Tuesday, April 20, 2010
Blood on the Moon
In a biography I read and reviewed last spring about Robert Mitchum, the Hollywood star and one of the first bad-boy movie stars said he never really thought he was much of an actor. He said it came easy to him, and typically, he never watched his movies once he was done making them. Maybe it was easy for him, but there is a constant through almost all of Mitchum's movies. He is smooth on-screen like few others, and as the title of the biography said 'Baby, I don't care.' If you didn't like him or his movies, Mitchum just didn't care.
Early in his career, Mitchum was signed with RKO Studios and was usually stuck making low-budget westerns and film noirs that over 60 years later have generally withstood the test of time. 1948's Blood on the Moon is typical of the movies he made during his RKO days, but it has a trump card on most of those other movies. The cast here is ridiculously good starting with Mitchum in the lead and trickling down through all the supporting parts. It is a late 40s western that blends the western and film noir genres, falling somewhere in between. Different for sure, and worth a watch.
Drifter Jim Garry (Mitchum) rides into a peaceful-looking valley and quickly finds out everything is not so peaceful as it appears. There are two factions in the valley, both fighting for control of the land. On one side is John Lufton (Tom Tully), a rancher trying to sell his cattle to the nearest Indian reservation. On the opposition is a group of small homesteaders led by a gunfighter, Tate Riding (Robert Preston), and an old, wily homesteader, Kris Barden (Walter Brennan), who is just looking out for the land he's lived on for years. Throwing a wrench into the situation is Lufton's daugther (Phyllis Thaxter) who has fallen in love with Riding. Lufton's other daughter, Amy (Barbara Del Geddes) isn't quite sure what to make of Garry who himself doesn't know exactly what's he gotten himself into.
Blood on the Moon is based on a novel by western author Luke Short who over a 30-year span wrote more than 50 western novels. It does use some well worn western cliches, but it's handled so smoothly it's not even worth complaining about. The mysterious drifter is as old as westerns themselves, and the ranchers vs. the homesteaders is certainly nothing new in terms of storytelling. But thanks to his strong cast and some great camera work in black and white, director Robert Wise turns in a solid effort all around.
As the mysterious drifter who only one person really knows, Mitchum does what he does best; the strong, silent type ready with a crack when needed or an equally effective and well-placed punch. Opposed to a lot of stars in westerns, Mitchum looks comfortable in the saddle, and more than that he looks the part of a cowboy who's spent too long on the trail. His Garry is a decent enough fellow looking to make some cash, but even he has his limits as to what he'll do to get it. The subplot with Bel Geddes isn't that great mostly because the two don't have a ton of chemistry together. Well, maybe they do, but it's hard to see after his pairings with Jane Greer and Jane Russell.
What works so well for the supporting cast is that for much of the movie there isn't good and bad, just varying shades of gray. Everyone has their reasons, their motives, and even Preston -- who does end up being the villain -- isn't just a cold-blooded killer. He's a poor homesteader turned gunfighter trying to carve a life out for himself and fiance. Preston's Riling is that character though you know isn't quite right because it's Preston playing him, and he made a career out of parts like this. Brennan is solid as a homesteader wavering on what's right and wrong. Then, also look out for gravelly-voiced Charles McGraw as a hired gun and Frank Faylen as an Indian agent looking to make a buck, both good supporting parts.
While the story does use some wild west cliches -- they are tried and true for a reason -- Wise's movie sets itself apart from the rest because of its one. Gunfighters, hired killers are looked upon as a scourge of society so Mitchum's Garry isn't exactly well liked upon his arrival. Westerns often dealt with this issue, but in 1948, this dark tone is more than a little surprising. The same goes for the violence which isn't graphic but is always realistic, especially a knock-down, drag 'em out saloon brawl between Mitchum and Preston. With some great shadowy outdoor filming in California and Arizona, this 1948 western has all the elements.
Blood on the Moon <---trailer (1948): ***/****