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In his autobiography Sparks Fly Upward, actor Stewart Granger described the 1955 film Moonfleet as a "dreary costume epic." As dismissive as this phrase might at first seem, it is in fact an apt summary of the heightened grimness of Fritz Lang's moody adventure saga.
In the mid 1700s, on the southern coast of England, orphaned John Mohune (Jon Whiteley) seeks out Jeremy Fox (Granger), a roguish gentleman who has been appointed the child's guardian. Unwilling to be passed along to another custodian, young Mohune remains in Moonfleet and discovers a nest of secrets lurking within the rocky, windswept town. Fox enjoys a camaraderie with wealthy lords, a secretive involvement with a band of smugglers, and an association with a series of exotic women including a gypsy dancer (ballet star Liliane Montevecchi), a mysterious lady in a gilded coach (Joan Greenwood) and a sinister mistress (Viveca Lindfors). John also learns he is the rightful heir to a large diamond once belonging to Redbeard. Only through the selfless intervention of Fox does the plucky lad stand a chance of ever receiving his legacy, even though it means defying the heartless thieves once under his command.
Cut from the pattern of Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped and Treasure Island, the script was adapted from the 1896 novel by John Meade Falkner. Screenwriters Jan Lustig and Margaret Fitts embellished the story with flavorings of Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn and Charles Dickens's Great Expectations, in an effort to boost the film's romantic intrigue quotient.
Producer John Houseman understood that the screenplay was, in his own words, a "sparse, rather somber tale." The New York Times called the script "a thoroughly boneless thing." The melodramatic ingredients were contrived and the action was limited to the inns and manors of Dorsetshire. The script simply did not have the makings of the swashbuckling epic MGM anticipated. But, as Lang says, "Look -- you sign a contract.... Having signed a contract, you have to do your best."
Rather than exaggerating the story into something it wasn't, Lang zeroed in on the true essence of Moonfleet: a child's-eye view of the mysteries of adulthood and the horrors of 18th-century pirates. Moonfleet is thus a Grimm's fairy tale in which a child's curiosity leads him into a nest of murderous thieves, nightmarish graveyards and skeleton-filled tombs. To Mohune, the monstrous cutthroats that crawl among the open graves of Moonfleet are hardly distinguishable from the decaying bodies that reside therein.
Hoping for a colorful spectacular, MGM commissioned the film in Cinemascope and Eastman color. Working with cinematographer Robert Planck and designer Hans Peters, Lang deviated from the studio plan, rendering the film in a palette of subtle earth tones. This allowed for bursts of highly dramatic color, as when John stumbles through the cemetery, beneath brown-and-yellow painted skies, watched over by a ghoulish angel statue with sickly green, luminous eyes.
Moonfleet was shot almost completely in the controlled environment of the studio, which allowed for the baroque compositions and stylized settings Lang was aiming for, and which give the film its distinctively "dreary" flavor. The only notable exception to the studio scenes are certain seaside exteriors filmed on the stony shore of Oceanside, California.
Lang's aim was romanticism -- not the stuff of flowery love stories but the haunted, often tragic literature of Goethe, Shelley or Poe, and the evocative paintings of Blake, Delacroix and Goya. "If you would make a contemporary horror story, you would use a different atmosphere," Lang explained. "But if there are ghosts (which there are in this because they think the smugglers are ghosts) and it plays in a churchyard and so on, you have to make it romantic."
Granger recalled that, during production, studio head Louis B. Mayer and producer Dore Schary visited the set with a promising actor they were trying to recruit to MGM: James Dean. Granger was disappointed with the method actor's sullen lack of courtesy: "I told him how much I had enjoyed his last film, but he didn't return the compliment.... I learnt later that he'd met [Clark] Gable and [Spencer] Tracy with the same indifference.... Hadn't Gable's performance in Gone With the Wind moved him at all? Or, more important, even if it hadn't, couldn't he have had the good manners to pretend that it had? I'm afraid I was as unimpressed by him as he seemed to be by all of us."
Moonfleet was Lang's first and only Cinemascope film, and from the start he expressed concern about how the process, still in its infancy, would affect screen language. "The power of the screen always has been its intimacy....[I am] not certain that we still will have the same power with Cinemascope [but] one has to learn to live with changes, to make compromises." In later years, Lang established a more firm view of Cinemascope, declaring it "only good for funerals and snakes."
"If you think about famous paintings," Lang told interviewer Peter Bogdanovich, "there is only one I know of that has this format, and that's 'The Last Supper.'"
Producer: John Houseman
Director: Fritz Lang
Screenplay: Jan Lustig and Margaret Fitts
Based on the novel by J. Meade Falkner
Cinematography: Robert Planck
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons and Hans Peters
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Principal Cast: Stewart Granger (Jeremy Fox), George Sanders (Lord Ashwood), Jon Whiteley (John Mohune), Viveca Lindfors (Mrs. Minton), Joan Greenwood (Lady Ashwood), Liliane Montevecchi (Gypsy Woman).
C-87m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Bret Wood