By Chuck Ross
To me a good Western — and I love a good Western — emphasizes a personal code of honor by the main character. And I love a gritty Film Noir, in which one of the most appealing elements is also the protagonist’s personal code of honor. And if a movie happens to a Western with a major Film Noir sensibility, I’m in hog heaven.
One such movie is a rare gem with the intriguing title “Blood on the Moon.” Released in 1948 by RKO, it’s never been released on DVD in the U.S., despite the fact it stars some well-known players: Robert Mitchum, Barbara Bel Geddes (Miss Ellie herself back when she was 26 and in her first Western), Robert Preston and Walter Brennan, the latter two both in uncharacteristically unmannered performances.
And the movie was directed by one of filmdom’s best-known directors, Robert Wise. You can find old VHS or laserdisc copies of “Blood on the Moon,” and there was an official release on DVD in the PAL format used in the U.K., but no U.S. DVD in our standard NTSC format has been released.
So set your DVRs for a short while from now, Friday, July 5th 2013, at 2:00 p.m. PT (5:00 p.m. ET), when TCM (Turner Classic Movies) will present, uncut and without commercials, “Blood on the Moon” which runs just under 90 minutes. There’s not a wasted, extraneous frame in the entire tightly edited picture. No surprise there—before he became a director, Wise was an editor. In fact, he has the editing credit on one of the most famous –and well-edited—pictures of all-time: “Citizen Kane.” (And yes, “Kane” director Orson Welles himself spent many hours editing that film with Wise.)
Strictly speaking, “Blood on the Moon” is a Western, with major noir overtones. About ¾ of the movie takes place at night. The movie opens with a striking (process) shot of Mitchum riding, alone, at night, in a driving rainstorm.
Will “Blood on the Moon” appeal to you? It will if you like this, from the trailer: Across the screen blaze the words “There’s ‘Blood on the Moon,” Casting Shadows of Danger! Violence! Death!”
Then the voice-over kicks in: “ ‘Blood on the Moon,’ a peril-packed saga of the grazing land, of stampeding cattle and ruthless men who ride by day and kill by night. ‘Blood on the Moon,’ starring Robert Mitchum, who dares invade a gun-smoked barricade, an adventurous stranger with several notches on his gun, but none on his conscience.“
One of the key scenes in “Blood on the Moon” is a terrific barroom brawl, shot in the shadows, featuring Mitchum. Wise always said the reason the scene came out as good as it did was because he had asked Mitchum, who had been in a number of Westerns, to make it as realistic-looking as possible. The brawl is triggered by one of the best lines Westerns, as Mitchum says right before the first blow is struck, “I’ve seen dogs that wouldn’t claim you as a son.”
Here’s one more assessment of “Blood on the Moon” that may entice you to check it out. It’s from the liner notes of my laserdisc copy of the film as penned by Tom Bussell, a writer with whom I am otherwise not familiar.
He wrote that over the years “Blood on the Moon” – which was filmed by Nicholas Musuraca – has become appreciated by film buffs “for its noir visuals in oil-lamp-lighted interiors, and the strong light and dark contrasts of the rugged Western terrain; for its protagonist who is first seen in a state of provisional existence in an unpredictable environment, not unlike the WW II veteran burdened with readjustment to a nuclear world; for the characters who menacingly populate its narrative, often concealing rather than revealing; for its tension and claustrophobia stunningly epitomized in the extraordinary barroom [fight]; and for its theme of disenchantment and debasement in a macrocosm darkened both physically and emotionally by ethical uncertainty.”