Sometimes it’s hard to know how to categorize a movie; it may have certain familiar and identifiable features that one associates with a particular genre, yet either fails to capitalize on these or mixes in the traits of another type of movie. Of course that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and a touch of the unexpected can enliven a stale formula. But not always. Singapore (1947) has many of the trappings that are associated with film noir: dark, shadowy imagery, a flashback, a voiceover narration, a slightly unscrupulous protagonist, a mysterious woman. Still, it’s not a noir picture; there’s too much melodramatic romance and half-hearted adventure tossed in there. Ultimately, it’s a movie that flirts with a handful of genres and suffers a bit of an identity crisis as a result. Besides that, it’s just not very good.
Matt Gordon (Fred MacMurray) is a pearl smuggler – we learn this when he’s pulled in to the custom’s office the moment his plane touches down in Singapore. With the war over, he’s returning to his old haunts and the authorities suspect that he’s likely to return to his old trade too. As Gordon wanders through the hotel where he formerly resided, he’s suddenly assailed by memories. A flashback sequence sees him in the days leading up to the Japanese attack and introduces the old lover whose loss still preys on his mind. Gordon and Linda Grahame (Ava Gardner) had one of those whirlwind romances that are often found in wartime movies. Just as the couple are about to tie the knot the bombing raids commence, and he races back to his hotel to recover the fortune in pearls he has stashed there. Failing to recover his treasure, he returns to find the chapel in ruins and Linda missing presumed dead. And so we’re up to speed – Gordon has come back to Singapore hoping his pearls may still be retrievable. As he awaits the opportunity to check out his old quarters and see if the loot is still there, he spies Linda. The woman he thought had perished in the bombed out chapel is alive and well, but has no recollection of who he is. Amnesia – we’re back in noir territory, right? Wrong. Loss of memory can serve as a great plot device when it involves blanking out secrets that carry a threat or danger. In Singapore, that’s not the case at all and the story becomes bogged down in a soapy love triangle that really only has two sides. Sure, there’s an attempt to milk some suspense and intrigue from the secondary business of two cartoon villains (Thomas Gomez and George Lloyd) also seeking the elusive pearls, but again the absence of any real threat hamstrings that element.
Casablanca struck gold when it placed its two eternal lovers in an exotic locale, but a movie needs more than that to succeed. Lots of films have tried to tap into that vibe (Macao, Calcutta, Saigon etc.) but the results have been variable at best. For me, Singapore fails on two levels; the central romance and half-hearted mystery just aren’t engaging, and the leads don’t have any spark together. Although both MacMurray and Gardner are good enough in their respective roles they have no chemistry whatsoever, and that’s a major issue when the script revolves around an apparent grand passion. As if that weren’t enough, the chief stumbling block preventing the couple from picking up where they left off – Gardner’s post-amnesia marriage to a planter – rings hollow and utterly fails to convince. As the villain, Thomas Gomez is surprisingly toothless and his character’s borderline incompetence means that we never seriously doubt MacMurray’s ability to get the upper hand. Director John Brahm made a number of noir-tinged melodramas that have much to recommend them, but Singapore is certainly among his weaker efforts. I’m generally a fan of his work and he does his best to inject some style into this humdrum production. The angles are varied and the sets are cleverly lit to enhance the atmosphere as far as possible. Still, apart from a short sequence which sees MacMurray struggling to extract his hidden pearls while avoiding the attentions of the law next door, there’s precious little tension on view.
As far as I’m aware, the only current commercial release of Singapore is the recent DVD from Universal in France. Generally, the film has been presented well; the transfer does exhibit some dirt and speckles but this is really only noticeable right at the beginning. The image is satisfactorily sharp and contrast is consistent throughout. There are no extra features offered and the French subtitles are optional and can be disabled via the setup menu – burnt-in captions do appear though on a handful of occasions when text is displayed, but this is too rare and minor to be regarded as a black mark. I guess I’ve made it clear enough that this isn’t an especially good or memorable movie. Singapore was later remade as the Errol Flynn vehicle Istanbul and while that’s no great shakes either, it’s arguably a stronger film. This one is attractively shot and Ava Gardner looks wonderful as always, but that’s about it. I can’t say I got much out of the movie and it’s not one I’d recommend tracking down.