The New York Times describes Blood on the Moon, “one of the best "psychological" westerns of the 1940s”. I’ve read this assessment from other sources as well. While I’ve turned this over and around in my head, I’m still not quite sure what it means.
Directed by Robert Wise (from an adaptation of Luke Short’s Gunman’s Chance by Lillie Hayward and Harold Shumate), Blood on the Moon stars Robert Mitchum as Jim Garry, a lonesome cowboy (and archetypal “Mitchum Good Guy Role”) who is first introduced to us on horseback and in the pouring rain, silhouetted against a steel gray sky. Making camp for the night beneath the shelter of the woods, he’s barely got his boots off before he has to climb a tree to escape a stampede of cattle. Coming up armed behind them is cowhand Bart Daniels (Lassie’s Robert Bray), who strongly suggests that Garry accompany him to his outfit’s camp. There he meets another pair of rifles, carried by steer boss John Lufton and Cap Willis (Tom Tully (Academy Award nominee for The Caine Mutiny) and latter-day Ed Wood regular Bud Osborne). “Make a fella feel right at home, don’t you?” says Garry.
He learns that Lufton was the main supplier of beef to the local Indian reservation but has since been kicked out by a new agent named Pindalest. Coincidentally, a guy name Tate Riling has been bringing in gunmen to support the local ranchers and homesteaders who sell through Pindalest. So, pardon the guns but, Lufton tells him, “It’s work for me or keep on riding.” As Garry is headed to the nearest town, Sundust, he decides on the latter.
Lufton asks him the favor (and test) of delivering a note to his “womenfolk” over on his mesa spread along the way. There, Garry is greeted by Lufton’s younger daughter, Amy (Barbara Bel Geddes), who shoots at him to keep him from crossing the river. Circling behind her, Garry uses his own Winchester prowess to dance her back into the water to “cool off”. Once he delivers Lufton’s note to older daughter Carol, Amy shows up to give him his own dance lessons. “Guess I deserved that,” Garry says quietly.
Things aren’t any less opaque in Sundust. Upon arrival, he’s immediately made for a gun hand apparently hired by Lufton in retaliation. Walking into the saloon, he becomes instantly aware of the tension. We’ve already been made privy to this because Walter Brennan (as Kris Barden) is sitting at the card table and he’s wearing his teeth, indicating a serious turn of events about to take place. Plus, unshaven Milo demands that one of his compatriots pretend to be Tate Riling, asking. “Want the law to come in here and find out what we’re doing?” Which isn’t the sort of thing honest folk would say, cards, teeth or not. Turns out that Tate himself had called for Garry, and since the two used to be partners, Jim sees through the masquerade immediately. Before long, people are turning over tables and crashing through doors.
“Same old Jim,” says Tate, as his old partner steps out of the shadows. “When lighting strikes, you’re there.” Tate Riling is a man with big ideas. He’s partnered with Pindalest on a plan to set the ranchers against Lufton, and since Pindalest has already managed to revoke Lufton’s passthrough on Indian land, if his herd winds up across the mesa, the cattle will be seized by the U.S. Army. Faced with the choice of losing the herd or selling low, Lufton will have no choice but to accept Riling’s spontaneous offer of $4 per head. After which, Riling and Pindalest will make a profit after selling Lufton’s herd right back to the Indians. Jim is Riling’s whole card, and he’s willing to pay $10,000 to put it up his sleeve. “Lufton’s men are tough and my ranchers aren’t.”
While Garry could certainly use the money, he isn’t keen on getting lumped in with nasty mercenaries like Joe Shotten (Clifton Young, Our Gang’s “Bonedust”) and Frank Reardon (Tom Tyler, who appeared as both Captain Marvel and The Phantom for the Republic and Columbia serials). Since Riling is played by Robert Preston, he really sells the job to Garry. “Shotten and Reardon get paid in gold eagles,” he says to Jim. “You get paid in thousands.”
