Monday, June 29, 2020

Tonight's Movie: The Moonlighter (1953) - A Warner Archive DVD Review

Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray teamed for the third of their four films together in THE MOONLIGHTER (1953), available on DVD from the Warner Archive.

Stanwyck and MacMurray had previously worked together on what's now regarded as a Christmas classic, REMEMBER THE NIGHT (1940), before starring in their best-known film, DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944).

Nearly a decade passed before they worked together again in THE MOONLIGHTER, after which they teamed for one more movie, the well-regarded Douglas Sirk film THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW (1956). THERE'S ALWAYS TOMORROW will be out on Blu-ray in August from Kino Lorber.

THE MOONLIGHTER is a black and white 3D Western, filmed by Bert Glennon, which comes complete with an intermission card at the film's 45-minute mark to allow for reel changes. However, other than the opening credits sequence and the intermission, there's little in the 2D version to tip off viewers that it was originally shown in the 3D format.

This relatively short 78-minute Western was written by Niven Busch, who tended to write fairly dark Western screenplays and stories, including PURSUED (1947) and THE MAN FROM THE ALAMO (1953).

Unfortunately THE MOONLIGHTER isn't just dark, its characters act in ways which at times are nearly incomprehensible. They're not particularly sympathetic people, and the conclusion, which won't be revealed here, is jaw-dropping.

I can't believe I'm saying this about a film with Stanwyck, MacMurray, and Ward Bond, but this film goes on a short list as one of the most unlikeable Westerns I've ever seen. Given how much I love the genre and at least enjoy most Westerns, that's saying something.

This turn-of-the-century Western starts out in disturbing fashion with Wes Anderson (MacMurray) in jail for cattle rustling. A lynch mob (including Morris Ankrum and Jack Elam) forces its way into the jail -- and then hangs the wrong man.

Anderson escapes and wreaks vengeance on the lynchers who murdered an innocent man. He then retreats to his family home for the first time in half a decade, where he expects his one-time love Rela (Stanwyck) to still be waiting for him. He's not happy to find out she's taken up with his brother Tom (William Ching), a bank teller.

Wes's old friend Cole Gardner (Bond) shows up in town, and he and Wes plan to rob the bank. Tom, having been laid off for being overly distracted due to Wes's presence, decides to join in. Let's just say it doesn't go particularly well.

Rela is among those deputized to hunt down the robbers...and where it goes from there viewers will have to find out for themselves. My mouth was agape as "The End" came up.

I have enjoyed a number of films directed by Roy Rowland and am particularly fond of his Stewart Granger Western GUN GLORY (1957).

This one, however, just doesn't work, even with elements which should have been interesting, such as the use of an automobile as a getaway vehicle in what's otherwise a fairly standard Western setting. A flashback sequence shoehorned into the first half of the film is downright awkward. The movie progresses from upsetting to boring to unbelievable.

I'm not sure how much of it is Rowland's fault, as the script is just not very good and I'm not sure there was a way to make the characters more appealing. MacMurray is a nasty user with delusions of grandeur (he really thinks his gal should have waited for him for five years?!), while Ching starts out as a strong, respectable man but quickly turns into a whiny loser.

Even Stanwyck's character, a woman nervy enough to head out on horseback hunting down criminals, lacks depth -- and in some ways she's not very bright.

The most interesting moment in the film was Ward Bond's first scene, showing up in the bank and keeping a close eye on Tom. How I was hoping he was a cagey lawman hunting down Wes! Things seemed as though they might be getting interesting.  Alas, it was not to be.

Most Westerns I see have at least some positive elements, but this one simply didn't work for me.

The supporting cast includes Myron Healey, Charles Halton, Almira Sessions, John Dierkes, Richard Powers (Tom Keene), Sam Flint, and Byron Foulger.

The Warner Archive DVD has a good print and sound. There are no extras on the disc.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this DVD. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered from the Warner Archive Collection at the WBShop or from any online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays are sold.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

The note about The Moonlighter in my handy-dandy little notebook states, and it was difficult for this Stanwyck and MacMurray to write it: "Perhaps this story would have benefitted with less mature leads. It would help with the character's motivations."

5:16 AM  
Blogger Walter S. said...

Laura, good write-up of a Western Movie that you clearly don't like. I can understand your criticisms. I think THE MOONLIGHTER(1953) might fall into the category of what Colin writes about in his review of BLACK PATCH(1957).

