A drifter becomes embroiled in a violent dispute between an Arizona cattle rancher and local homesteaders. (1948 RKO. Directed by Robert Wise 88 mins)
Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca
Screenplay by Lillie Hayward and Luke Short (adaptation of his novel “Gunman’s Chance”)
Film Editing by Samuel E. Beetley
Art Direction by Albert S. D’Agostino and Walter E. Keller
Original Music by Roy Webb
Starring Robert Mitchum, Barbara Bel Geddes, and Robert Preston
Filmed on location in Arizona and the RKO Ranch California
Robert Wise also directed: The Set-Up (1949) and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959)
“A bevy of late ’40s RKO talent, including ace cameraman Nick Musuraca, combine to make an intriguing noir Western. A complex tale of duplicity and split loyalties is played out against a noir backdrop of low-ceilinged bars and rain-soaked windswept darkness. Mitchum delivers his customarily immaculate, stoned performance as a reluctant hired gun duped into heading a trumped-up homesteaders’ revolt, and Bel Geddes plays the spunky cowgirl who engages him in erotic gun-play.” – By NA for the Time Out Film Guide
Blood on the Moon: what a great title for a noir western from a dream RKO film noir team! Steven H. Scheuer in his Movies on TV guide rates this movie as only 2½ out of 4 stars, but his terse write-off, to my mind perversely establishes its noir credentials: “Murky, violent, post-war western”.
The film weaves a classic noir scenario into a western with all the motifs of the genre: the mysterious drifter with divided loyalties, the virginal rancher’s daughter in britches, the conniving proto-gangster, the crooked Indian-Reservation agent, hired-guns, shout-outs, bar-room brawls, and the Arizona backdrop, while organically integrating the noir elements of the redeemed noir protagonist, doom-laden atmospherics, outbursts of violence, and vengeance into the story.
Mitchum as the drifter is classic Mitchum, and Barbara Bel Geddes truly engaging as the rancher’s younger daughter, with Robert Preston delivering a competent bad-guy, who in a neat twist is the homme-fatale to the rancher’s older daughter. The wonderful Walter Brennan is great as an old homesteader, who as an active protagonist personifies the moral underpinnings of the story and its resolution.
But the movie belongs to director Wise and cinematographer Musuruca. From the opening frame of the drifter’s silhouette riding over a mountain pass in driving rain in the day’s gloaming, you know you are in noir territory. The night-for-night scenes use available light and sharp contrasts to develop the dark themes of violence and betrayal, with interior scenes using key lighting and disturbing angular shots to establish risk and menace. The daylight scenes are filmed in classic western-style with deep focus and from higher angles. There is a brilliantly filmed cattle stampede at night in the middle of the film, that has to be text-book. The score from Roy Webb adapts seamlessly from the dramatic to elegiac scenes of the lone horseman on the plain.