Macao (Josef von Sternberg and Nicholas Ray, 1952) 🇺🇸

Macao |

October 24, 2021

Welcome to Macao, the fascinating “Monte Carlo of the East”, whose infernal gambling dens are a perfect playground for bad boys. Crooks, fugitives and smugglers hit the jackpot or are left high and dry depending on a throw of the dice. Still waters run deep and you have to be careful: this “calm and open” haven with its gently bobbing sampans has another, hidden side, “secret and veiled”, tucked away inside the casinos, as the opening credits warn us. Macao, in red letters with yellow shadowing on the poster, is all decked out in its finery, every bit as glamorous and elegant as the music-hall vamp who has emerged from its choppy waters. 

Because Macao also teems with “bad girls”, acclimatising to its 80 % humidity and luxuriant vegetation that climbs the balconies of the colonial houses. A beautiful woman in exactly this mould disembarks from the Hong Kong ferry. Her name is Julie, played by an enthralling Jane Russell, and landing with her are two other Americans, Nick Cochran, played by the sleepy-faced Robert Mitchum, and Lawrence C. Trumble (C. for Cicero, but they promise to keep it secret!), played by William Bendix. Mitchum has already been treated to a languorous kiss (which woke him up a bit) while Trumble got a good look at Julie’s legs as she tried on a pair of stockings. His suitcase is overflowing with stockings and surrounded by a stock of coconut oil and cigars. Because, as it turns out, he is an undercover policeman disguised as a travelling salesman. As for Nick, an ex-serviceman on the run, we’re not quite sure what he’s doing there. Julie, as well as being a talented pickpocket (as demonstrated at Nick’s expense), knows how to sing and has arrived to try her luck in this den of vice.

We dive headfirst into this shady world as we enter the “Quick Reward”, deafened by the blast of the jazz trumpets and the din made by the crowd of avid gamblers. Crab baskets bob up and down, full of jewellery pawned against the money the customers need to play to their hearts’ content. Transactions take place on the first floor, behind the Persian blinds in the office of chief crook, Vincent Halloran. He knows the police are after him ever since he killed a detective, and suspects Nick’s lovely white suit of hiding a policeman’s uniform.  To find out more, he hires the curvaceous singer, promptly arousing the jealousy of his head croupier in her black velvet gloves, played by Gloria Grahame, whose only source of joy seems to be the sound of the loaded dice in their shaker. Forced to act in the film by Howard Hughes, it isn’t hard to understand her sulky pouts when faced with Hughes’ muse, whose ample bust, shown off by her collection of sheath dresses, fascinated the producer. Accompanied by a piano that seems to temporarily put a stop to all the scheming and dirty tricks, Jane Russell is simply stunning, and would have literally spilled out of the screen if Hughes (who was also an aviation magnate) had not got her to wear the famous bra he had made by his aircraft engineers.

But that’s enough fantasising, let’s get back to the turpitudes of life in Macao, whose insalubrious reputation is perfect for film noir. Macao opens with a long chase scene as a man is hunted along the quayside, ending when a detective is knifed in the back before drowning in the muddy waters. The film finishes with the same scene, but now Nick is the one running – he is clearly having trouble shaking off his detective image! He has just been liberated by his velvet-gloved gaoler, with the help of the blind beggar (always at the forefront of plots and mysterious machinations). He jumps from boats to pontons, totters, trips and jumps back up, grasps at sails and ends up ensnared by the nets that entrap him like a huge spider’s web. A gorgeous scene where the interplay of light and shadow would be totally captivating – if the pursuers weren’t armed with razor-sharp knives. They get the wrong man and end up killing the real policeman, Trumble, who dies while apologising to Nick for using him as bait to lure Halloran away from the territorial waters of Macao so he could be arrested. Nick completes the dead man’s mission by hijacking Halloran’s yacht and, playing the part of (dripping detective) to the end, handing him over to the police. When Julie complains about his soaking wet embraces, Nick retorts: “You’d better get used to me fresh out of the shower!”

The spark between them is so strong, we’re sure that the Mitchum and Russell pairing will last forever. We delight in these intimate scenes where they bill and coo, as the poster shows us, on a sampan in the moonlight or snuggled up together in a rickshaw. Forgotten are the shoes thrown in the face and attack with a fan. Tired of the heat, the torpor, the mosquito nets, the wicker and bamboo screens concealing deceit and deception, the repentant lovebirds decide to go home, their sins redeemed.

“Everybody is lonely, worried and sorry. Everybody is looking for something”, she tells him in the back of the sampan. Why not fill the void with this magnificent poster which will whisk you away on a nostalgic wave of romantic exoticism?

Check out the French version of this article.