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Sunday 6 August 2017

Blood on the Moon (1948)

Director: Robert Wise
Writers: Lillie Hayward, from the adaptation by Harold Shumate and Luke Short, in turn from the novel by Luke Short
Stars: Robert Mitchum, Barbara Bel Geddes and Robert Preston

Index: 2017 Centennials.

Robert Mitchum was an unlikely movie star. He freely admitted that he didn’t have much respect for the art of acting, infamously interrupting critic Barry Norman with a comment, ‘Look, I have two kinds of acting. One on a horse and one off a horse. That’s it.’ He didn’t take interviews seriously and tended to refuse to speak to biographers. He looked down with disdain at method actors, suggesting that the ‘Rin Tin Tin method is good enough for me. That dog never worried about motivation or concepts and all that junk.’ Katherine Hepburn once told him that he’d never have been cast in a picture if he hadn’t been good looking. Critics had the same sort of response, panning his work for decades as monotonous, dispassionate or lethargic. Yet his stardom rose, because he fit a growing need, a talent for playing characters who could be good, bad or somewhere enticingly in between fuelled by a tough background; as one of the ‘wild boys of the road’ during the Depression, he spent time on a chain gang for vagrancy at fourteen.

He got into the business by accident, having left a job as a machine operator at Lockheed after a nervous breakdown that left him temporarily blind. He had previously spent time as a stagehand, a bit player and playwright in productions of the Players Guild of Long Beach, where his sister Julie performed, so he looked for work as an extra in movies, quickly being hired as a villain in seven Hopalong Cassidy westerns. The studios must have liked him, because he made twenty films in his debut year, 1943, most of them uncredited. RKO certainly liked his performance in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, as they signed him to a seven year contract, with the goal of making him a star in Zane Grey movies. That didn’t happen, of course. Instead, he was Oscar nominated for The Story of G.I. Joe, a war film made on loan to United Artists, and he returned from eight months of wartime service just in time for the film noir era which was tailor made for him. His films Undercurrent, Crossfire and Out of the Past are all outstanding examples of the genre.

These film noir pictures led him to Blood on the Moon, as much a film noir as it is a western, just like Pursued, which he had made a year earlier. RKO were increasingly mixing genres, partly because the style of those making them lent itself so well to both horror and film noir and could easily be adapted to other genres like westerns. I explored some in my review of The Leopard Man earlier in this project, so I’ll just highlight three here: Robert Wise, Nicholas Musuraca and Roy Webb. At this point, Wise had moved up from editor, on films like Citizen Kane, to director; he’d made The Curse of the Cat People and Born to Kill, a horror flick and a film noir which sit easily beside this. Cinematographer Musuraca had shot over half of Val Lewton’s horrors, including Cat People and Bedlam, along with noir classics like The Spiral Staircase and Out of the Past, which also sit well here. Webb had scored the first film noir, Stranger on the Third Floor, and Crossfire, and all but one of Lewton’s horror films, that sole exception being Isle of the Dead.

This trio knew each other very well indeed and they worked amazingly together. Blood on the Moon looks and sounds glorious from the very outset with Mitchum riding his horse towards us in the rain and leaping up a tree to avoid a stampede that’s about to run wild through his campsite. All these elements are quintessentially western elements, but the picture feels like film noir already. It only becomes more so as the film runs on with an air of suspicion that is almost palpable, through dialogue, composition of frame and Mitchum’s anti-hero feel; he was so good as both the hero and the villain that his best roles are surely the ones where we just can’t tell which he’s playing at the time. We certainly can’t tell early on here, as his character, Jim Garry, is taken to John Lufton’s camp and he answers questions with questions and clearly avoids answers. Frankly, Lufton would have been daft not to find this newcomer suspicious, even without inside knowledge of the local climate that he’s riding into.
It seems that there’s a quiet war raging that’s about to get noisy. Lufton is a cattle man who has for years been selling beef to the Indian reservation on which he grazes his cattle, but he’s just lost his contract and been given a deadline to move the herd off the reservation. He’d move it back to his prior graze, but that’s been occupied by a variety of homesteaders, who are being organised in opposition by a man named Tate Riling. For a little while, there doesn’t seem to be a bad guy in the story, Garry simply arriving at a time when circumstances are causing trouble for everyone, but it’s clear that there’s going to be one somewhere, whether it’s Lufton or Riling or, for that matter, Garry himself. He could well be either the range inspector coming to clean everything up or a wild gun, ready to spur on and profit from the conflict. It’s a full seventeen minutes in when we discover that he’s an old friend of Riling’s, riding into the town of Sundust to answer his call, but now we know his side, do we know whether it’s right or wrong?

