Western Noir: Blood on the Moon (1948)

Several months ago, on Twitter, I asked for recommendations for westerns – it’s a genre I never really cared much about (like horror films and musicals), but that I wanted to explore (unlike horror films and musicals). I received dozens of suggested titles – unfortunately, I was only able to access a few of them.

The other day, I learned the Criterion channel was airing a collection of films packaged as “Western Noir.” I was so excited, you’d have thought I’d won some kind of jackpot – and actually, I did! The collection consists of 11 films, and I have binge-watching them all.

Mitchum is brimming with badassery in this film.

According to author and historian Imogen Sara Smith, who introduces the Criterion collection, the stories of Western noir could be “transported into an urban setting and fit right in as hard-boiled crime or gangster movies.” (I’ve found it Interesting to note the vehemence with which a few folks on social media deny that there’s such a thing as Western noir. These could very well be the same people who insist that a movie isn’t noir unless it contains a femme fatale or that all noirs have to be in black and white. I tend to be more flexible with my definitions – in my view, there are very few absolutes in noir; that’s part of what makes this era of filmmaking so fascinating and fun! So, why not Western Noir? Works for me.)

The first film that I watched in the Western Noir series was Blood on the Moon (1948), starring Robert Mitchum. I was especially excited to see this one – it was the first recommended film from several months back that I tried and was unable to view. Several of my Twitter friends had suggested, so I had high expectations — and boy, did it live up to every one! In it, Robert Mitchum stars as Jim Garry, a down-on-his-luck trail driver who’s smiled on by fortune when an old pal, Tate Riling (Robert Preston), hires him to help with a beef he has with a local cattleman. (A beef, get it? Forget it.)

This ain’t no Professor Harold Hill.

It turns out, though, that the dispute between Riling and the cattleman, John Lufton (Tom Tully), is not quite as Riling portrayed it, and Riling’s motives are, shall we say, less than honorable. Ignoring a fleeting reluctance to aid his friend’s enterprise, Garry is driven by more practical incentives: he needs the money. And Riling knows it. When the real reason for his hiring becomes clear to him, Garry says, “I’ve been mixed up in a lot of things, Tate, but up to now, I’ve never been hired for my gun.” And Riling matter-of-factly replies, “Can you afford to be particular?”

This may very well be my favorite Barbara Bel Geddes performance.

There’s a whole lot of other stuff going on in this movie. Riling is carrying on with Lufton’s eldest daughter (Phyllis Thaxter), who’s too blind with love to see that she’s being used by her lover to betray her father. And her feisty, fearless sister, Amy (Barbara Bel Geddes), at first attacks Garry – literally and figuratively – for his allegiance to Riling, but later discovers that there’s more to him than meets the eye. And then there’s a homesteader, Kris Barden (Walter Brennan), who starts out in unwavering support of Riling, but suffers a personal tragedy that represents a momentous pivot point in the film’s trajectory.

I don’t know from psychological, but there’s plenty o’ fightin’ and gunplay!

In reading reviews on Blood on the Moon, I was interested to note that the word “psychological” crops up time after time – the film is described as a “psychological western,” noted for its “striking psychological intensity” and “dark psychological undercurrents,” and referred to as a “tense psychological study.” I’ll admit that I’m not really sure what they’re referring to – I’m just not that deep, y’all. But I’ll tell you this – it’s a damn good movie, with standout performances all around, especially from Mitchum, Bel Geddes, Foster, and Brennan.

Nicholas Musuraca’s handiwork.

As a bonus, it’s directed by Robert Wise, who helmed such noir gems as Born to Kill (1947), The Set-Up (1949), and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959), and photographed by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who was behind the camera on numerous noir features including Out of the Past (1947). (And did I mention that the cast also includes Charles McGraw? What more do you want?)

If you have access to The Criterion Channel, or you don’t mind forking over $2.99 to stream it, I highly recommend that you check out this movie. If you’re like me, and were never really a big fan of westerns, you might just find yourself obsessed with them after watching this one.

Like me.

And stay tuned for future posts where I’ll take a look at some of the other films in the Criterion Channel’s Western Noir series!

~ by shadowsandsatin on July 21, 2020.

16 Responses to “Western Noir: Blood on the Moon (1948)”

  1. Welcome to the club!

    There are times in my life where I might be called mildly obsessive about Blood on the Moon. The feeling never completely goes away. It has such an atmosphere, such characters, such angst, such rain, and such cattle stampedes!

    • I agree with every line, Paddy — I was watching it again yesterday while writing my post, and I was just as riveted as the first time. So much good stuff going on. If you’re a western fan and you have some recommendations, please let me know!

