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Blood on the Moon

12 Dec

Having already covered a number of westerns which have crossed over into noir territory, it’s time to turn the spotlight on one more. If we regard the mid-late 1940s as the heyday of film noir proper, then it’s only reasonable to find one of the strongest western variants within that time period. Blood on the Moon (1948) follows all the typical western conventions but uses a recognizably noir figure as its protagonist and employs the dark cinema’s trademark shadowy photography to emphasize both the sense of danger and moral ambiguity implicit in the story. As is always the case with these genre straddling examples, the film stops just short of being noir at its purest – the essential pessimism of that form rarely blending naturally or completely into a western story.

Jim Garry (Robert Mitchum) is one of those guys who’s no stranger to bad luck, a drifter with an ill-defined past first seen traversing a bleak and rocky ridge in the middle of a driving rain storm. When you see a guy strike a frugal camp and bed down to rest his weary bones, gaining some respite from the harsh elements, only to have his outfit smashed to pulp by a wildly stampeding herd of cattle, it’s easy to tell fortune isn’t exactly smiling on him. The herd belongs to Lufton (Tom Tully), and when Garry is taken back to the cattleman’s campsite he receives a kind of backhanded welcome. The west of Blood on the Moon isn’t an open or warm place, rather it’s a world of shadows, suspicion and wariness. Garry has ridden into a developing range war, the classic stand-off between the ranchers and the homesteaders. On one side we have Lufton, a rancher with a herd of beef that the Indian agent has refused to buy and which is about to be seized by the army unless it’s removed from the reservation post-haste. The opposition is a ragtag bunch of settlers, organized and dominated by Tate Riling (Robert Preston), and bolstered in strength by a handful of hired gunmen. Riling is denying Lufton access to old grazing land, ostensibly on the pretext that he’s defending the rights of the settlers. However, his real motivation is the opportunity to force Lufton into selling to him on the cheap, thus allowing him to make a financial killing through his dealings with the crooked Indian agent (Frank Faylen). Garry and Riling are old friends, the former having arrived due to the promise of a job with Riling. Initially, Garry isn’t particularly thrilled with the role he’s been cast in but a job’s a job. Although he doesn’t put it into words, it clear enough that Garry is uneasy about the double-dealing of Riling. What’s more, he’s clearly more impressed by the apparent straightforwardness of Lufton, and then there’s the attraction he feels towards the rancher’s younger daughter, Amy (Barbara Bel Geddes). For Garry, the turning point arrives in the aftermath of a violent raid on Lufton’s encampment that leads to the tragic death of the son of a widowed settler (Walter Brennan). With his realization of the depth of Riling’s ruthlessness, Garry experiences a crisis of conscience and finds his allegiance shifting.

Apart from the strong cast, Blood on the Moon featured a wealth of talent behind the cameras too. The story was adapted from Luke Short’s novel Gunman’s Chance, and has a scripting credit for the author himself. It appears that story caught the attention of the up and coming Robert Wise and he persuaded Dore Schary to let him run with the project. Wise had served a long and telling apprenticeship at RKO, editing Citizen Kane for Orson Welles and directing a couple of pictures for Val Lewton. In learning his trade, Wise had been keeping some esteemed company, and the experience showed up in this his first stab at directing a western. With cameraman Nicholas Musuraca achieving beautiful effects with light and shadow, Wise produced a western that’s dark, moody and heavy on atmosphere. There’s some good use of Arizona locations for the exteriors, but the most memorable aspect of the film is the gloomy and claustrophobic interior work. The low ceilings of the buildings, illuminated by guttering oil lamps, seem to press down on the characters, squeezing them and restricting their options as much as their movements. Although there are a number of noteworthy scenes, the highlight is arguably the brawl between Mitchum and Preston in a deserted cantina. This isn’t the typical cartoon scrap that we find in countless westerns; instead it’s a vicious and visceral affair that sees the two combatants slugging it out realistically. There’s no music to distract from the thudding, crunching landing of blows, and the naturalistic half-light makes the bruised and bloody faces and hands all the more convincing.

The first scene we shot after Mitch got outfitted was in the barroom. Walter Brennan was sitting at a table with a couple of pals and Brennan was very interested in the Old West, it was a hobby of his. And I’ll never forget when Bob came on the set, just standing there, with the costume and the whole attitude that he gave to it, and Brennan got a look at him and was terribly impressed. He pointed at Mitchum and said, “That is the goddamndest realest cowboy I’ve ever seen!”  – Robert Mitchum – Baby, I Don’t Care by Lee Server, Faber & Faber 2001, p180

The above quote comes from Robert Wise and is as good an illustration as any of the degree of authenticity that Robert Mitchum brought to his western roles. Brennan’s observation was spot on for Mitchum does indeed look the real deal here and gives another of his deceptively easy performances. While he seemed to relish the physical stuff that I mentioned above the quieter scenes are played out with great subtlety and, throughout it all, he moved around the landscape and sets with tremendous grace. Robert Preston was good casting as Riling, turning on the false charm and grins when it suited and really bringing out the slippery side of the character. I thought Barbara Bel Geddes was impressive too, even though the western wasn’t a genre she did a lot of work in. Her role called for a fair bit of shooting and riding and she made for a game, independent heroine. The supporting cast is a long and starry one: Walter Brennan, Tom Tully, the wonderfully gritty Charles McGraw, Phyllis Thaxter, Frank Faylen and Clifton Young all doing good work and helping to flesh out the story.

