Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray Review: Blood on the Moon (1948)

Now Available

A stylized western that — with its shadowy cinematography from Out of the Past lensman Nicholas Musuaraca — has much more in common with Film Noir than the genre best epitomized by other 1948 releases Red River and Fort Apache, director Robert Wise's distaste for the western and determination to infuse his feature with gritty realism helps his unique Blood on the Moon straddle both worlds. A minor effort when compared to River and Apache by Howard Hawks and John Ford respectively, the largely forgotten Blood is given new life in this gorgeously crisp Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive, which arrives alongside another 1948 Robert Mitchum western, Rachel and the Stranger.

No stranger to Film Noir, including two shot by Musuaraca (Out of the Past and The Locket), the masculine complexity of the ego, id, and superego contained in the aura of Mitchum as soon as he enters the frame lends itself incredibly well to the existential side of the genre, which is pushed to the forefront of Moon. As Robert Wise recalls in the Robert Mitchum biography Baby, I Don't Care, this belief was also shared by Blood on the Moon star Walter Brennan, who Wise describes pointing a finger at the smoldering Mitchum on set and saying to friends, "that is the goddamndest realest cowboy I've ever seen."

Caught between two sides in a battle over land and cattle, after drifter turned hired gun Jim Garry (Mitchum) is enlisted to help his old trail driving partner Tate Riling (Robert Preston) in his war with rancher John Lufton (Tom Tully), he realizes he's been tricked into being a villain rather than a hero. Manipulating the ongoing battle between Lufton and local homesteaders, who foolishly believe that Riling is helping them in order to stand up for the underdog rather than just to position himself for power and glory, Blood on the Moon's warnings about the motives of aspiring leaders makes this film timelier than ever with its post-2016 release in an election year.

A house divided by loyalties in the form of Lufton's two daughters whom we discover have each pledged allegiance to a different side, after Mitchum gets involved with Barbara Bel Geddes — whom he first meets and flirts with by gunfire in a bananas sequence that uses a trick-shooting standoff as foreplay — he starts to reevaluate his position.

Adapted from the Luke Short novel Gunman's Chance by former script editor turned prolific Hollywood screenwriter Lillie Hayward, although there's nothing terribly original about the moral quandary laced narrative faced by Mitchum's Jim Garry on the page, Wise leans into the ambiguity heavily and turns this into a black, white, and shadowy tale of good and evil. Augmented by not only some bravura shootouts and stampedes but especially by its well-choreographed fight scenes, which foreshadow Wise's brilliant work directing West Side Story and The Sound of Music, although the former Orson Welles editor had helmed other pictures, you can tell how much the film he described as his "first big feature" meant to him when we watch Mitchum and Preston go ten rounds.

Not wanting "one of those extremely staged-looking fistfights used in all the movies where the stuntmen did this elaborate acrobatic fighting and you saw the real actors only in close-ups," he vowed to deliver a scene "with that awkward brutal look of a real fight," where "when it was done . . . the winner . . . [should] look as exhausted as the loser." Recalling Mitchum's excitement about the brawl, again in Baby, I Don't Care, Wise remarked that his leading man “probably knew more than I did about barroom fights like this one.” And while 1948 is a notorious year in Mitchum's life because incredibly, this film and Rachel and the Stranger did big business at the box office after his arrest and brief jail sentence for marijuana use, the films' success undoubtedly helped land him more roles in the genre he slipped into as naturally as a second skin.

A critical hit which scored well-earned raves from Variety and The New York Times, Blood on the Moon's unusually noirish approach to a western showed once again the amount of range exuded by its director. At the same time, of course, it also paints one fascinating portrait of Mitchum, reminding us that no matter what genre we see him in, he's always the most interesting thing onscreen, waging a battle over right and wrong that seems to flash in his eyes as one of "the goddamndest realest" complicated cinematic protagonists we've ever seen.

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