Not often remembered as one of Hollywood's great on-screen couples -- I'm totally stealing Turner Classic Movie's Ben Mankiewicz's introduction! -- Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck worked together four times during their illustrious characters. Double Indemnity is a classic, and I loved the Christmas-themed Remember the Night. Let's add a third to the list with today's review, 1953's The Moonlighter.
Wasting away in a jail in a small western town, an outlaw, Wes Anderson (MacMurray), has been captured for cattle rustling and is awaiting trial. Outside the jail though, some restless cowboys don't want to wait for that trial though, and through a case of mistaken identity, the wrong man is lynched, leaving Wes to escape with his life. He's torn up inside because a relatively innocent man (a hobo) died for absolutely no reason and struggles with how to handle the guilt. The only thing Wes knows is the outlaw life, whether it be rustling or bank robbing, and that's right where he reverts back to with no other options available to him. As Wes puts together a plan to rob a bank -- with some help from an old partner and his down-on-his-luck brother -- he finds out that a woman from his past, Rela (Stanwyck), is on his trail and looking for some answers.
I love westerns. I thought I'd like this generally forgotten, low-budget(ish) entry to the genre from director Roy Rowland. I was wrong. It's just not very good with too many negatives that cancel out some of its elements with some potential to offer. Good cast? Check. Story with rapid changes in tone? Double check. As soon as there's something to sit back and enjoy/appreciate, there's something equally frustrating that cancels it out.
That starts with the Wes character, MacMurray getting a rare chance at a villainous character. Sounds good, right? Can't go wrong with a star often associated with Father Knows Best and several Disney movies as a cattle-rustling outlaw...until you can. The script is rough. It starts off promising as we meet a grizzled Wes who hasn't shaved in days and is patiently sitting in a jail cell. When everything goes to hell with a lynching of mistaken identity (new band name?), so does the character. Wes' guilt is too much, and he takes it out on the lynching party. It's played like we should feel for him as he's wracked with guilt over what happened, but yeah, I'm not seeing it. His "revenge" is pretty weak too, roping some of the lynchers and then dragging them for awhile. He ropes Jack Elam (because Jack Elam was a villain in EVERY 1950 western) and we're not necessarily sure how much he does so there's that, but come on, if he's full of angst and vengeance, do it right. Make him pissed off and vengeful!
Further removing any edge off the character is the reliance on the love story. MacMurray and Stanwyck had unquestioned chemistry, but again, there's little reason to feel sympathetic for their stories. A tortured love from the past is typically a western-killer, especially when Stanwyck's Rela admits that "her love was too demanding, too strong" and that her demands drove...Wes...to...crime. Ugh, gag me. That's weak. And true love if you ask me! There's also a wasted subplot that doesn't live up to its potential with Wes' younger brother, Tom (William Ching), now engaged to Rela but struggling with where he's at in life. Never quite lives up to its dark potential, including the final act after a genuinely good -- if somewhat telegraphed -- 'twist.' Meh, why go with interesting when you can go with never-ending love full of passionate hugs and adults rubbing cheeks with their love?!?
Also look for Ward Bond as Cole Gardner, Wes' old partner, another rare opportunity for an actor who typically played good guys to get a bad guy role. Along with Elam, look for familiar faces John Dierkes and Morris Ankrum in small parts.
Just a western that tries too much. It's 75-minutes long and tries to tackle way too much. It even has an intermission! It starts off very strong but derails following the lynching scene, including a bizarre flashback as Wes starts to exact his revenge on the lynching party and the town. The scene develops with an intense tone of doom but ends up playing like a spoof. 'Moonlighter' is unfortunately never truly able to recover. It isn't awful -- there's simply too much talent on display -- but it sure ain't good either. Worth it as more of a western novelty than anything, especially with MacMurray, Stanwyck and Bond leading the way.
The Moonlighter (1953): **/****