Of course, things come clear eventually and the movie runs on to a somewhat predictable end. I found the first half notably more effective than the second because it’s not what we’re used to. Westerns of the day had become driven by formula, with only a few exceptions: outside of John Ford’s films, The Ox-Bow Incident may be the only obvious western classic of the forties until this point; Red River came out the same year as this film and most of the classics we remember didn’t arrive until the following decade: Shane, High Noon and The Searchers; 3:10 to Yuma, Rio Bravo and Winchester ’73. However, Blood on the Moon didn’t follow that formula, happy to unfold as another RKO horror/noir, merely one set against a western template. It was based on Gunman’s Chance, by Luke Short, his seventeenth western novel in seven years and one of four that would be adapted onto film in 1948, but if you change the cows to gold or secrets or some other MacGuffin, this would cease to be a western but retain everything else that makes it work.
I should add that, while Robert Wise had not previously made a western and was apparently unfamiliar with how they worked, he did a lot more than just bring the genres he was familiar with to the subject. Given the names involved, I expected to be impressed by the cinematography, the score and the lighting but I was pleasantly surprised by the costume department. Today, we think we know what cowboys looked like, but our knowledge is mostly taken from black and white westerns and modern country singers; it has to be said that neither tend to be a particularly accurate representation of the real deal. Here in Arizona, a desert state which has long been known for its westerns (the more scenic parts of this film were shot in Sedona at Red Rock Crossing with Cathedral Rock in the background), local prop suppliers and costumers like David Staley have long explained to filmmakers how cowboys in the real west tended towards the colourful, especially by sporting favours from their ladies. This film, unlike most, feels real.

Other aspects feel real too, again driven by Wise’s easy avoidance of the clichés of the genre. By not knowing what he ‘should do’, he doesn’t fall into the same traps that most others did. The homesteaders here aren’t fighters; that’s why Tate Riling has a couple of gunfighters on his payroll. When those gunfighters plan to shoot Lufton dead in cold blood, Garry runs one off with his fists and the other with a psych-out; no gunplay is needed or included. When Riling’s men track down where Lufton has brought his cattle over the river and stampede them right back over again into the reservation, the point is that their deadline is four days away and it isn’t possible to round them up again in less than a week. After one of the homesteaders, Kris Barden, loses his son, the meaning seeps out of the battle. ‘The fight’s almost won,’ he’s told. ‘Who cares?’ he replies. And there’s a realistic fist fight, shot in the dark because one of the participants throws his gun into the light fitting; both men are seriously damaged, even if one wins.
All these are realistic details that wouldn’t have been adhered to in the usual westerns of the day and the cast were impressed. The costumes were praised by veteran western actor Walter Brennan, who plays Kris Barden; Lee Server’s biography of Mitchum says that he was an aficionado of the old west and his reaction to seeing Mitchum in one of the ‘authentic but idiosyncratic, sometimes bizarre outfits’ that costumer Joe de Young put together was, ‘That is the goddamndest realest cowboy I’ve ever seen!’ That fight was choreographed by the actors themselves; Roberts Mitchum and Preston, who also did their own stuntwork. They spent three days mapping it out to ensure it had what Wise wanted; that ‘awkward, brutal look of a real fight’ and also for the ‘winner to look as exhausted as the loser.’ This realism makes Blood on the Moon stand out from the crowd at a time when it was sorely needed and it did it well enough for Cowboys & Indians magazine to rank it in the top half of their list of The 100 Best Westerns Ever Made.

