Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Blood on the Moon (1948) and Western-Noir

The other day I started wondering about noir--usually dark, urban, claustrophobic, paranoid/uncertain--and westerns--usually bright, rural, wide-open spaces, with clear us-vs.-them distinctions. Could these two genres really be combined? And lo! someone on the internet already put together a list of great western noirs or noir westerns.

Blood on the Moon has some impeccable noir lineage: with Robert Mitchum as the gunslinging drifter; and directed by Robert Wise, between noirs Born to Kill (1947) and The Set-Up (1949). And it has a real solid noir set-up:

Mitchum drifts through a cattle herd where the herders suspect him of working for the homesteaders, in the traditional western battle between cattlemen and farmers. (Only slightly less popular than white vs. Indian.) The Indian Bureau agent is refusing to buy the cattle--as he usually does--so the herd has to move off the Indian reservation; and the homesteaders are ganging up to stop the herd moving onto their farmland. But this anti-cow resistance is organized by Mitchum's old friend Tate, who has a plan: keep the cattle on the wrong side of the reservation, forcing the owner to sell low, then turn around and sell the cattle to the colluding Indian Bureau agent for a profit. And Tate is nice enough to pay Mitchum out of his own share, since Mitchum's flat broke. Only Mitchum finds that some of the scheme runs against his principles. Meanwhile, cattle-herder Lufton's two daughters have some plans of their own: fiery Amy wants to fight; while proper Carol is improperly sneaking out to inform Tate about her father, since she loves Tate.

Scheming (Tate)! Betrayal (Carol)! Forced by circumstances (Mitchum's broke)! So much noir. Even the cinematography furthers this noir feeling, with lots of dark scenes and low shots in closed in rooms (like a fist-fight between Tate and Mitchum when they break). So it's a dark, rural, claustrophobic film--with a slight uncertainty at first about the right thing to do. I mean, Tate seems like a nice friend to Mitchum, but Mitchum isn't really forced by circumstance--he's broke, but there's no hint that he needs the money for a good reason.

And so the noir stage-setting at the beginning gives way to a Western us-vs.-them scenario, involving an escape through the wilderness (trading close rooms for wide open spaces); and a clear "these are bad men" understanding of what should be done. And so, in typical Western hero fashion, Mitchum uses his gunslinging against the evil gunslingers to protect the people who aren't all that good at gunslinging.

(This is pretty common in Westerns, where the hero uses his out-group skills to protect some in-group against the larger out-group. That is, we often see in Westerns that the gunslinger uses his guns against evil gunslingers to protect the settlers; or the Indian tracker uses his tracking ability against evil Indians to protect the whites.)

But not only that--the movie strongly hints at the post-credit sequence will be a wedding between Mitchum and Amy. So, whereas many a Western ends with the hero moving on--his wild skills are useful in taming the wilderness, but he's too wild for the tame civilized world he helps make--here we have the noir drifter protagonist heading towards domesticity that even a Western hero might balk at.

So Blood on the Moon starts out a perfect noir western, but ends up a very comfortable non-noir and almost non-western.

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