This is admittedly nitpicky, but the title cards of Blood on the Moon are a bit jarring as the white-lettered names all but disappear into the sliver of light stretching across the otherwise black canvas of the screen. Thus, I missed out on about a fourth of the names in the cast.
Opening credits aside, entering the world itself is an unmitigated pleasure as we are submerged straight into a rainstorm meeting us with a near tactile sense of tone. Against the dark slopes, a solitary rider sits aloft in wet hat and poncho. He’s seeking cover from the downpour.
Though he finds it, his nice, warming fire essentially gets stampeded by a pack of steers, and a man with a gun comes to oust him. He comes in contact with a not too neighborly outfit led by a man name Lufton who is a part of a longstanding feud between two factions. The age-old animosity kicked up between cattlemen and homesteaders. Lufton is on the side of the cattle.
However, we have yet to know where this stranger — Jim Garry (Robert Mitchum) — falls along the gradient, if anywhere. He has his first run-in with a lady (Barbara Bel Geddes) and sends her packing into the adjoining stream with some nifty shooting. Then, he drifts into a town, which seems cloaked in a dubious conspiracy of its own.
A host of characters sit around a poker table — among them Walter Brennan and Charles McGraw — shooting the bull about the new man. They want to get a read on him through a bit of deception. He reads them like a book, and it still seems like all the thugs are coming out of the woodwork just to take a shot at him.
Finally, he reconnects with his old comrade Tate Riling (Robert Preston). Their past is all but unspoken yet we understand they’ve been through some times together. Thus, it’s no less jolting to learn this man Tate is on the other side of the feud. He has sided with the local ranches and a government agent (Frank Faylen) to push Lufton’s cattle off the land. An awfully crooked Preston is girded by that age-old charisma of his. He somehow still gives off an aura of likability in a not too trustworthy sort of way.
So Garry has been unwittingly been called upon as a de facto gunman to help make the transition stick. He initially goes along with it, because Tate used to be his pal. What makes the story an interesting one relies on the fact Garry has that age-old deficiency — a human conscience.
The plucky rancher he shot at before was one of Lufton’s daughters, Amy, who though sore at him, eventually warms up when his integrity becomes apparent. She realizes he is a different breed than the rest. However, her sister Carol (Phyllis Thaxter), as fearful as Amy is fierce, falls for another man, making for the most intriguing foil in the movie.
Walter Brennan’s place as one of the ranchers taken in by Tate’s promises remains relatively understated and minor next to all the greats he’s played (especially given my last picture of his was The Westerner). Likewise, Charles McGraw isn’t given much to do aside from being gruff though he was still in the nascent stages of his career.
The stakes have been set for a surprisingly complicated interplay even as the cursory beats of Lillie Hayward’s script look all too familiar. It seems Robert Wise has the right pedigree for the material as does cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca because whether deliberate or not, this 40s oater is cloaked by film noir sensibilities through and through.
While not the cleanest of prints, there’s no denying the scope of the terrain nor the layers of atmosphere they’re able to draw out of the scenery, between shadows and light. If it sounds familiar, these are the shades of noir embodied as much in the character of Robert Mitchum as any of the mise en scène. The iconic lazy-eyed indifference of Mitchum transfers seamlessly from Out of the Past (1947) — coincidentally, also photographed by Musuraca.
Again and again, we must fall back on Mitchum and in all the RKO pictures he made, the onus usually landed on him because fewer resources meant more was asked of him. Aside from being a workhorse, Mitchum has the gumption and the unflinching enigmatic cool to bear the story upon his shoulders. It relies on precisely this quality dwelling within him, shifting so easily between attributes of self-service and integrity.
As far as psychological westerns go, I find the compact punchiness of Blood on the Moon far more appealing than Pursued (1947), starring Mitchum and Teresa Wright whom I adore. However, this story is not simply an excuse for deep-suited psychological issues. What the picture doesn’t skimp on are fairly complicated human relationships. There it finds a heady weight to carry it through to the end even if it does falter a little.
Mitchum has it out with his old pal in a deserted bar with near Anthony Mann level fighting, verging on the fanatically crazed. It’s a beautiful piece of stylized brutality. There’s disheveled and then there’s Robert Mitchum’s appearance after the altercation.
He was never one to be an untouchable white knight, preferring shades of gray. It’s a brilliant moment of pitch dark adrenaline. The film never quite regains this same energy, but there is still work to be done.
Garry, Amy, and the rancher Kris Barden all have a personal reason for wanting to get rid of Tate for good. The inevitable showdown occurs after a snowcapped chase, leading to a shootout in a forest with a wounded Mitchum and his two compatriots looking to hold down the fort.
I already mentioned this picture heavily relies on Mitchum so what would the final moments be without him going after his adversary systematically, injured though he may be, to finish this business for good? A happy ending lightens the impact, but it’s a small price to pay for this underrated horse noir from Robert Wise. He surely could make a gripping movie.