Jul 15, 2020

On Blu-ray: Robert Mitchum in a Film-Noir on the Range Blood on the Moon (1948)

The moody, fatalistic feel of Blood on the Moon (1948) is unusual for a western, if not unheard of in the genre. Its noirish story of double-crosses and turf battles could be transported to rain-slicked city streets with little change, the plot points as well-suited to urban organized crime as cattle wranglers on the prairie. The film recently made its debut on Blu-ray from Warner Archive in a print that shows the beautiful shadows of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past [1947]) to great advantage.

Robert Mitchum stars as Jim Garry, an aimless cowboy who is essentially a mercenary, but who likes to think he has some moral core. He takes a job serving as a cattle buyer for his old friend Tate Riling (Robert Preston), believing that he is on the right side of a cattle dispute. When he finds that he has been manipulated by the deceptive Tate, he tries to come clean with wronged rancher John Lufton (Tom Tully).

Jim is pushed to the right side by Lufton’s daughter Amy (Barbara Bel Geddes). They meet cute when Amy assumes he is trespassing and takes a shot at him. He retaliates by shooting the heel off her boot. That’s as heated as it ever gets between the two though. Despite what we are told about their emerging romance, they always have a strong brother and sister vibe.

Mitchum has more chemistry with his male co-stars. He is carefully observant of Tate’s flashy manner and slick salesmanship (Preston doing a fine rehearsal for Music Man). Though Jim isn’t on to him right away, he listens closely to his friend, so that he understands how he could be the villain when the truth finally hits him. Their conversations have more weight because of his attention; you don’t feel like the words are floating away into meaninglessness.

One of the film’s highlights is a bar fight between Tate and Jim. Filmed with deep noir shadows, it has more emotional weight than your typical cowboy dust-up. Instead of the misguided heroics of most fist-to-fist cinematic match-ups, it makes clear how exhausting and unpleasant it is to try to beat the tar out of each other. Apparently this perspective was the deliberate choice of director Robert Wise, who appears set on challenging some of the simplistic tropes of the western.

Mitchum is also powerful in his scenes with Walter Brennan as a grieving homesteader. With his quirky old prospector voice, Brennan is often cast for comic relief, but here Wise give him space to display more emotional depth. When Jim comes to him with bad news, the director focuses on Brennan's face, illuminating the feelings of pain and loss he communicates with great subtlety.

While the director, cinematographer, and cast have much to do with Blood on the Moon being an above-average western, it is Mitchum who truly makes it special. While seeming to do very little, he dominates every scene: quiet, observant, and somehow more present than his fellow players. A true movie star who rejected the fuss that came with it.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.