is now limited to DVDs or VCDs! Sad.

  5. Yes, there are some great one-liners in this – especially between Mitchum and Russell, and some between Mitchum and Bendix. If only it had a more memorable plot…

    BTW: Was reminded of you today, while I was watching Heaven Can Wait, because you’d recommended to me. Such a sweet film; really lovely. Thank you!

  6. This movie was lacking plot development. When Nick was staying with Margie, did they sleep together? I wasn’t sure. Margie made the remark about the canary as if he was the cat.

  7. No, I don’t think they slept together; at least, it wasn’t shown (yes, well, what with the strict censorship of the time, it wouldn’t have been shown anyway) – but it wasn’t even implied, I think. The way I interpreted it was that she was keen on getting Nick out of Halloran’s life (perhaps if Nick left, Julie would too? Leaving the coast clear for Margie re: Halloran?)

    Who knows. As you say, plot development was sadly lacking in Macao.

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