Film noir on the page
Reel West is a series of (admirably short) books about Western films from the University of New Mexico Press. Well, I say a series: as far as I can see there are only two so far. We reviewed the other one recently, Ride Lonesome (click the link for that) and rather good it was too. Today we’ll look at a volume about one of the great noir Westerns of the late 1940s, the golden age of that form.
RKO’s Blood on the Moon in 1948 was, like the later Ride Lonesome, a Western movie particularly admired by viewers, then and now. It makes a good subject for a study, and just as the movie Ride Lonesome was part of a series and allowed the author of that book to expand a little, so Blood on the Moon can stand for the noir Western and allow some related discursion.
As Mr Rode says in his preface, RKO was a studio dubbed “the capital of noir” and the late 1940s were the high point of noir crime films. At that time too noir seeped into the Western, and we’ve already looked on this blog at noir Westerns (again, click the link) and seen how good many of those pictures were. Rode makes a strong case for saying that Blood was possibly the best of them.
The film was based on a novel by Luke Short (Frederick Dilley Glidden) and Short was not only a highly-skilled constructor of Western stories but also a writer who always had more than a touch of noir in his tales. Short’s heroes were tough loners, there was an atmosphere of pessimism and menace, many of his women were femmes fatales, the scenes were claustrophobic and the plots were intense. His books were ideally suited to Westerns of this period, and indeed, the likes of Ramrod (1947), and Coroner Creek and Station West (both 1948), among others, illustrated that. Those films were all fine noir Westerns. Rode quotes Bertrand Tavernier, another admirer of Blood on the Moon, to whom his book is dedicated, as saying, “Luke Short, in fact, pulls the Western genre toward noir fiction, eschewing the usual Western hurdles and tropes, turning instead toward dark and confused sentiments, a heavy atmosphere full of repressed violence.” Brian Garfield, author of the 1980s guide Western Films and himself a fine Western novelist, was also a huge Short fan and put it succinctly when he said of Short that “he was a man to whom good and evil were absolutes but men and women were not.”
Rode is interesting on how the film got made, giving background that I didn’t know. The book was published by Doubleday in 1941 as Gunman’s Chance (later re-issued with the film’s title) and Glidden sold the rights to RKO for $2500 plus $500 a week for three weeks to adapt it into a screenplay – hardly megabucks. Unfortunately, though a fine novelist, Glidden didn’t really understand film scripts and his effort was unwieldy and way too long, so the studio brought in highly experienced Harold Shumate to rework it. Shumate renamed it Gunfighter and made it more filmable but changed the Short story a lot, and not for the better. Short’s dark characterization and clipped noir dialogue disappeared in favor of pedestrian line readings and banal B-Western characters and plot. The script was tossed onto the discard pile and languished there for much of the rest of the 1940s.
RKO colleagues Theron Warth and Robert Wise had emerged in the 1940s from the editing room of RKO to produce and direct, and they now searched through the pile of rejected screenplays for a property they liked, and came up with the Blood on the Moon book and scripts, seeing potential. They persuaded RKO executive producer Sid Rogell to let them bring in screenwriter Lillie Hayward (family ‘animal’ pictures like a Rin Tin Tin one, My Friend Flicka, Black Beauty and the 1946 Smoky, so not an obvious choice) to compose a viable shooting script. Hayward started from the novel, ignoring most of Shumate’s work. She produced a winner.
In early 1948, Dore Schary, head of production at RKO since 1947, approved a budget of $1.29m, an A-picture amount for the studio at the time. Fortunately for us, this was one of the last projects green-lighted by Schary before Howard Hughes bought the studio and started running it into the ground. Blood on the Moon went into production.
Robert Wise was in many ways a surprising choice to direct Blood on the Moon. David Thomson in The new Biographical Dictionary of Film is very down on Wise. “He wandered easily into mediocrity or worse”, Thomson says, citing “the appalling but grotesquely successful The Sound of Music” as well as So Big, “a restrained women’s picture”, Run Silent, Run Deep, “but not quite obtrusive enough”, “the chocolate box travesty of West Side Story” and “the sorry waste of Mitchum and MacLaine in Two for the Seesaw.” Thomson doesn’t mention Blood on the Moon at all. From a Western perspective, one is rather perplexed: Wise is on record as being disparaging of the genre and in a huge output only did four, yet though two were iffy (So Big and Tribute to a Bad Man), one was excellent, Two Flags West, and the other close to a masterpiece – Blood on the Moon. So for me, David Thomson notwithstanding, I put Wise up there as a top Western director, and wish he had done more.
Wise only got it, though, because Schary thought Jacques Tourneur, who was available, was too expensive, and the same happened with casting. Schary wouldn’t shell out for James Stewart. That would have been interesting: as we know, Stewart was then enormously popular for likeable everyman parts with Frank Capra in the 1930s and his only Western was the comedy Destry Rides Again with Marlene Dietrich. After the war he was looking around for grittier, harder roles and he would find them, with Anthony Mann and Delmer Daves and their tough Westerns released in 1950, Winchester ’73 and Broken Arrow. But for Schary, he could have started in ’48.
So they went with Robert Mitchum. Not that Mitchum was a nobody, far from it. By 1948, after being Oscar-nominated in The Story of GI Joe in 1945 and, especially, leading in Tourneur’s Out of the Past in 1947, called by Rode “the apotheosis of film noir”, Mitchum was big news, and he had Western form too, starting with small roles in Hopalong Cassidy numbers, leading in two B-oaters, and had then been stunningly good in the Raoul Walsh-directed Pursued in 1947, a superb film, also with distinct noir tones. So he was a great choice for Jim Garry, the hero of Blood, a taciturn tough loner with a shady past. Mitchum was paid $122,000, much less than Stewart would have got, sure, but not peanuts either.