Of course, there are downsides, but even they are handled without cliché, at least until the end, where everything wraps up in far too clichéd a neat little bundle. For instance, we have two prominent ladies in the cast, playing the daughters of John Lufton, Amy and Carol. Rather than sit back and sew gingham or whatever we expect women in westerns to do, they take an active role in the story and not just the romantic subplots, which are far too quick and easy to be praised. Instead, I’ll praise Amy’s work as a guard, protecting the crossing from suspicious strangers like Jim Garry with well-aimed gunshots. That he gets the upper hand is beside the point; it matters that she feels that it’s her responsibility, that she tries her best and does pretty well at it and that she’s both able and willing to shoot Garry’s hat right off his head. Both she and Carol have important parts to play in the story that unfolds, but I won’t describe how because that way is spoiler territory.
Mitchum is the star, of course, but the leading lady, who plays Amy, is second billed above Robert Preston, who plays the villain of the piece; Walter Brennan as the characterful support; and Tom Tully, who’s an effective John Lufton. She’s Barbara Bel Geddes, a relative newcomer appearing in only her third feature, though she was second billed in the prior two as well: after Henry Fonda in The Long Night and Irene Dunne in I Remember Mama. She acquits herself ably here, with a determination that was ahead of its time, and she deserved better than the clichés given to her towards the end. Her screen sister was Phyllis Thaxter, a more experienced actress with seven films behind her, including Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and The Sea of Grass, but she wouldn’t reach the heights of Barbara Bel Geddes, either on film or television; sadly, her most remembered big screen role may well be her last one, thirty years later, as Clark Kent’s adopted mother in the Christopher Reeve version of Superman.

While Bel Geddes would go on to fame, on film for Vertigo and on television for Dallas, it was Robert Mitchum who was clearly most on the rise. His films noir had been successful and would become more so as the influence of that genre grew and his iconic nature grew with it. A marijuana bust, after this film was shot but before it was released, helped to build his fame, as did other examples of bad behaviour such as a drunken rampage that got him thrown off 1955’s Blood Alley. Not all of his movies were great ones, even good ones, but he brought something different to the norm to each screen he appeared on and the great roles did come. It’s often tough to choose which film to review for this centennial project and there were a slew of easy choices for Mitchum: early pictures like Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, Undercurrent or Out of the Past; memorable fifties movies like Track of the Cat, The Night of the Hunter or Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison; later classics like Cape Fear, El Dorado or Ryan’s Daughter; or even something very late indeed like Dead Man.
His most iconic role is surely that of the Revd. Harry Powell in Charles Laughton’s only picture as a director, The Night of the Hunter, wearing the twin tattoos of ‘Love’ and ‘Hate’ across his knuckles, but as worthy as that is, it’s too obvious for this project. The same goes for his uncompromising role as Max Cady in the original Cape Fear, his other entry in the AFI’s list of ‘100 Heroes and Villains’. I built a substantial list of potential titles, from Out of the Past to That Championship Season via White Witch Doctor, 5 Card Stud and The Yakuza, before selecting Blood on the Moon as a pivotal point in his career, both because of what he does on screen and what he was doing off it. His career was a long one for a Hollywood star, from that initial batch in 1943 to the 1997 biopic, James Dean: Live Fast, Die Young, but this is a good point to highlight his talent, his moral ambiguity and his genre-spanning iconography. Of all those I’m remembering, he’s surely one of the most memorable because of that indelible image of an indifferent anti-hero with sleepy eyes.

Even today, twenty years after his death, that description could only describe one actor (unless we bring up Michael Madsen, who has called Mitchum his role model and inspiration), and it’s precious few stars who can truly lay claim to that sort of uniqueness at the end of a long and successful career. What’s strangest is that Mitchum tended to be regarded in a similar manner off screen as well, but he was far from a one trick pony. He was a poet from his early days, writing lyrics for songs that his sister would sing in nightclubs. He was a musician, who played the saxophone, and a singer, with a pair of albums to his name: one of calypso, sung in authentic phrasing, and the other of country music, which brought him a top ten single on the country charts. He even wrote an oratorio for Jewish refugees, which was produced by Orson Welles at the Hollywood Bowl in 1939. Robert Mitchum did a good job of hiding who he was, which ironically is part of why he was so successful and why his career is so worthy of exploration.

Robert Mitchum: Actor Profile by Brian W. Fairbanks
Robert Mitchum, the First Noir Cowboy by Christy Putnam
Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don’t Care by Lee Server


  1. A top-notch article on a film/book that is a personal favourite. I savoured every word.

  2. Mitchum was a grossly underrated actor with a startlingly wide range. Compare the Marine in HEAVEN KNOWS MISTER ALLISON to the Australian rover in THE SUNDOWNERS or, for that matter, his cameo as the Cockney ex-POW in THE LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER. Someone once said he might have made the greatest of all MacBeths. He was far from a one note actor.

  3. A superb article on a truly great film.