“Yeah,” Garry replies. “The only difference between us is the price.”
Now if you couldn’t tell by his second-billing or his being played by Robert Preston, Tate Riling is a bit of a snake and he’s playing both sides against the middle. Carol Lufton is in love with him, and he’s double-talked his way into convincing her that the fight is in her best interest too. After all, he’ll need money if they’re to get married, and her father has more than enough to spare.
The next night, Riling and his men stampede Lufton’s herd back across the Massacree River, but both sides suffer losses. Bart is trampled and Bardens son falls off his horse and is dragged to his death. Lufton’s men remember him as a friend and a “nice boy”. In the morning, Garry delivers the news to Barden. “Big price to pay for a little bit of graze,” Barden whispers, then does some shaming: “I signed up with the little ranchers because I believed their fight was my fight. We ain’t being paid to fight, mister.”
When Garry has to stop Shotten and Reardon from gunning Lofton down in the Sundust streets, everything crystalizes for him. He tries to brush off Amy Lufton’s gratitude—“Don’t let a man’s whim fool you.”—but he can’t fool himself. Particularly after seeing the delight on Riling’s face. Knowing Lofton would never do business with him willingly, not even if forced to by the Army confiscation of his herd, Riling brought Garry in to intermediate. Now that Jim’s saved the older man’s life, Lufton will be obliged to work with the scheme. “It’s come all the way back around to here,” Garry says. “I’ve seen dogs wouldn’t claim you for a son, Tate.”
This magnificently-placed turn of phrase results in one of the most brutal fist fights the ‘40s have ever seen. (Possibly not to be rivaled until Richard Conte beats down Lee J. Cobb at the climax of Jules Dassin’s 1949 Thieves Highway.) The two men pummel each other with their fists until their knuckles are bloodied and broken. By the end, the winner can barely stand, dazed, hurt and looking hurt. Which is why Barden tells the bartender, “Give ‘im a minute,” before escorting him out of the bar.
The remainder of the film plays out as most range-war dramas do. You won’t need a program to know the players or to predict the outcome. As far as the central story goes, it really is straightforward. But “psychological”? Well…
In 1947, Mitchum starred in an extremely dark Warner Brothers western titled Pursued, directed by Raoul Walsh with photography by James Wong Howe. Dark in both shadow and theme, Pursued involves the sole-survivor of a family massacred by very bad men and his desperation to avoid them in later life. In many ways, Blood on the Moon is not only considered to be a thematic follow-up to Pursued, but also RKO’s answer to the decently-received film. Like Walsh, Robert Wise took a fairly standard western story and presented it like a film noir, the hardboiled film genre that was all the rage in Post-War America. The movie is set predominantly at night, exterior day scenes are sparce and short—and RKO’s cheap rear-projection of mountain tops on close-up shots add an artificiality to the daylight. Inside the bars and cabins there are more swaths of shadow than there are characters. So much of that savage fight between Mitchum and Preston take place outside of the lantern light, with fists emerging from the black to evoke hard grunts and cries of pain from the receiver.
Key to Blood on the Moon’s look is cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who sculpted with light and created the now-legendary fog-thick moods of Val Lewton’s masterpiece productions Stranger on the Third Floor (1940), Cat People (1942) and The Seventh Victim (1943), as well as one of the most perfect noir mysteries ever made, Out of the Past. As per film historian Eric Schaefer: “Along with Gregg Toland's work on Citizen Kane , Musuraca's cinematography for The Stranger on the Third Floor defined the visual conventions for the film noir and codified the RKO look for the 1940s. Musuraca's photography begins and ends with shadows, owing a major debt to German Expressionism, and can be seen as the leading factor in the resurrection of the style in Hollywood in the 1940s. The dominant tone in his work is black, a stylistic bias that lent itself to the film noir and the moody horror films of Val Lewton. But even within the confines of the studio system Musuraca succeeded in transposing his style to other genres. The western Blood on the Moon and George Stevens's nostalgic family drama I Remember Mama are both infused with the same shadowy visuals that Musuraca brought to the horror film in Cat People and the film noir in The Locket . Through the conventions of varying genres and the differing requirements of numerous directors, Musuraca maintained a uniform personal aesthetic.” His aesthetic has led Schaefer to further consider, “Nicholas Musuraca's name remains unjustly obscure among the ranks of cinematographers from Hollywood's golden age.”
