Forbidden (1953)

Forbidden (1953) is a gangster abroad illicit love affair mobster's widow exotica romance film noir set in Macao, directed by Rudolph Mate and starring Tony Curtis, Joanne Dru and Lyle Bettger.

Echoing the heights of 1940s noir theme atmosphere and exciting the dark brew with the sunlight of the 1950s Forbidden bothers itself into existence as a low-subsistence noir which is recognisable as the cinema of ideas that have come before. 

Romantic complications are the order of the day as are snippy twists and the constant colliding of three actors, often crammed into one shot — Tony Curtis, Joanne Dru and Lyle Bettger. 

The idea of dreaming the noir city into being when the city is Macao, and your film is shot on the lot — it is a big ask. Without much scenery to lean on, the actors look even closer together. The main set is a night club, the Lisbon Club, which is rather nice, but the noir city may not be entirely evident.

In 1953, Macao was a Portuguese colony situated on the southern coast of China, near Hong Kong. In film noir it's another studio and mis en scene evoked wrap of fakery employing faces, props, sets, accents, minor alterations to costumes and quick location shots or stock footage.

Macao had been a Portuguese colony since the 16th century, and in 1953, it remained under Portuguese administration. The colonial influence was evident in the architecture, governance, and cultural aspects of the territory.

Macao's strategic location on the South China Sea made it an important trading port. It served as a gateway for Western nations engaging in trade with China and other parts of Asia.

Macao had a diverse population that included Chinese, Portuguese, and people from various Southeast Asian nations. The multicultural nature of the population contributed to a rich tapestry of languages, traditions, and cuisines.

The economy of Macao in the 1950s was driven by trade, manufacturing, and services. The territory was known for its vibrant markets, where various goods from Asia and Europe were bought and sold.

Macao's architectural landscape was characterized by a blend of Chinese and Portuguese influences. Historic buildings, churches, and temples coexisted, reflecting the cultural and religious diversity of the population.

Macao was known for its vibrant entertainment scene, including theatres, restaurants, and casinos. Gambling had been legalized in the 19th century, and by the 1950s, Macao had developed a reputation as a destination for those seeking gaming and entertainment.

In 1953, Macao was still under Portuguese colonial rule. The political dynamics of the time included interactions with neighbouring China, and there were occasional challenges to Portuguese authority. However, Macao maintained a degree of autonomy within the colonial framework.

The social fabric of Macao was influenced by the interaction of different communities. The Chinese and Portuguese communities coexisted, and there was a blending of cultural practices and traditions.

Transportation in Macao primarily relied on maritime routes. Ferries connected Macao to Hong Kong and other nearby regions. The territory was also accessible by land routes from mainland China.

The 1950s marked a period of transition and change in Macao's history. The geopolitical landscape of the region was evolving, and discussions about the future of Macao's status were already underway.

Macao maintained a degree of stability during this period, the 1960s and 1970s would see increased political and social changes, eventually leading to the end of Portuguese colonial rule in 1999 when Macao was handed back to China.

The story is told in a voiceover that announces itself and then disappears. It is the most unoticeable and strange style of voiceover and the other film which makes a virtue of this early appeaance and quick disappearcne of voiceover style is Singapore, with Fred MacMurray and Ava Gardner

Mobster Alan Dexter has a weird idea of fun, we must assume. He's a syndicate boss in Philadelphia and he sends out the former boyfriend of a rival's widow searching for her halfway around the world to Macoa. 

The former boyfriend of his rival's widow is Tony Curtis's who then in Macao finds his lost love Joanne Dru about to married to Lyle Bettger a local powerful kingpin casino owner in his own right. To make sure Tony Curtis does what he has told, Dexter has sent Marvin Miller after Tony. And that is the set-up.

The 1950s witnessed a continuation of orientalist portrayals of Asia and Asian people in Hollywood movies. Orientalism refers to the way Western cultures have historically depicted and characterized the East, often relying on stereotypes, exoticism, and romanticized or exaggerated elements. During the 1950s, these depictions persisted in various films, influenced by societal attitudes, geopolitical dynamics, and cinematic traditions. Here are some common features of orientalist portrayals in 1950s movies:

Tony Curtis as Eddie Darrow drags a romance out of Joanne Drew. Constantly inexpressive in both daylight and darkness Tony Curtis as Eddie Darrow is hard to read, although he is good on his feet and fast in a hand to hand.

"But before was such a long time ago" he says.

Asian characters were often portrayed through narrow stereotypes, reinforcing prevailing Western perceptions. Common stereotypes included the submissive and subservient Asian woman, the mysterious and inscrutable Asian man, or the wise, old sage.

