Malaya, a shadowy film noir-ish story set in World War II.
Having just escaped the South Pacific with Japanese forces on his tail, newspaper reporter John Royer (James Stewart) is approached by a former boss (Lionel Barrymore) upon arrival. The conversation turns to Royer's exploits -- sometimes shady ones -- in Asia and the Pacific, Royer admitting he knows where quite a lot of raw rubber is being stored, harvested and hidden in Malaya. As the need for war materiel increases, so does the need for rubber, used to build countless key things needed to fight the war. With backing from the government (on a somewhat backdoor-ish deal), Royer agrees to go back to Malaya and see if he can buy as much as the rubber as possible and slip it out of the country. He needs help though and arranges for a friend, former partner and smuggler, Carnahan (Spencer Tracy), to aid the cause. Together, they head into Japanese-occupied territory on their nearly suicidal mission.
Considering the star power assembled here -- and there's more -- I was surprised I had never stumbled across this WWII flick before. I'm glad I did. From director Richard Thorpe, it's a mix between a behind the lines secret agent mission with many of the conventions viewers in 1949 had come to love about the film noir genre. Filmed in black and white with Malaya as the backdrop, it is a South Pacific film noir, and I can honestly say I've never seen a movie quite like that. Okay, maybe 1952's Macao. I loved the setting here, the crowded, smoky saloon and gambling house, the alleyways and dim streets, the expansive mansions and businesses in the countryside. The combination of the war movie and the crime noir just flows well together. It's always fun to see two such vastly different genres combine (usually not this well), but the end result is a lot of fun.
Not exactly a buddy movie, 'Malaya' nonetheless plays on some of those conventions that would become so familiar to audiences over the coming years. This film was the only on-screen pairing Tracy and Stewart ever made although they were together in 1962's How the West Was Won (Tracy narrating, Stewart acting). I'm never going to complain when a film pairs two Hollywood legends like this and lets them have at it. The two play well off each other. Stewart's Royer is a journalist with quite the checkered past, but with this mission, he wants to accomplish something, something meaningful. Tracy's Carnahan is a businessman and a convincing one. He looks out for himself more than anything, questioning Royer's patriotic actions. His bottom line? Usually dollar signs. Together though, they're great, always sarcastically calling each other 'Buddy!' as the mission develops. A WWII Odd Couple noir style of sorts, it's a winning combination.
Most movies would be quite content to pair two actors of that caliber together and let things be, but Thorpe doesn't settle for just two stars. This is one impressive cast, both in star power and performances delivered. Noir veteran and perpetual scene stealer Sydney Greenstreet plays the Dutchman, a saloon and gambling house owner with his hand in everything that could make him more money who joins in with Carnahan and Royer. Valentina Cortese is the checkered woman with a heart of gold, Luana, Carnahan's long-time love. John Hodiak is underused but reliable as always as Keller, a government agent working with Royer who puts the plan in motion for his Malayan plan. Barrymore too makes what amounts to a cameo as Manchester, a businessman working with several other very well to-do businessman to help the war effort. Also look for Gilbert Roland as Romano, one of the locals who teams up with Carnahan, utilizing his "unique" skill set to help in the thieving. Richard Loo gets to sneer and leer as Colonel Tomura, the Japanese officer suspicious of what's going on.
So a story that blends WWII and noir conventions? Not bad, not bad at all. How about elements of a western too? Why not?!? I very much enjoyed how the story plays out as Royer and Carnahan deal with various rubber plantation owners, working with some, intimidating others. We see their motives and intentions though, and that goes a long way. Royer is far from an idealist, but he wants to accomplish something. Carnahan is the opposite, thinking logically. Where it comes to a fork in the road is that both men come to a point where they want to do what's right. Is is the smart decision? No, if anything it's more dangerous, but there's a code of honor of sorts. As a man, what do you decide? The ending has a bit of a cop-out, but it's not a big deal. It's a movie that blends a whole lot of different things but manages to come out the better. Well worth checking out.
Malaya (1949): ***/****