I'll quote Colin in, "that grey area for me, not failing but not quite working as well as one might hope either." First of all, I probably like THE MOONLIGHTER more than you do, but it isn't a great Western, either. Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray have made much better Westerns and writer Niven Busch has written better ones. Also, director Roy Rowland did what he could with the material he had.

As a fan there are some things that I do like about the movie. I think the first 25 minutes, or so, are really good. I don't won't to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen the movie, but the jail and mob scene at the beginning is intense and with unexpected results. The funeral and the eulogy have some good dark humor. The ride out for revenge on Wes Anderson's(Fred MacMurray) part is good, especially what happens to Strawboss(Jack Elam), who had been the leader of the lynch mob. The bank robbery was well done and I liked the use of the banker's newfangled horseless carriage. I can't help but think that writer Niven Busch new about outlaw Henry Starr's last bank robbery in Harrison, Arkansas in 1921. The waterfall scene was a really good one for stunt-woman Barbara Stanwyck. Also, I liked that the time period was set in the early 1900's.

Not a great or very good Western and it could have been better. Worth watching? Sure, but watch THE FURIES(filmed 1949, released 1950) and QUANTEZ(filmed 1956, released 1957) first.

7:14 AM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

I stumbled on this not long ago and was thrilled, absolutely thrilled, to find a movie with MacMurray and Stanwyck I hadn't seen. It must be good, right? Unfortunately not. Rarely have I been so disappointed.

As opposed to you I thought it started out very strong. I agree with Walter here and loved the first 20 minutes or so and thought I'd be in for a great revenge Western that would make a point. But this plot was quickly simply dropped and then went off in a totally silly different direction. I agree with Patricia that the leads were definitely too old for their roles and Barbara didn't look attractive at all here.I couldn't see any man fighting over her and it hurts me saying that as I love Stanwyck.

Walter, I'm not sure I agree with you about comparing this to Black Patch. Black Patch worked still better than this, for me at least. The Moonlighter's storyline and characters seemed completely schizophrenic. None of their action made any sense. And really, that ending...

8:11 AM  
Blogger Walter S. said...

Margot, BLACK PATCH(1957) was by far the better movie, in my opinion. I may have not made myself clear on that point. George Montgomery and Leo Gordon were at their best in BLACK PATCH, whereas Stanwyck and MacMurray weren't in THE MOONLIGHTER(1953). As we well know, movie makers can't hit the ball out of the park every time.

Margot, have you ever read Niven Busch's novel THE FURIES(1948)?

8:49 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

When you see a story written by Niven Busch turn out this way the presumption almost must be studio interference at the post-production level. A 78 minute project filmed mindlessly in 3D with A list players can only mean the executive branch of the filmmaking process must have rad critical comments at the sneak preview, and in any case, the business was not so hot -- competition from television was enormous. Somewhere, A Niven Busch archive must exist containing his work on this along with his many other films. If you believe my thesis unlikely, look what MGM did to Across the Wide Missouri, a Gable - William Wellman project. What is left clearly illustrates what might have been, with courage and integrity from the executive suite.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

Walter, it certainly was a rare dud from director and actors.
I haven't read any Niven Busch books yet. I know, a grave oversight. I have seen The Furies though.

11:40 AM  
Blogger Lee R said...

You know, it's been a few years since I've seen The Moonlighter, so I'll have to watch again. But it's funny, your reactions reminded me exactly of my reactions when I watched Beverly Garland in The Gunslinger, the way she immediately took up arms and chased the bad guys, shooting them down as they had just shot her sheriff husband. My mouth was agape here as yours was there. I loved Beverly in this.

And your reaction to The Moonlighter as being totally negative and without any decency in it or it's characters, this was my exact reaction to the George Montgomery movie "Black Patch". I found this movie totally revolting disgusting and without any decency at all. I was shocked because normally I like Montgomery, but his taste was where it doesn't belong here. My reaction to this old western (which in 99.99% of the time I love) was disgust, the same reaction I have whenever I watch any of the revolting spaghetti westerns, which Black Patch was a lot alike. I love all westerns of the '50's and mid to late '40's, but something went fowl for a lot of them in the '60's, not all, but a lot.

5:21 PM  
Blogger Lee R said...

