Welcome to B-Roll! This weekly column digs into the deeper cuts and lesser-known films from legendary directors–the good, the bad, and the amazing. This week, writer Nathanael Hood looks at Robert Wise’s 1948 Western Blood on the Moon.
You don’t study the films of Robert Wise for reoccurring themes and ideas–you excavate them. During his forty-five years as a director, Wise proved himself to be one of Hollywood’s most talented and capable cinematic polyglots. He left behind a filmography that encompassed horror (The Curse of the Cat People ), sports dramas (The Set-Up ), Westerns (Two Flags West ), science-fiction (The Day the Earth Stood Still [1951), film noir (The House on Telegraph Hill ), and musicals (West Side Story ). Perhaps only Howard Hawks matched his capacity for excelling in wildly divergent genres. But whereas nearly every Hawks film proudly paraded its director’s stylistic brand, most viewers would be hard-pressed to find any similarities amongst Wise’s oeuvre. How could the genius behind the torment and destruction of Julie Harris in The Haunting (1963) be the same man responsible for Julie Andrews warbling in the Alps in The Sound of Music (1965)?
I would suggest that to truly understand Wise, one must not look towards his Oscar-winning big-budget prestige pictures but towards the lower-budget films that dominated his early career. Amongst these, one attribute repeatedly returns to the forefront: psychological preoccupation. Regardless of time period or geographic setting, the internal psychological struggles of his characters both carry and define his films. The Curse of the Cat People shrugged off the supernatural trappings of the original Cat People (1942) in favor of diving into the psychological torments and hallucinations of a lonely little girl. The Set-Up predicted later boxing films like Rocky (1976) by contextualizing the boxing ring as a battlefield for down-and-out outsiders to rediscover, redefine, and defend their inner self-worth. The list could go on and on.
And so we arrive at a mediocre little Western entitled Blood on the Moon (1948). And make no mistake, the film is decidedly mediocre: a rather standard plot about warring cattle barons and homesteaders is hobbled by a very tired, very weary performance by Robert Mitchum as cowboy Jim Garry, a man who jumps from one side of the conflict to the other after discovering that he has been lied to and used by his friend.
Along the way there is attempted murder, romance, betrayals, cattle stampeding, and a kidnapping. But very little of it is discernible thanks to a key shortcoming: the people on the opposing sides of the conflict have very little to distinguish themselves visually. Compare this to Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) where the geometric visual language demarcates who is who in a stunning opening sequence where two different factions try to attack each other in a village square. There is no similar scene in Blood on the Moon. Because of this, all of the characters blend into a homogenous whole, their actions carrying very little weight since we aren’t sure who they are helping or betraying.
But the film carries a striking psychological intensity thanks in no small part to Wise’s collaboration with cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca. Together, they make the interesting choice of filming most of the movie in claustrophobic medium and medium close-ups. There are few, if any, sweeping shots of the wilderness so characteristic to the Western genre. The few longs shots are almost always framed by looming buildings or groups of people, giving the action a very flat texture.
Because of this, the landscape of the human face becomes the key battleground of Wise’s drama (Samuel Fuller used a similar technique—albeit to greater effect—in I Shot Jesse James , another Western that sacrificed grandiose exteriors in favor of cramped, psychological interiors). Even Mitchum’s stone-faced anti-acting is given a Kuleshovian depth and power during key sequences where he comes to terms with his betrayal.
Wise may have been handed the script to a mediocre movie with Blood on the Moon. But his triumph was rescuing it from being a complete and total failure. And that is the mark of a great director.
Blood on the Moon is currently out of print, but DVD copies can still be purchased on Amazon.
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