Like Harvey Keitel's J.R. in Martin Scorsese's low budget debut feature Who's That Knocking at My Door?, I have something of a fondness for westerns. It doubtless stems from a childhood in which they always seemed to be playing on TV. That and the fact that for impressionable male children of my generation, cowboys were the kings of cinematic kick-ass. They were gruff, they drank red-eye (whatever the hell that was), they wore the coolest duds, and they carried guns on their hips and fought duels with other cowboys, usually some black-dressed dude with the pearl handled pistols. Actually, he was the one I always wanted to be like. Still do, in my way.
But Blood on the Moon – a title that suggests a head-on collision between science fiction and horror – is far from an old school 'black hat/white hat' western, having more in common with the more adult-targeted, noir-influenced films of Anthony Mann. Mann's leading men were not the goody two-shoes cowboys of early genre cinema, but more complex characters tormented by a burning thirst for revenge or their own nefarious past. They were, in a sense, like we might have been if we were them.
Mann was a graduate of RKO, a studio that also saw former editor Robert Wise promoted to the director's chair by producer Val Lewton during his legendary run as the head of the studio's horror division. Following two films for Lewton – Curse of the Cat People and The Body Snatcher – Wise moved on to crime drama with the 1945 A Game of Death and the 1946 Criminal Court. But it was his 1947 Born to Kill, a wonderfully brutal and hard-boiled film noir, that really saw him pegged as a director of note. The film he made next was Blood on the Moon, whose vivid noir overtones and morally ambiguous central character predated Mann's first significant steps in this direction by a couple of years.
But wait, there's more. The film's leading man is Robert Mitchum, one of the coolest actors ever to grace the silver screen. His physical bulk and don't-give-a-crap attitude (he once famously described himself as having only two acting styles: with or without a horse) brought a hint of danger to even his good guy roles. Julian Cope even wrote a song about him.* Here he plays Jim Garry, whose unannounced arrival in a New Mexico town prompts the locals to engage in apprehensive speculation. Who could he be and what does he want? His first port of call is to deliver a message from rancher John Lufton (Tom Tully) to his two adult daughters, Amy and Carol (Barbara Bel Geddes and Phyllis Thaxter), who accept the note and send him on his way. He did, after all, exchange fire with Amy on his way into town and no-one at the ranch is interested in the fact that it was she who shot first.
Garry then goes looking for cattle man Tate Riling (Robert Preston), whose scruffy-looking gang think he's on government business and thus chase him with guns. It turns out that Riling has known Garry for years and has hired him to help settle a dispute between Lufton and some unhappy homesteaders. But it's all a sham. Riling has hoodwinked the locals into helping with a scheme that he has cooked up with Indian Agent Jake Pindalest (Frank Faylen) to force Lufton to sell his cattle to them at a greatly reduced price. Garry soon finds himself torn between loyalty to his friend and the morality of what he, as a hired gun, is being asked to do.
It's this ambiguity of intent that sees the film break with the past and help steer the genre in interesting new directions. From the moment Garry appears, we're uncertain of his true purpose or where his loyalties really lie. Even Riling is initially hard to be sure of. Is his affair with Lufton's daughter Carol a dastardly way of obtaining inside information, or is he secretly plotting with the Lufton family against the gullible homesteaders or even his own gang?
But what really separates the film from other genre works of its time is the noir sensibility Wise had so successfully road tested in Born to Kill. This is clearly visible in cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca's sometimes high key lighting, giving us (some) night scenes that are actually filmed at night (rare for a genre that virtually gave birth to the term 'day for night', or as the French have nicely dubbed it, 'la nuit américain'), and in a bar-room fist fight that takes place in backlit darkness punctuated by small spots of light. It's here and in the tensely done stalk-and-shoot, night-time climax that the noir influence is most evident, to the degree that neither scene is remotely genre-specific and could easily be transposed to 20s Chicago or 40s New York without changing anything more than the costumes and décor. It also allows Wise to nicely usurp at least one iconic western convention, when a showdown in main street ends not with the traditional gunfight, but with the instigator being punched out and his phony tough companion making a nervous withdrawal.
Lillie Hayward, Harold Shumate and Luke Short's screenplay, adapted from the latter's novel Gunman's Chance, does well by the characters and just occasionally delivers dialogue worthy of the great Leigh Brackett. As insults go, "I've seen dogs that wouldn't claim you for a son" is a something of a doozy, but my favourite line comes from homesteader Kris Barden (the always lovely Walter Brennan), whose son is killed in a raid by Riling and his men. Initially hostile to Garry and deaf to his apologies, Barden later saves his life by shooting his opponent. When asked by Garry why he did so, he memorably responds, "I always wanted to shoot one of you. He was the handiest."
As with Odeon's recent release of Isle of the Dead – also part of their 'Hollywood Classics Collection' – the transfer here has been converted from NTSC, an original that was probably in rather good shape if the picture stability and impressive cleanliness is anything to go by. What has suffered in the conversion is an inconsistent softening of the picture detail and a sometimes unsubtle contrast range, resulting in burnt-out highlights and shadows that suck in surrounding detail. A spectacular scratch about 31 minutes in we can put down to the condition of the original source print, and it doesn't last long. Not bad otherwise, but could be better.
The Dolby mono 2.0 soundtrack shows its age in the narrow range, strong treble bias and a bit of a wobble on some of the louder music. That said, there's surprisingly little background hiss (a faint whine is detectable) and only the occasional small pop to contend with.
All we have here is a 16-slide Photo Gallery consisting of promotional stills and posters for the film, but the quality of the included images is high and the posters in particular are a worthwhile inclusion.
A fine noir western that deserves to be seen in a sharp, well balanced PAL transfer, which we don't have here. But this is still a very clean and watchable picture and a rarely seen work from a genre with a very specific fan base, and in spite of the standards conversion there appears to be no American DVD release, so for now at least, this is the only way to go.
* It's on his 1989 album Skellington, if you want to track it down.