Josef von Sternberg began Macao (and copped the directorial credit), but Nicholas Ray finished it. Nonetheless, it abounds with Sternberg's branded flounces and fetishes. As in Shanghai Express and The Shanghai Gesture, he trowels on the Orientalism in thick impasto (Sternberg could have made the best Charlie Chan movie of them all).
A nighttime chase through the Macao docks opens the movie (to be rhymed near its conclusion): A white-suited European is pursued by knife-throwing Chinese thugs; he falls in the water when one blade finds its mark. A badge filched from him pocket shows him to be a police detective.
Into this world of Asian intrigue sails a boat from Hong Kong, just 35 miles up the coast. On it is the motley crew of salesman William Bendix, drifter Robert Mitchum and mysterious woman Jane Russell, who lifts Mitchum's wallet. Sans passport, Mitchum comes to the attention of the Macao police chief (Thomas Gomez), who reports the suspicious stranger to gambling kingpin Brad Dexter. Dexter assumes Mitchum is a cop he knows to be on his way to extradite him back to Hong Kong....
It's a playfully plotted adventure story. Russell gets a gig singing at Dexter's club in eye-popping gowns which actually aren't any more provocative than the black-and-white daytime outfits she traipses around in, wielding a parasol. She fares better than Gloria Grahame, as Dexter's moll, looking washed out and largely wasted (though she puts her distinctive spin on a couple of lines). Mitchum by this time has done this role the lippy but laconic reluctant hero so often he could do it in his sleep, which, given his hooded eyes, may be the truth of the matter.
Macao is an utterly shallow film done with energy and style. The plotting remains perfunctory, but the play of shadows throughout remains transfixing especially in the set-piece near the end, again on the dark waterfront, with ropes and nets casting their creepy spell. And the movie provides Russell with one of her few opportunities to flaunt her real, if narrow, talents: in addition to the statuesque figure that caught Howard Hughes' eye, she had spunk and sass. That's what Sternberg saw, and he fell for it. We do, too.