Robert Wise, 1948
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Barbara Bel Geddes, Robert Preston
Jim Garry, a wandering cowboy, comes across the Luftons, a family of ranchers bitterly protecting their land and cattle against Tate Riling, who just happens to be Garry’s closest friend. Though he initially begins working with Riling as something of a gunman and body guard, he soon begins to realize that Riling is developing a scheme to clean out the generally honest Luftons and though he would make quite a profit – and much to everyone’s surprise – Garry changes sides with predictably violent results.
Based on Gunman’s Chance by Luke Short, Blood on the Moon (what a title) is generally considered a psychological-western or western-noir, which is why I’ve included it with this series – plus Robert Wise is one of America’s finest directors and his films are always a delight. Loosely similar to 1947’s Pursued, another noir-themed western starring the ever-wonderful Robert Mitchum, Blood on the Moon is far darker than the typical western being released during this period. Mitchum is the perfect embodiment of the hard-boiled cowboy and the ease with which he expresses moral ambiguity works wonderfully for the film. Mostly, credit for the film’s success should go to cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who turned the frontier into a place of night and shadow, claustrophobia, violence, and murky morality. Famous for his work on Out of the Past (also with Mitchum) and Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), a contender for first-ever film noir, Musuraca really stretched his legs with RKO and Val Lewton on Cat People (1942), where director Robert Wise also worked as an editor and later a director.
Shot in California and Arizona, the scenery is breathtaking, particularly the gritty fight sequences. There’s plenty of serious fighting and action, including a wonderful chase sequence through the mountains and a tougher, dirtier version of the standard gun battle. Garry and Riling’s close relationship make these fights particularly suspenseful, as it is soon established that Riling isn’t afraid of a few casualties in his path and, ultimately, both men shoot to kill.