Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Singapore (1947)

While Singapore aims for the same sort of feel, and the makers of the film were clearly hoping to emulate the success of Casablanca, this is not by any means a retread of the Bogart-Bergman classic. Singapore stands up  perfectly well on its own.

I’m a sucker for old movies that take place in tropical settings and if the movie has a strong dash of film noir that’s even better. And Singapore certainly has more than a hint of film noir.

It’s 1947 and Matt Gordon (Fred MacMurray) has just arrived in Singapore. He’d been there before, in fact had spent quite a colourful and adventurous time there. He hasn’t returned just to rekindle old memories. He has some unfinished business in the city. Old memories are however very much on his mind as well. In fact this movie is all about old memories.

Gordon left Singapore just before the arrival of the invading Japanese. And he left a girl behind. He didn’t intend to leave her but things were rather complicated. She’s dead now but the memories are very much alive.

Gordon had been a pearl smuggler, on a fairly large scale. He had made a very big haul and he had a fortune in pearls hidden in his hotel room. The Japanese invasion made it impossible for him to to retrieve the pearls but there’s no reason to think they aren’t sitting just where he’d left them. The war has made pearls even scarcer so his stash is now worth even more than it had been. Matt Gordon would really like to get those pearls.

The rather sinister Mr Mauribus (Thomas Gomez) also wants the pearls. Mr Mauribus is a dealer in various commodities, but not a very honest one. In truth he’s a gangster. His henchman Sascha (George Lloyd) was supposed to get the pearls back in 1941 but had failed to do so. Now Mr Mauribus and Sascha are confident that Gordon will lead them to the pearls.

Deputy Commissioner Hewitt (Richard Haydn) is also interested in the pearls. Mostly though he wants to arrest Matt Gordon for smuggling. It’s nothing personal but Gordon had been a bit of a thorn in his side and besides Hewitt is the kind of policeman who likes to tidy up loose ends.

Matt Gordon has meanwhile found that old memories can come back to haunt a man in very unexpected ways. The past is not always as dead as one might think. And the past can make the present very complicated indeed.

Michael Van Leyden (Roland Culver) and his wife Anne will also discover just how much impact the past can have on the present.

Singapore is not quite film noir but it utilises classic noir techniques such as flashbacks, and it has an atmosphere that combines elements of the exotic with noir. The real focus though is on the tangled love story.

The film benefits from superb performances from all the supporting players. Thomas Gomez and George Lloyd are wonderfully slimy villains. Richard Haydn is excellent as the dedicated but good-natured policeman. Roland Culver is outstanding. Michael Van Leyden is a man with his own secrets and those secrets involve, like so much in this movie, memories. He’s a complicated man and he gets more complicated as the film progresses.

Ava Gardner is of course the woman at the centre of things and her problems with memories are particularly tricky. She’s not a femme fatale but she’s complicated in her own way. Gardner is an underrated actress and she handles the rĂ´le with skill. 

Fred MacMurray is even more underrated. Anyone who thinks that the stars of the golden age of Hollywood merely recycled the same performance over and over should watch a few of MacMurray’s movies. He could play a slimy and scheming ambitious junior officer in The Caine Mutiny, or a total sleazebag in Double Indemnity. Or, as in Singapore, he could play a very sympathetic and romantic character, albeit a slightly ambiguous character. Matt Gordon is not exactly scrupulously honest but he’s no hoodlum. Even his nemesis, Deputy Commissioner Hewitt, likes him. He’s an irresponsible adventurer who discovers that eventually adventurers have to grow up. MacMuray is superb.

John Brahm directed the movie with considerable panache. While it’s obvious that it was shot in the studio and on the backlot the atmosphere of tropical intrigue is created very convincingly.

The only readily available edition of this movie is an Italian DVD, but don’t despair. It’s an excellent transfer and both the Italian dub and the original English soundtrack (with removable Italian subtitles) are included. 

Singapore is an engaging love story with a bit of film noir-style intrigue and plenty of exotic background, superbly acted and extremely well-crafted. It’s the sort of movie that Hollywood did so very well in the 1940s. Both the movie and the Italian DVD (available from amazon) are very highly recommended.

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