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Having broken through to success with his key supporting role in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), which earned him an Oscar nomination (astoundingly, his only one), Robert Mitchum was a hot commodity by 1948. RKO, which had him under contract at $3,000 a week, was so impressed with him that the studio was willing to pay David O. Selznick $12,500 per week (for a ten week shoot) to secure the actor's services. Mitchum also had a deal with Selznick's Vanguard productions, and it was Selznick's turn to use him in a picture. But RKO, who had done well with such previous Mitchum films as the Western Rachel and the Stranger (1948) and the film noirs, Out of the Past (1947) and Crossfire(1947), was more than willing to shell out big bucks for the rising star.
For Blood on the Moon (1948), Mitchum proved to be the right choice for a story that played on his morally ambiguous image. As Jim Garry, he first appears as an old friend to the scheming Tate Billing (Robert Preston), agreeing to serve as a hired gun for Billing's plot to get rich off another cattleman's herd. But as the story progresses, Garry learns of his friend's treachery and falls for the victimized cattleman's daughter, revealing a forthright side to his character. He confronts Billing in a lengthy knockdown fistfight that's reminiscent of the final brawl between John Wayne and Montgomery Clift in another popular Western of the year, Red River (1948). "In keeping with the realistic style of this film," according to director Robert Wise (in the biography Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care by Lee Server), "I wanted to avoid one of those extremely staged-looking fistfights used in all the movies, where the stuntmen did this elaborate, acrobatic fighting and you saw the real actors only in close-ups. I wanted this to look like a real fight, with that awkward, brutal look of a real fight, and when it was done for the winner to look as exhausted as the loser. And Mitch was excited about this. He knew exactly what I was going for. I think he probably knew more than I did about barroom fights like this one."
Reviewers at the time remarked on how Blood on the Moon avoided the generic Western formula. In the dark, shadowy nature of the look, characters, and themes of this movie, it resembled more the film noir work at which Mitchum and director Wise excelled at this time. Although known more today for his blockbuster musicals West Side Story (1961) and The Sound of Music (1965), Wise started out at RKO as an expert editor - counting Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) among his early work - and as one of the key directors in Val Lewton's legendary "horror" unit at the studio. Wise directed the darkly suggestive The Curse of the Cat People (1944), which was more psychological fantasy than horror film, and the Boris Karloff melodrama The Body Snatcher (1945) for Lewton. He also made Born to Kill (1947), a quintessential noir thriller, although rarely seen today. Wise always referred to Blood on the Moon as his "first big feature," but he was on record as saying he disliked the Western genre (he made only three).
Mitchum, as mentioned above, already had impressive film noir credentials and brought to this picture many of the laconic, ambiguous qualities he displayed in his crime dramas. But he also looked completely at home in the Western genre. In the aforementioned Lee Server biography, Wise recalled, "the first scene we shot after Mitch got outfitted was in the barroom. Walter Brennan was sitting at a table with a couple of pals and Brennan was very interested in the Old West, it was a hobby of his. And I'll never forget when Bob came on the set, just standing there, with the costume and the whole attitude that he gave to it, and Brennan got a look at him and was terribly impressed. He pointed to Mitchum and said, "That is the goddamndest realest cowboy I've ever seen."
Considering the combined backgrounds of director, star and production team, it's no surprise Blood on the Moon came off as more of a tense psychological study than an epic of the open-air West. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca was a veteran of such dark thrillers as Out of the Past, The Locket (1946) - both starring Mitchum - and The Spiral Staircase (1946), as well as several of the Lewton productions (including The Curse of the Cat People with Wise). Working with art directors Albert D'Agostino and Walter Keller (also key players in RKO's noir and horror cycles), he created a sense of claustrophobic tension by shooting much of the film indoors, on low-ceilinged sets (echoes of Welles), with a contrasting play of light and dark - none of them hallmarks of the typical Western. Roy Webb, who composed the score, was also no stranger to creating music for moody, mysterious tales, having written for all the above-mentioned Mitchum noir films, many of the Lewton productions, and Hitchcock's Notorious (1946).
Although not a near-instant classic like the other big Westerns released the same year, Red River and Fort Apache, Blood on the Moon did well critically and commercially. And Mitchum's stock continued to rise so swiftly that even his 1948 arrest and brief imprisonment for possession of marijuana (an expected career-killer at the time) did not hinder his success.
Director: Robert Wise
Producer: Theron Warth
Screenplay: Lillie Hayward, from the novel by Luke Short
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Editing: Samuel E. Beetley
Art Direction: Albert S. D+Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Original Music: Roy Webb
Cast: Robert Mitchum (Jim Garry), Barbara Bel Geddes (Amy Lufton), Robert Preston (Tate Billing), Walter Brennan (Kris Barden), Phyllis Thaxter (Carol Lufton).
BW-88m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon