Thursday, September 11, 2014


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.

Wise, Musuraca, and art directors Albert D’Agostino and Walter Keller played up their noir/suspense strengths – all of them worked at RKO on horror films. Even composer Roy Webb was more experienced writing suspense scores (including Notorious, Out of the Past). Wise would later go on to direct outright noir with The Set-Up (1949) in the following year and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) at the end of the cycle. His strength as a director and his ability to pick a crack team is abundantly available here. Though sometimes lagging in pace, the film is a nice blend of masculine bravado, down-home family dynamics, more typical western scenes, and moments of explosive, realistic violence.

With themes of vengeance, violence, greed, and morality, Blood on the Moon is well worth a look for fans of both westerns and film noir. Robert Mitchum is captivating, as always, and basically carries the film himself with some help from Barbara Bel Geddes (Vertigo, Panic the Streets) as Amy, Garry’s rough-and-tumble love interest who first meets him by shooting at him in a rare, humorous scene. Garry, not one to make exceptions for the ladies, gives as good as he gets, of course. As with many other noir efforts, there is a complex relationship between two leading male characters, one that is often more involved than the protagonist and his love interest. Mitchum and Robert Preson (This Gun for Hire) have great charisma and immediately establish that Garry and Riling (Preston) are incredibly close and have often trusted each other with their lives. In something of a triangle between Amy and Riling, Garry is torn between living in a society made up masculine, power-driven greed and corruption (a typically noir world) or choosing domesticity, honesty, and integrity.

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.

Though it’s not available on DVD due to copyright issues, Blood on the Moon comes recommended thanks to the wonderful atmosphere, direction, and performances (one day I’ll figure out why Robert Mitchum is so charismatic and appealing). You can find it on TCM occasionally or streaming online. It had to compete with Howard Hawks’ superior Red River, also released that year, which is possibly why it’s overlooked, but it deserves a resurgence among fans of '40s and '50s cinema, film noir, westerns, Robert Wise, and, of course, Robert Mitchum.

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