Believe it or not, I did not read any of the other posters here before I wrote my reactions. I was really surprised to see that so many others thought of the Black Patch too. Great minds think alike.

5:24 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I love that THE MOONLIGHTER has prompted so much discussion!!

Caftan Woman, I hadn't thought about the ages but you're correct. Some of the impulsive decisions and expectations would have made a lot more sense for younger people.

Walter, great to hear from you! Thank you so much for sharing Colin's review of BLACK PATCH, I hadn't had a chance to read that one yet. I had very iffy feelings about BLACK PATCH myself. I thought it started strong and had some good moments but didn't like a shift in focus midway through and so on. I agree with Margot here, I think BLACK PATCH probably worked better for me overall than THE MOONLIGHTER.

I agree the first section of the film is pretty well done -- my problem there was more personal taste, it was too dark for me in multiple respects. I actually hit the fast forward button until the end of the lynching so I could see what happened but get a little emotional distance, as I wasn't enjoying that section. Just too upsetting for me to spend time with.

I have THE FURIES in my "watch soon" stack along with Stanwyck's FORTY GUNS and THE MAVERICK QUEEN (I've heard the latter isn't that good but I hope it will be a little more to my taste, especially as it costars Barry Sullivan). Thanks for sharing your detailed thoughts!

Margot, I enjoyed your thoughts as well. Barbara definitely has her '50s "helmet hair" look here although not as bad as in some other films. I agree, I really had trouble figuring out the characters and their choices. It was just bizarre.

Barrylane, it does make sense to me that there could have been a studio issue. In fact, one of the things I thought was that the problems were so obvious, with abrupt storyline switches, why didn't they take the time to try and fix it? But perhaps they just wanted to hurry it into the theaters and didn't feel they'd get financial payback for improving the film. (PS I haven't seen ACROSS THE WIDE MISSOURI for many years but I do have a copy in my "watch stack"!)

Lee, you definitely had strong feelings on BLACK PATCH. I guesss we can say that even though both that and THE MOONLIGHTER had problems, at least they got us all thinking/analyzing and sharing!

Thanks to you all for the terrific discussion -- and for letting me know I'm not alone in my thinking. I was so surprised that a film with all the "right elements" was so poor I wondered if I should give it another chance in the future.

Best wishes,

7:37 PM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

Lee, I find your reaction to Black Patch interesting. Black Patch has its problems but I don't quite see why you find it revolting. I loved Leo Gordon's character and I thought Montgomery was fine. Could you elaborate a bit?

8:20 PM  
Blogger Lee R said...

Well Margot, It's been about 3 or 4 years since I saw it. I think I was more repulsed at the thought that I had actually paid a fair amount of money to buy it just to see it (I had no idea what it was about other than it was G. Montgomery). I don't remember the details of why I disliked it but it was mainly everyone in the movie seemed to act so indecent and foul and just plain heartless. It seemed to me to be a cruel movie with cruel people and no hope or goodness in anyone.

Guess I may have to put a clothespin on my nose and watch this mess again to give a more detailed reason. I just really remember how much I found this movie so insulting to the westerns of the '40's and 50's and the way they made a western, it seemed to resemble more the spaghetti westerns which are repulsive in the extreme.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Lee R said...

Seems for most movies I forget the details about them esp. if I wasn't impressed by them and don't remember much about them months later. This reminds me of my Dad, I'd show him a movie and a couple years later I would show it to him again and he'd swear he never saw it before. Maybe this is the one good thing about going senile, every movie you see is brand new to you all over again.

4:46 PM  
Blogger Margot Shelby said...

Thanks Lee. I see what you mean though I can't quite agree. But you're a good man, Charlie Brown. :)

As for movies I haven't seen in a while, I definitely forget the details. Like many classic film fans I watch a lot of them, so a while ago I started taking down notes after I've seen them.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Lee R said...

I remember reading comments from somebody who saw particular movies 30, 40 years ago and they were talking details and scenes and I thought how in the world do they remember all that? Then I read they took notes at the time they saw the movie. Taking notes is a good idea, I wish I had thought of it long ago.

9:32 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

There have been times a title has become fuzzy and I was grateful to be able to go back to one of my old blog posts to refresh my memory -- I guess for me that's the equivalent of taking notes. Great idea for any film fan to jot down memories in some form for later reference.

Best wishes,

2:44 PM  

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