Sunday, September 23, 2012

Tonight's Movie: The Stalking Moon (1968)

Having watched THE LAW AND JAKE WADE (1968) last night, I decided to continue working my way through the Warner Western Classics Collection and watched THE STALKING MOON from the same set this afternoon.

THE STALKING MOON was recently recommended to me by both my father and by Colin of Riding the High Country, and I enjoyed the movie very much. You can read Colin's excellent review here.

Sam Varner (Gregory Peck) is an Army frontier scout retiring after 15 years. During his last job Sam helps to rescue Sarah Carver (Eva Marie Saint), who had been captured by the Apaches and lived with them for the past ten years.

Sarah, who has a young Indian son (Noland Clay), is in a sort of "no woman's land," having no family left, no money, no home, and a child who will not fit in easily in the East. Sam takes pity on Sarah and invites her to come to his farm in New Mexico to work as his housekeeper.

Sarah's Indian husband, Salvaje (Nathaniel Narcisco), intends to reclaim his son and proves to be relentless in his pursuit, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake and ultimately laying siege to Sam's cabin.

Given that the film was made in the late '60s, the violence is depicted in a restrained fashion, though I honestly would have preferred that the movie had a lower body count. A great many characters -- not to mention animals! -- die at the hands of Salvaje, a fearsome, tireless killer.

Otherwise, this is an excellent, very well-constructed film with outstanding lead performances by Peck and Saint. Neither character is much for talking, but they convey a world of emotion with their body language and expressions.

The scene where Sam keeps watching Sarah's sad little figure sitting on the train platform is marvelous, as he mentally argues with himself before making up his mind to offer Sarah a home. Likewise, his attempts to make Sarah and her son comfortable in his presence are quite sweet, as he invites them to eat with him and speak at will, and Sarah's slow attempts to use English for the first time in years are touching as well. The slow, tentative building of Sam and Sarah's relationship is thoughtfully and believably depicted, and the gradually increasing suspense in the film's second half is also extremely well done.

The Nevada locations, standing in for New Mexico, are absolutely stunning, beautifully filmed by Charles Lang. Among other things, the movie is a great visual treat.

Actor Frank Silvera, who plays Peck's army major boss in the early scenes, was a true chameleon. A Jamaican-born black actor, he had the ability to play a variety of ethnicities. His best-known part may have been his semi-regular role as the powerful Don Sebastian Montoya on THE HIGH CHAPARRAL (1967-71), a favorite TV Western I wrote about at length last weekend. After Silvera died in an accident in 1970, his character's passing was mourned in what turned out to be the final episode of the series, "The New Lion of Sonora."

The film's supporting cast also includes Robert Forster, Russell Thorson, and Lonny Chapman. Richard Bull (Mr. Oleson on LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE) plays the army doctor.

THE STALKING MOON was directed by Robert Mulligan. The Alvin Sargent screenplay was based on a novel by Theodore Olsen. The movie runs 109 minutes.

I wasn't wild about Fred Karlin's score, which at times seemed to place the film a little too firmly in the '60s, but otherwise this is a beautifully made film. Recommended.

March 2020 Update: This film is being released on Blu-ray this month by the Warner Archive.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Laura, really glad you got to see this, and enjoyed it too.
I like the increasing sense of minimalism of the whole thing - the way the cast, settings etc are pared down gradually. It's beautifully structured and keeps the focus squarely on the protagonists, and they hold the attention and maintain interest effortlessly.

For me, one of the greatest strengths and weaknesses was the character and portrayal of Salvaje. Keeping him off screen for the bulk of the running time was a masterstroke - he becomes almost mythical - but it's also problematic. When he does finally make an appearance the build-up was so great that the reality almost inevitably disappoints.


12:29 AM  
Blogger Jeff Flugel said...

Excellent review of a terrific film. (You can probably guess at my feeling about this movie, judging from the name of my blog ;)

I'm glad you pinpointed those two moments in particular from the film that illustrate the innate decency and good-hearted nature of Peck's character. As you say, he doesn't talk much, but his emotions speak volumes. Eva Marie Saint also gives a very naturalistic and real performance.

It's a kick to see Russell Thorsen (not that we ever get a good look at his face, exactly) - I know him chiefly as the voice of Jack Packard in the 50s remake version of the famous radio show I LOVE A MYSTERY.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Colin, I really enjoyed it, and I also appreciated your comments. That's a very interesting point about the depiction of Salvaje being both a strength and a weakness. I think you're right about that.

Jeff, it's also great to hear from you! As you know, it really was a very good movie. Hope more fans of Westerns will take the time to check it out.

Best wishes,

3:41 PM  
Blogger James Corry said...

Colin, that's how Salvajie was portrayed in the book. He was kept "offscreen" for the most part, but his presence was always felt. In fact, the most ghastly episode was FAR too horrific for a 1960's Hollywood Western film. The dog that Sam Vetch ("Vetch" is his name in the book)has, is killed and gutted by Salvajie and it's body is spread-eagled to the door so that when Eva Marie-Saint's character opens the door in the morning she is staring right into it's gutted cavity. This is only one of Salvajie's way's of telling Peck and Marie-Saint "I can kill you at any time, but I'm in no hurry." I really feel that, if the picture had had a Bernard Herrmann score, it would be a classic today. In the Gary Cooper Western "Garden of Evil" the Apaches were kept offscreen too, but Herrmann ALWAYS reminded us of the omnipresent threat...and as I mentioned in a previous post, Herrmann was VERY available at the time "The Stalking Moon" was made.


4:08 PM  
Blogger Charlieod said...

Thanks for the excellent review and comments.
You all brought something to the table.
Btw. Movie is playing right now on TCM, get to enjoy it again. 8-29-20 Corona time.

1:52 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you for your comment, Charlieod. I'm glad you enjoyed the film and the discussion here.

This is a good time to mention that Brad (aka "James Corry," who commented above), passed away a few years ago and is very much missed.

Best wishes,

10:07 AM  

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