The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


They don't have the all-time classics to their names that other film couples did. They weren't Tracy and Hepburn or Bogart and Hepburn or Wayne and O'Hara. But you know what stars Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell had in their two films together? An easy-going, sizzling charm that oozed off the screen. I'm hoping to write reviews for both soon, starting here with 1952's Macao, their second pairing.

Just 40 or so miles from Hong Kong, the city of Macao in the years following World War II has become a den of gambling, corruption, violence and any number of any other vices. One particularly crooked casino owner with his hands in everything, Vince Halloran (Brad Dexter), is especially worried though after he and his men killed an investigating officer from New York. They're playing the waiting game for the officer's replacement...and maybe some more heavy duty reinforcements. Coming ashore from a ship traveling from Hong Kong, all but three passengers are recognized, leading Halloran to believe one of them is the cop. The suspects? A Navy veteran on the run, Nick Cochran (Mitchum), a talkative salesman, Lawrence Trumble (William Bendix), and a nightclub singer looking for a job, Julie Benson (Russell). Who is the right one to target? Just which one is the cop looking to take Halloran in?

If that doesn't sound like the most pointed plot description, well, it ain't. Director Josef von Sternberg (along with some uncredited work from Nicholas Ray) was a silent film director who drifted along a touch when the sound era moved into the film industry. The Wikipedia page for 'Macao' specifically says "When von Sternberg's scenes made no sense dramatically..." so you know he wasn't always interested in a Point A to Point B (or C-through-Z) story to begin with. Production actually wrapped on filming in 1950, and then the finished product sat on the shelf for most of two years. How come? Producer Howard Hughes' track record basically. Decisions didn't have to make a whole lot of sense when your boss is one of the world's richest people. What's the end result then for this shelved, quasi-film noir?

It's good to great early on because of its randomness and general kookiness. It derails some in the last 20 minutes of its 80-minute running time. Let's focus on the positive though. 'Macao' is genuinely fun as everything is laid out and established. It mixes classic film noir with international intrigue with the huge chemistry between Mitchum and Russell with some laughs along the way. Long story is a pleasant, enjoyable movie. It is dark, but not as dark as most film noirs. Some reviews point to that lack of a unified tone as a negative but the helter-skelter tone really worked for me. Should it have? Probably not but something clicks for me. Filmed in black and white with some stock footage of Macao and Hong Kong mixed in with the seedy Hollywood sets for the two cities, Sternberg's film has style and a great visual look.

Blah blah blah with all that film analysis. Let's talk about movie star chemistry!!! Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell are two of my favorites. Mitchum was that perfect tough guy anti-hero who just didn't give a crap. Russell was a solid actress, singer and performer who fit in well with the tough guys when her film roles allowed it. The end result? Two actors who don't look like they're acting. They're just hanging out, having a ton of fun bringing these two characters together. Their chemistry is evident from Scene No. 1 and never lets up. Not remembered as a great role -- and rightfully so -- Mitchum is pretty perfect, laconic and laid back with a checkered past hanging over his head. The same for Russell's Julie, bouncing from city to city looking for work. Oh, and Russell is drop dead gorgeous here. Hughes made her a star by utilizing her....natural talent I'll say. She's beautiful, and she's even given a chance to sing two songs.

The rest of the cast is solid throughout. I especially liked Bendix as Lawrence C. Trumble, fast-talking, looking to blow off some steam traveling salesman. His almost manic delivery pairs well with Mitchum's slower-paced line reads. Dexter is perfectly slimy as Halloran, the black market casino dealer always with an eye on shady deals and easy money. Also look for Thomas Gomez as the corrupt police officer working with Halloran, poorly and under-used Gloria Grahame as Halloran's much-maligned girlfriend, Philip Ahn as Halloran's steely-eyed enforcer, and Vladimir Sokoloff as a mysterious blind man who seems to pop up at the right moment whenever needed. A fun cast with some cool parts.

Now that line before about von Sternberg's lack of dramatic timing, yeah, that comes into play in the last 20 minutes. The cool, couldn't care less style loses all momentum. The finale turns into a big chase scene that doesn't keep the adrenaline flowing unfortunately. The ending itself feels a tad rushed, a disappointing end to an otherwise very enjoyable movie.

Macao (1952): ** 1/2 /****

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