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July 2011

Blood On The Moon

cast: Robert Mitchum, Barbara Bel Geddes, Robert Preston, Walter Brennan, and Phyllis Thaxter

director: Robert Wise

86 minutes (PG) 1948
Odeon DVD Region 2

RATING: 7/10
review by Richard Bowden

Blood On The Moon

This is one of a notable group of westerns, such as Colorado Territory (1949), and Pursued (1947), influenced by the then-fledgling film noir style. They introduce introspection and fatalism into the sagebrush mix, anticipating the psychological concerns of the 1950s. Inevitably shot in black and white (although Turner Television have apparently broadcast a colourised version of the present title - a fact that might make purists shudder), and with a greater preponderance of night-set scenes, the noir western replaced a family-friendly wide open prairie, previously peopled with cowboys in white or black hats and clear cut moralities, with a fresh genre of altogether different concerns, reflecting confusions and uncertainties.

Director Robert Wise had previously made Curse Of The Cat People (1944) for Val Lewton, and would also helm Lady Of Deceit (1947), and The Set-Up (1949), respectively just before and after Blood On The Moon, so was already at home with the way of noir. He'd also been associated with Orson Welles - having been brought in to infamously 'finish off' The Magnificent Ambersons - and this influence can be seen in Blood On The Moon, especially in the saloon interiors, with their low angles and prominent low ceilings.

Wise's 1948 western stars noir icon Robert Mitchum as Jim Garry, a man with a suitably dubious past, sent for by former friend Tate Riling (Preston Foster) to take partnership in a grazing rights scam and to provide a strong arm for $10,000. Riling hopes to secure payment for a lucrative army cattle contract while convincing local farmers that his intentions are strictly honourable, and running off the current suppliers. At first Garry grudgingly goes along with the plan but then realises that he is not comfortable with matters, all the while growing a romantic interest in Amy Lufton (Barbara Bel Geddes) the daughter of one of the cattle farmers.

For my money, Blood On The Moon, while an excellent film, is not quite on the same level as the two other noir westerns mentioned above, having none of the haunting psychologies of Pursued (also starring Mitchum), nor the fatalism of Colorado Territory. But there are still many pleasures to be had here, not least a strong supporting cast that includes Walter Brennan and Charles McGraw as well as a splendidly duplicitous Foster who, in dark parallel of Garry's slow romance of Amy, feigns a love interest in her sister to oil along his malign plans.

Ultimately, it is Garry's realisation of his erstwhile partner's slipperiness which turns him against him, as he discovers "I've seen dogs who wouldn't take you for a son." But it is Mitchum's marvellous playing of a man with the troublesome "conscience blowing down his neck," that's at the centre of the film, as he turns from hesitant moral acquiescence to doubt, onto guilt, into action. As others have remarked, Mitchum's characteristic 'stillness' as a noir actor, whereby he characteristically says or expresses little, but nevertheless suggests inner turmoil, is shown at its best here. Such depth and moral equivocation would (his complex performance in Red River the year before, notwithstanding) probably have been beyond the range of a John Wayne.

I mention Wayne, particularly, since there is an interesting similarity between Blood On The Moon and Hawks' Eldorado, made a decade and half later. In both movies a gunfighter arrives by way of summons into a middle of dispute, and is bushwhacked by a woman for his pains. In the later movie Wayne's character makes a clear decision right away not to join one side before siding with the other. In Wise's work, Garry's process of realignment is much more slow and painful, but because of it, more human. And whereas Wayne enters the drama bolt upright on his horse, proud in his own self-esteem, we first see Garry caught in the rain, at night, bedding down within cluttered trees, streams and undergrowth - the un-comfortableness of which reflects the confusions in which he finds himself.

The Odeon disc seen by this reviewer presents the film with no extras and in a soft picture - not ideal given the original, sharp, expressionist cinematography. There's occasional print damage too, but this is not distracting. But at its modest price, if you haven't yet caught it on TV, this DVD release can still be recommended.



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