A fabulous speck on the Earth’s surface

Well, that’s what the opening voice-over tells us MACAO is. Quite why it should want to say that, I’m sure I don’t know. But this is less a Josef Von Sternberg film than it is a Howard Hughes production, with all the mental derangement that implies. The “plot” involves Robert Mitchum being mistaken for a police investigator, who is really William Bendix — but we never really find out who Mitchum is, do we? Nobody in particular, it seems. Then there’s Jane Russell as a lounge singer, and nasty casino owner Brad Dexter, a notably colourless heavy, and crooked local cop Thomas Gomez.

Hughes declared in an internal memo that his films at RKO would be about two things, “fucking and fighting.” But really they all seem to be out convoluted webs of betrayal, usually reaching a point where the hero and heroine should hate each other, but instead end up together as per Hollywood tradition. It all gets extremely convoluted without you caring what happens to anybody in the least. Sternberg’s JET PILOT is an extreme example of this, with John Wayne and Janet Leigh’s “romantic” sparring intensified by the fact that they’re meant to be representatives of the US and USSR military. That movie was greatly compromised by Hughes to the point that by the time it opened, RKO was defunct and all the planes were out of date. MACAO fared even worse: “instead of fingers in that pie,” reported Sternberg, “a whole army of clowns rushed to immerse various parts of their anatomies in it. Their names do not appear in the list of credits.”

Nicholas Ray was uncredited second director, apparently responsible for a lot of the Gloria Grahame bits (he married her and at least we got IN A LONELY PLACE out of that). He claimed he tried to achieve a Sternberg look, but most of this film is flat and prosaic, despite the exotic sound stage setting. But every ten minutes or so a shot sings out, mostly in the casino, often dreamy tracking shots that aren’t going anywhere in particular. In fact, it seems a rule in this movie that the more beautiful the shot, the less it has to do with its surroundings, the greater the sense of its having been dropped in as a random cutaway. But there’s almost nothing to cut away FROM.

And here is our fragment of cinematic beauty for today: the phantom tombola of Philip Ahn.

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2 Responses to “A fabulous speck on the Earth’s surface”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    The metallic dress for Russell’s “One For My Baby” is said to be a sign of Sternberg, and Leigh does wear a similar blouse in JET PILOT. I also love the gloves Grahame wears while shaking those dice.

  2. Yes, fanTAStic gloves. I felt that, assuming some of the GG scenes were Sternberg’s, he was more inspired by her than Russell. Mitchum recalled JVS badmouthing, Russell, which he didn’t take kindly to, and then both stars united against JVS and eventually got him removed…

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