Blood on the Moon is available on DVD from both Montparnasse in France and Odeon in the UK. Seeing as I have the two discs, I’m of the opinion that the transfers are identical – both sport the same significant print damage during the raid/stampede scene at around the half hour mark. In terms of extras, the French disc (with optional subs) has the usual disposable introduction, and the UK release has a gallery. Overall, I suppose the Odeon disc is marginally more attractive, at least in relation to its packaging which features a reproduction of the original poster art on the reverse of the sleeve. The aforementioned damage, along with various other nicks and scratches, show that no restoration work has been done and the transfer does tend to look a little soft. However, the feature is quite watchable and there are no better alternatives that I’m aware of anyway. The movie is an entertaining and striking one, a strong entry in the filmographies of both Mitchum and Wise. The development and resolution of the plot do dilute the noir credentials to an extent yet the strong visual style means it never strays too far either. Personally, I feel it hits the mark as a western and comes pretty close as a film noir too; as such, it’s recommended to fans of both types of movie.

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26 Comments

Posted by on December 12, 2012 in 1940s, Robert Mitchum, Robert Wise, Westerns

 

26 responses to “Blood on the Moon

  1. Randy Johnsonr

    December 12, 2012 at 9:23 am

    Fine review. You covered it much better than I did.

     
    • Colin

      December 12, 2012 at 9:38 am

      Thank you Randy. I’d missed your own article on the movie – which can be found here – and just checked it out.

      It’s a great little movie with an extremely mature performance from Mitchum, in spite of his youth.

       
  2. le0pard13

    December 12, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    A Robert Wise film I really need to finally see. I hope TCM will broadcast it (or a MOD will arrive) as only the pricey R2 is available here. Thanks, Colin.

     
    • Colin

      December 12, 2012 at 7:57 pm

      Actually, the UK disc isn’t that pricey at the moment if you shop around Michael. MovieMail, who are a reliable retailer, have it at a competitive price here.

       
      • le0pard13

        December 12, 2012 at 7:59 pm

        Ooooh, thanks for the link, Colin.

         
        • Colin

          December 12, 2012 at 8:00 pm

          You’re very welcome Michael.

           
  3. hawkswill

    December 12, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    Thanks Colin. Have seen all you recommended so far. This one goes on the list also. Have any to recommend with Ward in them, LOL? HAGO, KEITH

     
    • Colin

      December 12, 2012 at 7:58 pm

      You could probably recommend some to me Keith! Anyway, this is a little sleeper that’s well worth checking out.

       
  4. Cavershamragu

    December 12, 2012 at 8:20 pm

    Definitely the Noirest Western I’ve ever seen – great review Colin. Plus, for me at least, Wise remains for me a really under appreciated talent so I always really enjoy reading reviews where he gets given his due! Shame there isn’t a better DVD though …

     
    • Colin

      December 12, 2012 at 8:47 pm

      Thanks Sergio.
      The Odeon DVD (and the French release too) is quite watchable but could be a lot better too – there’s a really nasty splice around the 30 minute mark. This film is fairly heavily reliant on its visuals so even a little weakness there is disappointing. RKO titles are frequently problematic and the condition of the elements is likely the reason the film hasn’t appeared in the Archive in the US yet.

      I think Wise made some terrific movies: Blood on the Moon, The Set-Up, The Body Snatcher, Odds Against Tomorrow, Run Silent Run Deep, The Day the Earth Stood Still…I could go on. There’s an amazing body of first rate work bearing his name yet many people tend to think of him only as the man who made The Sound of Music.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        December 12, 2012 at 9:05 pm

        And of course this is a movie with a really great title – even before I saw it I reckoned I would like a film with a name like that (sic). Wise and Mitchum also made TWO FOR THE SEESAW, which is as always with Wise a beautifully controlled movie and another title that seems little talked about these days.

         
        • Colin

          December 12, 2012 at 9:13 pm

          Yep, the title is a real attention grabber and raises expectations.

          I’m quite fond of Two for the Seesaw. It’s a very different piece of work for the director and star but it’s also a very human and touching story. It does seem a neglected film though – a shame. The UK DVD from MGM has a lovely anamorphic widescreen transfer, and it’s very cheap too.

