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November 2022

Film Noir Western - Blood on the Moon

This film is a quiet stunner. Blood on the Moon has no moon, but a lot of blood. It’s an early post-World War II film-noir Western that was produced by RKO in 1947, based upon the novel of the same name by Luke Short.

Mr. Short wrote many Westerns that Hollywood adapted for the big screen. I’ve not read any of them, but the consensus of critical opinion is that the stories all paint a bleak picture of the Old West. This movie, released in 1948, is among the most murky of all Westerns from the Golden Age of Hollywood. I mean, it’s really dark — just black and white, and not much in between.

As shown on the big theatre screen of that long-gone entertainment era, the late 1940s and early 1950s, the sublime cinematography by gifted technician Nicholas Musuraca must have been spectacular in scope and spell-binding in effect. When squeezed onto the home wide-screen, however, the images depict flickers where greater illumination and deeper contrasts must have been on a theatrical screen.

That’s the problem with an old, very old movie that has been transferred digitally for the newest modern audience: the celluloid artistry and graphic beauty of the size of the Big Screen often get lost in the DVD boxing of it. There truly is no re-inventing the cinema in your Home Viewing Room. One must take what’s there, and dream of, or at least contemplate, how gorgeous the real thing really was in its original form.

The performances by the major, as well as minor, actors, are superb. Robert Mitchum, as Jim Garry, plays the character type that would soon BE his character type, in film:

A man who starts off with limited choices in life, and those choices don’t get much better or more numerous as time passes by. In fact, he comes to a point where his latest decision, or two, has led him to a moral impasse. And though he’s got enough self-awareness and shrewd smarts to figure out he’s been framed, he’s unable to get out of the frame.

At least in this plot line paradox, he turns his transgressions around and fights his way to redemption. Ergo the blood.

Cowpoke Garry meets up with a former associate in frontier crime, Tate Riling, portrayed by Robert Preston with fantastic believability. Preston oozes vile charm the way no other villain on celluloid ever did.

Mostly due to lack of income, Garry hires on with the Riling gang as a hired gun, and to do whatever else Rilling needs him to do to pull off a swindle involving the cattle of a rancher whom Garry has already encountered in the first scenes of the movie.

The plot of Blood on the Moon revolves around this complex cattle scheme, concocted by Riling. This smarmy mastermind of betrayal has cooked up what he believes is a foolproof way to get steers on the cheap — the classic buy-low, sell-high strategy, or insider trading, which has become the modus operandi for U.S. Congressionals and Senators to represent We the People.

An agent for the U.S. Indian Service is an integral part of the scam/scheme. He’s depicted with loser-gruffness by Frank Faylen, the actor who, ten years later, enacts, with dirty skunk lethargy, Sheriff Cotton Wilson in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Faylen would go on to play the mildly likable father of Dobie GIllis on television in the early 1960s, but, theretofore, he made a terrific lazy, lying secondary, or ancillary, villain!

This swindle betrays both homesteaders and one cattle rancher, including one of the two daughters of that rancher, enacted by Phyllis Thaxton. Tragedy results from this well-planned treachery gone awry, and that dramatic peripeteia, or turning point, reverses many circumstances that have been set into motion. Garry changes sides. His pardner in crime is now his enemy, although Garry himself has earned very few new allies among the ranching camp.

The one person who does believe in the sincere and upright motivation of this newly reformed cowpoke is the other daughter of the rancher, portrayed by Barbara Bel Geddes. Garry must prove his change of heart to himself, to the rancher and to his foreman, not merely to the daughter who had initially shot at him, but now has fallen for him.

Director Robert Wise displayed a highly skilled use of landscape as metaphor and character. The landscape itself, in all tones of black and white, varies from wet and rough, to dry and rough, to snowy and rough. The shadowy darkness intentionally reveals all that the characters wish to hide, but which cannot be hidden forever.

The fascinating techniques by cinematographer Musuraca make use of brilliant light amidst dark forms, silhouettes that vanish into glowing chiaroscuro, landforms such as buttes that form blurry blobs, against which suddenly appear slashes of sharp white light.

The artistry of the celluloid medium triumphs in ways that had yet to be tried, and have yet to be equaled. Mood, emotion, tension, suspense, wonderment, sadness, even revulsion are generated through cinematography, direction, and editing, far more than through thespian dialogue and movement.

