“Malaya” (1949) is a WWII film that is much more serious than it first appears. This is mostly due to the tremendous cast that we have come to love and enjoy every time we see them. In fact, I am regularly drawn to Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Sydney Greenstreet and John Barrymore because those four tremendously talented actors always find a way to make me smile. “Malaya” however, is not a film that is filled with smiles. It is a film that has a message to deliver, and all four of these actors are here not so much to entertain as they are to make us pay attention.
Jimmy Stewart plays a newspaper man named John Royer, who after traveling the world writing stories about the war, returns to America to find that newspaper publisher John Manchester (John Barrymore) has a keen interest in Royer’s knowledge of the rubber crop in Japanese-held Malaya. Manchester connects Royer to a government agent named Kellar (John Hodiak) who listens to Royer’s plan to get the rubber out. Royer does have a plan, but it requires the services (and smuggling abilities) of his former associate, Carnaghan (Spencer Tracy). Carnaghan is currently in prison, but the government offers to have him released in exchange for his assistance. Royer is participating in the operation because his brother was killed in the War, and now he has a desire to contribute in his own way, but Carnaghan is doing it for the money (although his character isn’t the type to back down from any fight once he gets in the middle of things).
Royer and Carnaghan head off to Malaya where they meet up with another of Carnaghan’s former associates, that everyone calls The Dutchman (Sydney Greenstreet). He runs a bar as a front for all his illegal activities, that also is the local hangout for mercenaries for hire and a nightclub singer (and former girl of Carnaghans), Luana (Valentina Cortese). Royer and Carnaghan tell The Dutchman their plan and he agrees to help connect them to the right people in Malaya, while trying to keep them under the Japanese Commander’s (Richard Loo) radar.
Obviously with this kind of talent connected to the film, the acting is impeccable. All of the cast and crew were such professionals that every scene has been made to the highest quality possible. You can see that the actors took the story seriously and felt that the message was an important one to share. Tracy and Stewart have a great on screen dynamic and it’s a shame we couldn’t have seen them in more films during this stage of their careers. John Barrymore is only in the film for a few minutes, but because he is John Barrymore, his added credibility makes his scenes feel more important than they would have, had an extra been cast. Likewise, Greenstreet has often been a source of some comic moments in his films, and he still has a few great lines, but it is definitely a more serious turn for him as well. It proved to be Sydney Greenstreet’s final film as he retired after filming was completed. I must say that I am sorry that he didn’t make more films in his career, because I find him to be one of the most enjoyable character actors of all time.
The only real problem with “Malaya” is in its lack of surprise. The plot is pretty straight forward and you can easily see where things are heading. The good news is that it doesn’t really matter. It is better to just sit back and enjoy this solidly formed film without over stressing its predictability.Back to Home for More Reviews