      • Another Robert Wise western, Tribute to a Bad Man, 1956 is gorgeously filmed in colour but the characters are strictly from noir. It took me a couple of viewings to appreciate it.

        Anthony Mann’s westerns, as to be expected, are more than tinged with noir. Delve into the heartbreak that is Devil’s Doorway, 1950.

        Delmar Daves and Glenn Ford give us 3:10 to Yuma, 1957, and Jubal, 1956 (listed in my order of preference).

        For a strange and unique time, you must check out William Wellman and cinematographer William Clothier’s “black and white movie in color.”

  2. So glad you’ve discovered this great western. You are bound to like the Naked Spur too and then I hope you’ll look at some of Randolph Scott’s Westerns, especially Hangman’s Knot and Seven Men From Now.
    I love 50s westerns.

    • Hi, Vienna! I have a whole list compiled of westerns I want to see — Seven Men From Now is one of them, and I will definitely add Hangman’s Knot. If you have any other recommendations, I hope you’ll let me know!!

  3. My favourites include BEND OF THE RIVER, GARDEN OF EVIL, THE HANGING TREE, 40 GUNS, THE LAST WAGON , TROOPER HOOK and of course SHANE and HIGH NOON.
    Regarding the use of the word Noir,there are so many interpretations, I just say ‘thrillers’.

  4. Count me in as a fan of this movie and Western Noir in general. Westerns are my second favorite genre. I too have to recommend Anthony Mann’s Westerns which are essentially all Noir on the range. In color.
    Also as already mentioned, Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher movies.

    I couldn’t agree more with you about the overuse of the word “psychological” whatever when describing that movie. What are these reviewers referring to? Nothing, I’d say. It just sound so educated. 🙂

    If you really want to see the psycho-babblers come out in full, read some reviews of Johnny Guitar. It’s so often described as “psycho-sexual”. No doubt it’s a strange movie ripe with interesting undercurrents, but what the hell is “psycho-sexual”?

    • If you have any other western recommendation, Anke, I’m all ears! I saw one of the Scott/Boetticher movies, Decision at Sundown, but I was pretty disappointed. Then I read that Boetticher considered this and one other Ranown western (Westbound) to be the only mediocre ones of the bunch, so I felt better about not being bowled over.

      I’m so glad to read your take on the “psychological” label — and had to laugh about the psycho-sexual description for Johnny Guitar! It just so happens that I just watched that about a week ago. I really enjoyed it, but honestly. Psycho-sexual? People just make stuff up. Ha!

      • Yes, Decision at Sundown and Westbound are probably the lesser ones of the Ranown series. All the other ones are fantastic, at least I think so.
        My favorite is Ride Lonesome, but The Tall T, Seven Men from Now and Comanche Station are great too.

        For sheer fun The Magnificent Seven is hard to beat. I’m also absolutely in love with John Ford’s Cavalry Trilogy. Another good one is Yellow Sky with Gregory Peck. Also 3:10 To Yuma, Red River and Hondo (for any John Wayne fan), The Ox-Bow Incident (depressing though), Dodge City (you can’t go wrong with Flynn), 40 Guns with Stanwyck (in case you want weird), Gunfight at the OK Corral and Last Train from Gun Hill.

        Hope that helps. 🙂

        • I am definitely trying to track down Ride Lonesome, The Tall T, and Comanche Station — I watched Seven Men From Now just last week. I’ve seen a few of the others you named (LOVED Yellow Sky and Last Train from Gun Hill!!), but I will definitely add Dodge City, 40 Guns, Hondo, Gunfight at the OK Corral, and the Cavalry Trilogy to my list. Thank you!

  5. What a great post! Thanks for letting us know about this Noir-western. I absolutely believe in the concept of Noir-westerns-so does Martin Scorsese when he talks about “Johnny Guitar”. My favorite genres are Noir, thrillers, gangster pictures, pre-codes and classic horror. Typically, I have shied away from Westerns although “The Searchers” is terrific. I think it’s because I indiscriminately watched some “average” Western tv shows and movies which were plentiful on the tv airwaves when I was growing up.
    I’ve watched a bunch of Westerns on TCM this July, and have been suitably impressed! I especially enjoyed “Wagonmaster” which I didn’t think I was going to like. It’s a great John Ford Western, and I can recommend that along with “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”. I’m happy to say I’ve opened my mind and expanded my palette to include Westerns and am the richer for it. I happily admit I’ve been wrong about them, and am enjoying catching up!

    • Wagonmaster is just beautiful.

    • Thank you, Amy! I was never really interested in westerns, although I’d seen some here and there based on recommendations and always enjoyed them. But I’m completely obsessed right now, and loving it — they’re all I watch. Such fun! I will have to add Wagonmaster, The Searchers, and She Wore a Ribbon to my list — thanks!

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