The use of close-ups is minimal with medium and long-range shots dominating the viewpoint. Whether or not this deficiency is a draw-back may be a matter of personal taste, but in a film with this much intensity of emotion and action, there ought to have been more intimacy in the camera angles featuring Mitchum and Bel Geddes. The greatest level of intimacy occurs during the brawling in that dingy bar!

Director Wise, however, chose to forego close-ups in favor of claustrophobically tight-framed shots that omit any real dynamic sense of motion — other than a cheaply-composed stampede, but since it’s RKO, that treatment was typical. Warner Brothers would have maintained the grit and the dastardly tough elements, but deep-sixed the small sets that evoke such a sense of impending doom and consistent menace.

Wise was, indeed, wise to have used portions of a setting, indistinguishable hodgepodge and items in disarray, to create the atmosphere of depth INTO which the scene takes place. The horizontal motion across the screen happens outdoors, but, even then, movements are viewed on the diagonal, or at an oblique angle — that advances toward the camera lens.

The audience feels the character coming right toward the screen, at the viewer. It’s hard not to identify with the instinctive desire of Garry to do what has to be done to sabotage Riling, even dying while trying to balance the moral-books that he, Garry, had a big hand in upsetting.

Blood on the Moon is one of those psychological thriller-westerns that concurrently provides action, in spades. A cattle stampede breaks the emotional tension just long enough to toss the viewer into the land of tragedy. Walter Brennan, veteran Western character actor, portrays Kris Barden. The old man is filled with ire and fire, but also instinct and affection for whoever has earned it.

I was most impressed by the steady hand of Barden in switching sides and expecting that no one would really believe in his virtuous motive. Brennan evinces subtleties that weren’t his stock-in-acting-trade; neither is he there as any comic relief, or sidekick to the cowherd, typically in a bar or on the ranch.

This typical RKO flick has very little wasted footage or characters, mostly because RKO worked very much on the cheap as a major studio that specialized in B-movies. The only weak links in Blood on the Moon are the two female characters, the daughters of the rancher about to be ripped off. Those roles are admirably realized by Barbara Bel Geddes and Phyllis Thaxter, but, most unfortunately, their characters are under-utilized and mis-utilized. Such a wasted effort by any storyteller mars an otherwise good and gripping narrative tale. In a Western, the lack of credibility of each female character becomes glaring, especially within a tightly woven storyline.

The women appear to be plot devices, whereas the men are not mere techniques in human form that advance the plot. That disparity becomes more and more obvious as the film progresses, and the involvement of each daughter in the action is expected to be increasingly compelling and dramatic. Woman, was, after all, and still is — the Civilizing Influence!

A good man was hard to find in the Wild West, but these two gals seem to be looking for them —and finding them — in all the wrong places!

The ending of this film veers somewhat into the realm of convenient fantasy with love that is triumphant, and the dirty rotten scoundrels getting, right away, what’s coming to them. The marital pairing of Mitchum with the girl who tried to shoot his ears off at first sight presents, for me, the only film I’ve seen where Mitchum is led to the altar by a woman with whom he has absolutely no chemistry. But her father is right there, alongside them, to ensure the one good daughter gets the hero, in the end.

Lillie Hayward wrote the screenplay, as adapted from the novel to screen by Harold Shumate and by the author Luke Short. They crafted dialogue that is masterful, powerful, and most memorable. I won’t quote any of the sensationally profound and pithy lines of this Old West dialogue because each gem is best experienced first-hand for yourself while watching the movie.

Blood on the Moon might not have exhibited any moon, shining down upon all of that grand land, gussied up in b&w cinematography, but maybe the moon wasn’t needed. The light of the snow, and the glow of the face of a man regaining his conscience outshine any moonlight.

As for the blood, well, this film more than fulfills its ominous title. Superstition states that whenever there’s blood on the moon, someone is about to get killed. There’s more than enough deadly deeds in this flick, along with a barroom brawl that aims to end the life of at least one man.

That intense fight between Garry/Mitchum and Riling/Preston is as real as any grueling slug-fest can get. The vicious vengeance of Riling versus the counterblows to claim virtue by Garry, flickering amidst the shadows and the blurry light in that bar, earn this film many stars, shining ones too.