They cast future Dallas star Barbara Bel Geddes as leading lady. Her Amy Lufton character was supposed to be tomboyish, feisty and good on a horse and with a gun. Bel Geddes struggles with that aspect, especially the riding, and Wise had to ‘shelter’ her, panning to Mitchum while she was mounting up, that kind of thing, also using Walter Brennan’s daughter Ruth, who had a bit part as a townswoman, as a double. But Geddes was a good actress. Schary would later resign when Howard Hughes fired her for not being sexy enough.
Phyllis Thaxter, another stage actress, took the part of Amy’s sister Carol, the romantic one. Thaxter had been typecast in devoted spouse/nice woman parts but again, was good in Blood. And she rode well.
It was Schary who decided that the optimal choice for Tate Riling, a cheery hail-fellow-well-met but essentially devious character, was Robert Preston. This was a master stroke, for Preston was just right for the part. In fact our next post on this blog will be a Prestonography, an assessment of the Preston-Western, so come back soon! Blood on the Moon was possibly Preston’s best ever Western role.
And Preston and Mitchum hit it off, becoming firm friends (and rather making life hell for the female cast members). The highlight of the movie is really the Garry/Riling fistfight, brilliantly staged by Wise and done largely without stunt doubles, with Mitchum and Preston grunting and straining in a brutal barroom brawl (they were both no strangers to barroom brawls).
Walter Brennan was excellent as local rancher Kris Barden, keeping the old-timer excesses to which he was prone in check and putting in a dark, tough performance of considerable merit. He’s helped by some great lines.
Schary cast all these but Wise had a free hand with the support actors. He chose well. Ones who were especially memorable were Frank Faylen (so brilliant as the alcoholic sadist in The Lost Weekend) as the corrupt Indian agent Pindalest (whom Rode in the book refers to as Pindalist for some reason), gravelly-voiced Charles McGraw as the bearskin-coated Milo Sweet, Tom Tyler as snarling Riling gunman Reardon (shot by Brennan) and more. Harry Carey Jr had a $100 blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part as a cowboy. The cast was really good.
Rode also highlights the contribution of costume designer Joe De Yong – who had also costumed The Plainsman and Buffalo Bill and would later do Shane. On the laser-disc commentary to Blood, Wise says, “He knew exactly how Western characters looked and dressed – he was brilliant. His work added significantly to the realism of the picture.”
Perhaps the most significant contribution of all, however, came from director of photography Nicholas Musuraca, who had shot Out of the Past. Rode is quite interesting on Musuraca, talking about his origins in Calabria, how he began in movies as a chauffeur to J Stuart Blackton in the silent days, got a job as a camera loader, and as cinematographer shot dozens of low-budgeters in the Joe Kennedy FBO days and for RKO. In the late 1930s he graduated to more prestigious pictures and earned a reputation as a master of chiaroscuro lighting. Rode says, “RKO became the principal Hollywood studio on the front line of the postwar film noir movement primarily because of the stylistic work of Musuraca.” And the black & white of Blood on the Moon gives us plenty of examples of Musuraca’s low placement of lighting sources, silhouetting, and creation of claustrophobic interiors. Wise said, “There were a number of great photographers at RKO who shot in that dark, shaded style … but Nick Musuraca was the king of low-key lighting.”
Shooting began in February 1948, in Sedona, AZ. Those wonderful orange buttes were not perhaps made the most of in black & white but they sure gave a lowering, noir look to the exteriors. There were quite a few night sequences, which enhanced the noir vibe. The biggest set, the Lufton ranch, was constructed specially. Wise was a fast worker with unruffled temperament but bad weather delayed things and production overran by ten days and $200,000 over. In March shooting switched to the RKO ranch at Encino, and then to the RKO studios (originally built by Thomas Ince) for interiors. That was where they shot Wise’s favorite scene, and many viewers’ favorite too, the fight between Harry and Riling in a darkened saloon, with Mitchum and Preston slugging it out.
As a skilled editor, Wise himself oversaw the postproduction of Blood. Fine foreboding music by Robert Webb (seven times nominated for Best Music) and, according to Rode, “the quintessential film noir composer”, was added.
At this point Harold Shumate resurfaced, demanding a writing credit, which he got despite the vast majority of his script having been dumped.
Reviews of Blood were good. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times wrote, “Blood on the Moon stands out from run-of-the-range action dramas.” He praised Wise: “A comparative newcomer to the directorial ranks, he has managed to keep the atmosphere of this leisurely paced film charged with impeding violence.” Variety said that “Blood on the Moon is a terse, tightly-drawn western drama. There’s none of the formula approach to its story-telling.”
Wise, like many, left RKO with Howard Hughes in charge. He remembered Blood on the Moon as “invaluable to me because it got me signed at 20th Century Fox.” He would go on to mainstream hits and Academy Awards.
Rode says of Blood on the Moon, justly, I think, “The film’s pictorial and narrative artistry represented RKO Pictures at its pinnacle of creativity.” And he adds, “It remains a consequential film that ranks with the best American Westerns of the twentieth century.”
The rest of Rode’s book is quite interesting but doesn’t really regard the film, discoursing on RKO under Hughes, Mitchum’s later career, other films noirs, and so on.
If I were being hypercritical (hypercritical, moi?), I might suggest that Kirk Ellis’s Ride Lonesome is the better book of the two, or at least I learned more from it, but Rode’s work contains enough gen and (to me) new info to warrant a purchase, and I did enjoy it.
Readers might also be interested in this blog’s posts on
and our next article on Robert Preston.