At the time, The New York Times wrote, “Lillie Hayward's screen play, taken from a novel by Luke Short, is solidly constructed and by not over-emphasizing Jim Garry's inherent honesty, she has permitted Mr. Mitchum to illuminate a character that is reasonable and most always interesting.” The review further praises the rest of the cast, but where Bel Geddes is certainly spunky and atypical of the suffering female of the range war drama—this role is fulfilled by Phyllis Thaxter as Carol)—Mitchum and Preston manage to make the most out of what should be stock characters. To take nothing away from Short’s source novel or Hayward’s adaptation, the actors sculpt these characters from within. Preston never lets Riling’s malevolence slip to dastardly. He’s actually a pleasant sort and fairly easy going (until that “dog” comment). Riling is a man who has a great idea to strike it rich. He certainly doesn’t want or intend for anyone to get hurt, but if it happens, it happens. His love affair with Carol is as insincere and transparent as you can get, but his affection for his former partner is never in question, nor does he ever imply that Garry’s higher moral character is a sign of weakness or stupidity. There’s a genuine respect that Riling feels for Jim Garry.
Mitchum, too, carves Garry out of deeds rather than words. We don’t know much about his past relationship with Tate, but we don’t have to. The men have a history that doesn’t need to be marred by hand-holding exposition. “Remember that time we…” The only catching up they do is to fill in the space between when they weren’t partners to their most recent meeting, and only then with a handful of words. Indeed, Garry is so tight-lipped that he doesn’t even let the audience in on whose side he’s on until he makes up his own mind. He has an altruism that doesn’t feed him during the lean times and maybe he’s even considered Riling’s Big Idea to be okay so long as no one really gets hurt. It’s not until Fred Barden and Bart are killed by actions he’s participated in, that he really starts to see how these things are fairing. The two actors can be witnessed thinking through their scenes and their character’s actions, and everything unfolds naturally. When their fight erupts, it comes with deep resentment, hurt and the need to prevail and make a point. This isn’t a typical Hollywood dust-up; these men aim to kill each other. And it’s only through outside intervention that they fail. Maybe this is the “psychological” part the critics referred to.
(Brennan, too, has a good turn midway through. His character Barden is the real deal, a tough bastard who carved his way of living out of the harshest of environments. He’s no shrinking, cowering townie from High Noon. When he receives news of his son’s death, you can see the years of regret and wasted effort welling up behind his words to Garry. Later, he definitely means it when he says, “I always wanted to shoot one of ya. And he was the handiest.”)
While it looks familiar, Blood on the Moon really is a tough film the chew through, and I don’t mean that disparagingly. It’s “leisurely pace”—to use the words most often used by its critics—is measured and steeped with a tension of upcoming violence. You feel it from the opening shot, before you even know who Jim Garry is, or what he’s doing so far out in the nothing and in the pouring rain.
Now, the movie is one of those famous copyright orphans. Having slipped through the legal cracks during RKO’s change of hands over the years, Blood on the Moon pops up on TCM every now and then—and before TCM, it was really hard to catch by chance on TV, believe me, I know—and if you dig deep enough into those 25-movie collections at the bottom of the Wal-Mart bins, you may find a cheap transfer of the public domain print, with its snowy “white dirt” noise and scratches that grow into visibly taped-up tears running through entire shots. Interestingly, the extreme high contrast of the print actually adds to the western’s noirish feel, making even the outdoor sequences on the mountains, feel constrained and claustrophobic. Certainly well worth keeping an eye-out.