Asia was frequently presented as an exotic and mysterious land, emphasizing cultural practices, traditions, and landscapes perceived as different from the Western norm. This contributed to an "othering" of Asian cultures, reinforcing a sense of Western superiority.

Martial arts and mystical practices were often sensationalized and portrayed in a way that heightened their perceived exoticism. Asian characters were sometimes depicted as possessing secret, ancient knowledge or mystical powers.

Films set in Asia often featured romanticized, picturesque landscapes and settings that catered to Western fantasies. These depictions were more about creating an exotic backdrop than accurately representing the diverse realities of Asian cultures.

In a practice known as yellowface, white actors were sometimes cast to play Asian characters, often with makeup, accents, and other exaggerated features. This practice reinforced stereotypes and denied opportunities for authentic representation.

The geopolitical tensions of the Cold War influenced the portrayal of Asians in movies. There was a tendency to depict Asian characters as either allies or adversaries in the context of the Cold War struggle, contributing to simplified and sometimes jingoistic portrayals.

Asian characters were often relegated to limited and formulaic narrative roles. They might appear as sidekicks, villains, or love interests, with their stories subordinated to the overarching narrative.

Elements of Asian culture were frequently appropriated without a deep understanding or respect for their cultural significance. This included clothing, rituals, and symbols used for aesthetic purposes rather than authentic representation.

The immortal love triangle starring Lyle Bettger, Joanne Dru and Tony Curtis in Forbidden (1953)

Orientalist portrayals were prevalent in mainstream Hollywood films of the 1950s, there were also instances of resistance and critique from within the industry and beyond. Over the decades, efforts have been made to challenge and rectify these stereotypes, and discussions about authentic representation continue in contemporary cinema.

Forbidden remains the remains of other film noir composed of elements from Casablanca and To Have and Have Not, as well as Gilda, on which Rudolph Maté worked as director of photography.

Forbidden looks good as it should from Rudolph Maté but it paces along well too, in the same speed-walking mode of Edmond O'Brien in Maté's D.O.A. and non of the more drawn out passages of The Dark Past and Union Station.

Mamie Van Doren miming in the distance in a club scene in Forbidden (1953)
This should be called Mimie Van Doren.

Although we know the set up from Gilda with this being a similar story but in Macao instead of Buenos Aires, with Lyle Bettger for a night club manager instead of the megalomaniac pointy stick thruster James MacReady, with no Rita Hayworth but Joanne Dru instead, with none other than Mamie Van Doren doing the pretending to be singing in the distance there, and a young Tony Curtis chasing her to paranoid lengths.

Sounds daft as it should, but in fact the story is almost better than Gilda. A major plus of this film is that instead of Steven Geray it has film is Victor Sen Yung as the pianist factotum who knows everything and everyone and is a genius with information. 

And also becoming buddies with a criminal is a great tried and tested film noir line. The drifter hero happens across a fight in the street and saves the life of a wealthy casino owner and gangland local heavyweight. 

Inside the casino the drifter hero becomes even more useful, casually spotting crew members on the take and proving himself invaluable to the powerful man. Then of course, like in Gilda, there is the question of the powerful man's leading lady and wat is going to happen there.

As if we did not know.

Despite Tony Curtis constant urbanity and lovely suit, which is incidentally ripped at the start, and he has to take his shirt off for ages — Forbidden (1953) aims to cuddle up to noir while pointing itself in the direction of adventure drama films where exotic atmosphere is mixed up with femmes fatales, tough villains, and romance, and for those we have Macao, Calcultta, Tangiers, Istanbul, Tokyo Joe and The Big Steal. The |Big Steal and Singapore are the more purely film noir of this global village of adventure movies.

Forbidden's commonality with Casablanca is the inclusion of a song that has special meaning to both the man and woman, played on a piano. 

Here it's You Belong to Me, which had been a top hit on the pop charts the previous year. It's played during the opening credits, and occasionally thereafter. Mamie Van Doren is pictured singing it in the nightclub, though dubbed.

The plot is complex enough to hold one's interest. Tony and Joanne have 2 distinct gangster organizations to deal with, one(Justin) in Macao, and the other(Burney Pendleton) in Philadelphia, from where both originated just before their trip to the Far East. Since Joanne had just married Justin, (presumably at gun point), the screenplay fails to follow up on her inheritance of his assets and criminal activities. However, she does submit to the law papers she wrote up about how Pendleton tried to kill her, as well as her then husband.

Car spotters will enjoy a white Jaguar XK120 in Forbidden (1953)!

Forbidden (1953) at Wikipedia

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