Macao (1952)

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A sultry chanteuse, a hunk on the lam and a fortune in stolen gems.

Howard Hughes really didn’t have a good track record in much of what he did, though somehow he did build a rather phenomenal empire. Along the way for a time he owned RKO pictures and pretty much drove it into the ground with his quirky, obsessive, and hands on approach to movie making, which was very akin to David O. Selznick’s style. Well, without the results mind you.

The RKO of the Hughes’ years was filled with muddled pictures, numerous director changes, numerous reshoots, disjointed plots, and basically sheer silliness. Many pictures didn’t appear for years after production had wrapped, like 1957’s odd reboot of Hells Angels, Jet Pilot. Here not only were the impressive aerial scenes technologically dated but so was the star, as John Wayne’s appearance had changed (not badly mind you, but he appeared older). The jolt of a new Wayne picture with an obviously much younger star jolted audiences.

The director of Jet Pilot, Josef von Sternberg, also directs Macao, an unfortunately typical RKO release of 1952. Nearing the end of his career, Sternberg had a tough time with Macao, especially if Lee Server’s biography of Mitchum is to be believed.

Sternberg’s authoritarian style, which had served him so well in the 1930s, now only served to irritate and antagonize the cast and crew. Before long Sternberg was hated and Mitchum was smearing his lunch on Sternberg’s lectern where he kept the director’s copy of the script.

On initial screening the results were dismal and Sternberg was fired before post-production and Nicholas Ray brought in to try to fix some of the more glaring issues. At the end of the day roughly a third of the picture was shot by Ray, and the screenwriters became so frustrated that even Mitchum himself was drafted as a writer to help punch it up.

The plot takes the usual RKO turns to nowhere, but stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell do well in their second paring and have the estimable William Bendix in support. All three play Americans visiting Macao, though for different reasons. They all do well, but for the most part their talents are wasted. They all of their own accord end up at the large casino in town.

Russell has a different outfit for every scene, and those for her singing appearances look much the same as those she wears during the day, though during the day she also carries a parasol.  Sadly, this seems to be the only real difference between her on-stage and daytime wardrobe.   With her limited range she does deliver several nice quips and one-liners, as does co-star Mitchum.

Mitchum sleep walks through this one as the cool guy he was in reality, but his droopy lids make determining his true engagement level a difficult challenge. He too delivers several one great one-liners and plays himself rather well.

It is hard to really recommend significant expenditure in getting this one, but it does pass through on TCM from time to time. The sets, acting, and atmosphere are quite sharp, just the plot starts off in a pedantic mode and never really progresses.

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