Blood on the Moon is an RKO western directed by Robert Wise. It’s based on Luke Short’s novel Gunman’s Chance, which was originally serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in 1941.
I’ve only read one of Luke Short’s western novels (he wrote more than 50), but judging by it and the two films I’ve seen that were based on his work (this one and André de Toth’s 1947 film Ramrod), dense plotting, terse dialogue, and three-dimensional protagonists were some of Short’s trademarks.
Like most protagonists of westerns in the ’40s and ’50s, the protagonists of Blood on the Moon and Ramrod are on the side of the angels. But they’re more interesting than the cookie-cutter heroes of countless B westerns. Not so much because they’re complex people, but because they’re believable people who exist in a complex world.
First-time viewers of both Ramrod and Blood on the Moon will likely have a little difficulty figuring out who the “good guys” and the “bad guys” are right away, and who’s telling the truth and who’s lying — at least for the first couple of reels.
The hero of Blood on the Moon — Jim Garry — is played by Robert Mitchum. Garry is a solitary cowpoke with a small herd. He’s passing through open country when his herd is run off in a stampede. Rancher John Lufton (Tom Tully), owner of the Lazy J Ranch, apologizes and offers to reimburse Garry for the outfit he lost. Even so, their exchange is tense. Lufton doesn’t trust loose riders, since he’s feuding over grazing land with Jake Pindalest (Frank Faylen), a newly appointed Indian agent who’s thrown Lufton off the reservation grass, and stopped Lufton from supplying the tribe with beef, even though he’d done so for years.
When Garry turns down Lufton’s offer to work for him, the opposition comes knocking in the form of an old friend of Garry’s — a man named Tate Riling (Robert Preston). Tate represents the homesteaders who are opposed to Lufton, and he offers to hire Garry as a gunhand for $10,000. Tate tells Garry, “Lufton’s tough and my ranchers aren’t. You make up the difference.”
“I’ve been mixed up in a lot of things, Tate, but up till now I haven’t been hired for my gun,” Garry says.
“Can you afford to be particular?”
Garry thinks for a moment, then says, “No, I guess I can’t.”
Mitchum is perfect for this type of role. He was a laconic actor who barely ever changed his expression, but he could suggest depths of emotion with his eyes.
Robert Wise, the director of The Body Snatcher (1945) and Born to Kill (1947), keeps Blood on the Moon moving at a brisk, tense pace. The cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca is full of darkness and shadows. It’s not full-on “noir” like James Wong Howe’s cinematography for Pursued, but Blood on the Moon still spends a lot of time in darkened saloons, lonely country at night, and the streets of a frontier town after dark. Even the exterior scenes that take place in daylight have a sense of gray desolation.
The cast is really great, too. I like seeing Barbara Bel Geddes in just about anything, and I especially liked her as one of Lufton’s two daughters, Amy. (Phyllis Thaxter plays the other daughter, Carol.) Square-jawed, gruff-voiced tough guy Charles McGraw plays a gunhand named Milo Sweet who wears one of the sweetest buffalo coats I’ve ever seen. As a homesteader named Kris Barden, Walter Brennan plays essentially the same character he played in every movie he was ever in, but he finds depths of emotion in his character that he didn’t always get to explore as a comical sidekick. And I always love seeing Tom “Captain Marvel” Tyler in any western, even if he was a pretty wooden actor. In Blood on the Moon, he appears just long enough to be effective — in a tense showdown with Mitchum that’s 10 times as exciting as most western showdowns that have more traditional outcomes.
The tough, no-nonsense screenplay of Blood on the Moon is by Lillie Hayward, from an adaptation of the novel by Luke Short and Harold Shumate.
Blood on the Moon won’t ever be counted as one of the all-time great westerns, but the western was a damned busy genre at the time of its release, and it’s a cut above the rest. It holds up to multiple viewings, and presages the many ways in which the genre would mature in the 1950s.