Macao (1952) was the last film Josef von Sternberg made in Hollywood and he didn’t get to finish it. A tyrant on the set, particularly with his actresses, he treated Jane Russell so abominably that Howard Hughes removed him from the picture and brought in Nicholas Ray to reshoot the ending.
I can’t condone a director who calls his lead actress a “beautiful stupid broad” and makes every effort to humiliate her on the set. I guess this was the pattern, from Marlene Dietrich onwards, and it seems to have worked with Dietrich. The two tormented one another over the course of seven films—the best either would make: Blue Angel, Morocco, Blonde Venus and Shanghai Express among them.
But getting back to Macao, there’s an awful lot to like here even if Ray messed with von Sternberg’s vision. Robert Mitchum slouches to excellent effect, winning Jane Russell’s heart, and charming the tough-as-nails croupier played by Gloria Grahame while he’s at it. The dialogue is edgy from the start. Even bit players get their moment: the opening scene of the would-be Lothario doing a little rumba all by himself in his cabin, all to no avail, is a delightful vignette.
The shadows are perfectly calibrated, during the chase scenes especially, when fishing nets lend a claustrophobic touch to the action. Russell sings, and she’s pretty good as a torch singer — far better than in her musical number with the gymnasts in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. This noir may not be noir enough to satisfy purists, but I enjoyed it.
Bad women in B movies have to die. Usually they take some poor sucker down with them. Makes for a better story, a cautionary tale. But sometimes you can feel the director chafing against the constrictions.
That’s the case with “Angel Face,” Otto Preminger’s noir masterpiece starring Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons. Awesome camerawork, wonderful acting, and one hilarious line in the prison mental hospital where Simmons’s character has been committed after murdering her father and stepmother, with the presumed help of Mitchum’s character. Simmons is wealthy, and the family lawyer is determined to get her off, so he convinces her to wed Mitchum’s character right there in the ward. Mitchum resists; he’s really a decent sort, but no match for Simmons. Guy’s out of his depth.
So the Justice of the Peace pronounces them man and wife. Simmons is in bed, with Mitchum (under police guard) standing next to her. Off to the side, one of the lunatics applauds, then the camera pans to her and you see she’s carrying over a little wedding cake, trailed by another lunatic:
“There ain’t much we can say but, kid, we sure hope you beat the rap!”
I wish that irreverent spirit had been maintained throughout the film. Unfortunately, it grew more ponderous as it went on and by the end—which took ages to arrive—I was predicting that Simmons would kill both herself and Mitchum. It seemed like the only way out. Still, I was unprepared for the way she carried it off.
She had this sports car and she was supposed to be driving him to the bus station (he was leaving her). She brought along a bottle of champagne and two glasses. As he was opening the champagne, she reversed at high speed and backed them over a cliff.
(27 July 2011)