           
          • Cavershamragu

            December 12, 2012 at 9:20 pm

            Yeah, that’s the one that I’ve got – I think it was Wise’s last film in black and white and his use of the scope image, as in THE HAUNTING (wish that would come out on Blu), is really impressive. In my mind I always put BLOOD ON THE MOON in a double bill with PURSUED though it’s not they are that closely themed but …

             
            • Colin

              December 12, 2012 at 9:35 pm

              The Haunting is marvelous, isn’t it? One of the most atmospheric and unsettling chillers around.

              I know what you mean about this film and Pursued. Both movies featuring Mitchum and being prime slices of western noir from around the same time does tend to present a strong link.

               
              • Cavershamragu

                December 12, 2012 at 11:12 pm

                In a way, as intense and as Noir-ish as they clearly are, to me they are two approaches to the psychological Western that won’t really come to fruition until the Mann/Stewart films of the 50s, which is not meant to denigrate either, but as you rightly point out, they do feel a bit like two conjoined genres rather than a harmonious whole

                 
                • Colin

                  December 13, 2012 at 7:35 am

                  Yes, that’s a good point. It’s interesting to think that it was at the time that film noir was nearing the end of its classic run and the western was probably just hitting its peak that the two styles of filmmaking came closest.

                   
  5. Samuel Blaquet

    December 12, 2012 at 10:03 pm

    Before reading what you have written, I’ll watch “Blood on the Moon” (“Ciel rouge” in French) once again. I’ve had this dvd (Montparnasse) for a few years now and I must confess that it’s not that fresh on my mind. I’ll let you know.

     
    • Colin

      December 12, 2012 at 10:06 pm

      That’s great Samuel. I hope you return and add your thoughts.

       
  6. Laura

    December 13, 2012 at 7:37 am

    Love this movie. I had a great experience being able to see it at UCLA in 2011. Thank you for calling attention to it! I enjoyed your thoughts very much.

    Walter Brennan’s got a fantastic line that starts “I always wanted to shoot one of you…” It’s a great moment in a movie filled with some really good scenes and lines.

    I think of Wise somewhat like Michael Curtiz — he could do any kind of film and do it well. It also seems, based on comments from actors such as the SOUND OF MUSIC children, that he was a very nice man which is always nice to hear.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

     
    • Colin

      December 13, 2012 at 7:53 am

      Thanks Laura – the movie must have looked great on the big screen. Your comment reminds me that I really should have given a little more attention to Brennan in writing this one up. He delivered that line you mention perfectly, but his character seems to undergo some kind of transformation after that point and it doesn’t quite work. Previously there had been a pathos and tragedy about him, and then it suddenly disappears. You can’t blame the actor for that but the script does take a curious turn with regards to his character.

       
  7. Vienna

    December 13, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    Thank you for fine review. Definitely an atmospheric western. Mitchum perfect.
    Nice part for Phyllis Thaxter as she realises she is betraying her father.
    What about that fur coat Charles McGraw wears!
    A western I can happily watch more than once and another Robert Wise winner

     
    • Colin

      December 13, 2012 at 7:27 pm

      Cheer Vienna.
      McGraw’s fur coat is something else – looks like he ripped it off some poor beast with his bare hands! :)
      To be honest, it’s a pity he wasn’t given a bigger part in the movie – he’s always great to watch.
      I thought Phyllis Thaxter was fine too. She had a much smaller part than Bel Geddes but it’s arguably the more interesting role and she did well.

       
  8. Samuel Blaquet

    December 19, 2012 at 9:49 am

    Very close to a film noir in a western setting, yes. Once again, Colin, all that could be said about this (very) good western, you said it. A gloomy atmosphere. Even the outdoor scenes – many of which are night scenes – don’t have the bright and sunny quality one is accustomed to in most westerns. Looks like twilight or night time is quite always the right time for the drama to take place.
    Which didn’t bother me at all. Robert Mitchum’s usual underplay is perfectly suited to the gunman’s character he plays (predating his part in “The Wonderful Country”?), unstably poised between a will to redeem, an attraction to righteouness and the wild side he’s been operating on for so long, as we understand. Just like the movie itself stands halfway between film noir and western. To my great pleasure, I must say.

     
    • Colin

      December 19, 2012 at 10:44 am

      The lighting in this one is great, isn’t it? But then that’s not entirely unsurprising with Musuraca behind the camera.

      Good point too about Mitchum’s role here foreshadowing the part of Brady in The Wonderful Country.

       
  9. starkholborn

    December 29, 2012 at 12:36 pm

    Great review… I’m writing a pulp Western series at the moment, and am always after unusual, fresh takes on the genre. Have you read (recent Western) The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt? It’s got a similar feel early Kubrick style noir, like The Killing. The same semi-tragic absurdity that comes with moral doubt. Anyhow, I’ll be looking this up.

     
    • Colin

      December 29, 2012 at 2:41 pm

      Thanks, good to have you on board. No, I’ve never heard of The Sisters Brothers, but it certainly sounds interesting and I’ll make a point of looking it up.

       

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