“One day in your seed will be cyanide, and you’ll stop laughing for the rest of time.” – The Dutchman to his pet bird.
Sometimes even the best of casts can’t guarantee a good picture. Even then, most likely they are at least a bright spot in an otherwise wasteful experience. Sadly, even the likes of Spencer Tracy, James Stewart, Sydney Greenstreet and John Hodiak can’t save the turgid mess that is 1949’s Malaya.
Malaya tells the story of a team of Americans who sneak into Japanese occupied Malaya to purchase secret caches of rubber from local plantation owners and contribute them to the U.S. war effort. The team is comprised of Jimmy Stewart as John Royer and Spencer Tracy as Carnahan. Royer is supposed to be the more direct and straight-laced of the two with Tracy being a deceptive plotter with all the sneaky back door connections to make the plan work. They meet up with the Dutchman later, who is a tired bar owner and conduit for all local information.
Sydney Greenstreet as the Dutchman is the only real highlight of the film. Though looking tired and a bit drawn (this would be his last film), Greenstreet still delivers his trademark slyness coupled with dry wit. He’s not even enough to make Malaya float.
The problems are many. The story starts slowly with the introduction of Royer- it takes awhile for the story to get going. There’s a tremendous amount of almost exceptionally excessive exposition which even then doesn’t mean a hill of beans. By the time we meet Spencer Tracy we’ve already pretty much tuned out the proceedings. Tracy himself seems out of place.
Though he’s supposed to be a hardened and slick ex-convict (he’s even sprung from Alcatraz to help out), Tracy seems too charming, too unengaged and simply not hard enough for the character. There’s a two particularly odd scenes which highlight Tracy’s poor casting. One is where he has to punch one of the plantation owners several times so that the Japanese think he only talked after getting beaten. The other is a scene where Tracy is chatting softly with his girlfriend as he pilots a small boat down the river. (I suppose you’d call her that, anyway.) As he’s talking with Luana (Valentina Cortese), he pushes her overboard, waving a few times to her as her head bobs in the distance. Neither are very believable and highlight how a different actor would have done better. Many have suggested this should have been a role for Clark Gable as he had the chops to cover both sides of the character.
But casting can’t save what’s an unimaginative script. The plot’s built around Tracy and his character but the poor casting makes one question further that decision. Jimmy Stewart takes a bullet about halfway through, tough he’s disappeared from the picture a bit before then. It’s likely the lengthy expositionary introduction was added simply to beef up his screen time. Once Tracy comes into the picture it’s almost as if, having served his purpose, that Stewart is simply killed off to avoid having to mechanically insert him into more scenes.
Last on the complaint list (and this has been a lengthy one, hasn’t it?) is the love story. It too seems to go nowhere and have no real purpose, being manufactured as well purely for the sake of having a love story pop up intermittently throughout the picture. Valentina Cortese is fine from what little we can tell- most of her scenes are singing in the Dutchman’s bar and are likely dubbed. She’s got a scene or two with Tracy but they don’t play that well.
There is a thin attempt made to project that Tracy’s character of Carnahan found things to emulate in his deceased partner Royer. Carnahan goes back to finish up the job even though he could have easily ended it, having gotten two of the three caches to the Americans already. This would have played better if we were believing already that Carnahan was really the seedy and sneaky guy like we are supposed too.
It’s hard to be a fan of Malaya, even with the cast. Perhaps the cast makes the results that much worse because we expect so much more from them. The only glimmer is Sydney Greenstreet in his final role, clearly stealing the movie in the process.