Friday, January 27, 2017

Barbara Loves a Moonlighter

Almost immediately, The Moonlighter  (1953) defines its title - a moonlighter is a cattle rustler who works by moonight - a skill, no doubt, since it is hard to rope what you can't see.  Wes Anderson (Fred MacMurray) has been arrested for said offense, and the local townfolk are looking forward to a hanging.  Ranch owner Alex Prince (Morris Ankrum) and his strawboss (Jack Elam) decide to take the law into their own hands; they break into the jail, and hang the man in cell three.  Only, unbeknownst to them, it's the wrong man.  The resulting celebration gives Wes and his cellmates the opportunity to beat it out of town.  Wes spends a few months revenging himself on the murderers, then returns to his home town - to his mother (Myra Marsh), brother Tom (William Ching), and to Rela (Barbara Stanwyck), the love of his life, who is now engaged to brother Tom.  Needless to say, Wes is not a happy man.  So, when his friend Cole Gardner (Ward Bond) shows up, he decides the life of crime really is the one for him.

It's great to see Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray back together again.  This was the third of their four films together (we've already discussed Remember the Night (1940),  Double Indemnity (1944), and There's Always Tomorrow (1956)).  Their chemistry together is excellent, and Mr. MacMurray was vocal in his affection for his co-star this TCM article quotes Mr. MacMurray: "I was lucky enough to make four pictures with Barbara. In the first I turned her in, in the second I killed her, in the third I left her for another woman, and in the fourth I pushed her over a waterfall. The one thing all these pictures had in common was that I fell in love with Barbara Stanwyck -- and I did, too!" But this film doesn't really do that chemistry a whole lot of justice.
First off, we don't even see Ms. Stanwyck until nearly half-way into the film.  Secondly, the film doesn't feel like a full unit - it feels like a bunch of little plots all loosely linked together.  The beginning, wherein Wes is almost lynched, seems to be a short piece that has nothing to do with the later plot of Wes robbing a bank.  Plus, much of it makes no sense - why does the upstanding Tom decide to become a thief (when he knows Rela despises that)? Why does Wes resort to bank robbery, when he is so good with cattle (well, we think he is.  We never really see him stealing any cattle.  We do see him roping a few men, and he is quite good at that)? And WHY do three bank robbers make absolutely no attempt to hide who they are from their victims?  It's bank robbery by the Keystone Kops!

There is another major problem with this film, and I shudder to say it - the leads are ALL too old for the parts.  MacMurray is 45; Stanwyck is 46, and William Ching is 40.  The male characters act like teenagers - totally unable to cope with real life, and rebelling like mad.  It's bad enough that one man in his 40s is so immature, but TWO?  While Stanwyck is the right age for both MacMurray and Ching (and I applaud director Roy Rowland and producer Joseph Bernhart for selecting a mature woman to act alongside these two actors), Rela is just too smart and too mature to get involved with these total losers.  There was discussion at one point of having Jennifer Jones and Alan Ladd or Kirk Douglas star (AFI Catalog).  Though somewhat younger, they still would have been all wrong.
For some reason, though filmed in black and white, the film was shot in 3-D (naturally, we saw a 2-D television version).  And though it clocks in at 77 minutes, it has an intermission!  In this New York Times review, the reviewer is just as confused as the utility of the #-D process in the film: it "merely pulls a few cliffs, trees and modest panoramas into clearer focus".  They could have done as much with without making the audience wear funny glasses. 

So, while we wish we could recommend this one, we really can't.  For Stanwyck fans, give it a go (because she is great. She is always great. Ultimately any Stanwyck film is worth seeing at least once), but put it low on the list. Next week, we'll revisit a Stanwyck pre-code film that we originally discussed several years ago.
We'll leave you with a short clip of Mr. MacMurray in danger:

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