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Fred MacMurray, paying tribute to Barbara Stanwyck on the occasion of her Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1987: "I was lucky enough to make four pictures with Barbara. In the first I turned her in, in the second I killed her, in the third I left her for another woman, and in the fourth I pushed her over a waterfall. The one thing all these pictures had in common was that I fell in love with Barbara Stanwyck -- and I did, too!"
The "waterfall" movie was The Moonlighter (1953), a minor Warner Bros. Western that was actually the third of the four Stanwyck/MacMurray costarring vehicles. It is the least distinguished of the group, definitely not a classic of its kind like the other three: Mitchell Leisen's Remember the Night (1940), one of the most delightful romantic comedies of its era; Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity (1944), a definitive classic of film noir; and Douglas Sirk's There's Always Tomorrow (1956) a bittersweet domestic drama that seemed in its day to have modest ambitions but gained critical admiration over the years.
Before its release The Moonlighter appeared to have positive things going for it beyond the time-proven star combination. The story and screenplay were by Niven Busch, author of the source material for such exciting, offbeat Westerns as Duel in the Sun (1946) and Stanwyck's own The Furies (1950). The director was the dependable Roy Rowland, with whom Stanwyck felt comfortable enough to make two more films, Witness to Murder (1954) and These Wilder Years (1956). The Moonlighter was shot in 3-D, a popular novelty during the mid-1950s.
Also, the movie is notable as the first of the Stanwyck Westerns in which she took a dominant role in the action scenes to prove herself the equal (if not superior) of any man, fighting, riding, shooting and tumbling about with the best of them -- and often performing the stunts herself. She would continue in this feisty fashion in Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), The Maverick Queen (1956), Forty Guns (1957) and her 1960s television Western The Big Valley.
But The Moonlighter proved routine at best, filled with Western clichés, sketchy character development and stilted dialogue. (Stanwyck: "I am here in reference to a deceased person.") A reviewer for The New York Times, while allowing that Stanwyck and MacMurray were still "actors of estimable magnitude," described the movie as "dinky" and wondered "why the protagonists of Double Indemnity should have elected to participate in such cow-town petty larceny."
MacMurray's character, Wes, is a "moonlighter," a shady cowpoke who tends cattle when the sun shines but rustles them by the light of the moon. As the film opens he has been thrown into the jail of a frontier town, but escapes as another man is lynched for his crimes. Wes tries to make amends by arranging a decent burial for the innocent man and punishing those responsible for the hanging. Continuing to live outside the law, he turns to bank robbing.
Stanwyck, who is barely in the first half of the film, plays Rela, formerly Wes's girlfriend but now the intended of his younger and more upstanding brother, Tom (William Ching). When the hero-worshipping Tom decides after all to join Wes in a life of crime, tragedy results. So Rela gets herself deputized by the local sheriff and becomes a kind of one-woman posse on a mission to bring in Wes and his double-crossing accomplice (Ward Bond). When Stanwyck and Bond face off in a rifle fight, it's our spirited heroine who emerges as the victor. But she still has a weak spot for MacMurray's character, allowing them to re-connect romantically before the picture ends.
The decision by Warner Bros. to shoot the film in 3-D seems curious in view of the middle-aged stars, obvious low budget and black and white photography (by veteran cinematographer Bert Glennon). With location shooting on ranches in Simi Valley and Newhall, Calif., the movie lacks the scenic appeal of some of Stanwyck's color Westerns. Little effort was made to exploit the possibilities of the dimensional images beyond the imposing lettering in the credits, some flying props in fight scenes and that cascading waterfall.
As it happens in the film, MacMurray does not "push" Stanwyck over the waterfall but rescues her after she slips and falls. Rowland would later recall that a stunt woman was not on hand to take the fall, and Stanwyck happily did the scene herself -- sliding over large wet rocks and hitting them with her back, side and stomach, then plummeting into the rapids of a fast-moving river. According to director Rowland, "She was capable of doing her own stunt work and completely unafraid... She received bruises, but she never held up the picture in any way."
Aside from Stanwyck's stunt work and hints of the old chemistry with MacMurray, there are few thrills in the film. Warners gamely tried to manufacture the missing excitement in its ads, with an illustration of a brunette Stanwyck looking more like Jane Russell as she pops out of a screen, showing deep cleavage in an off-the-shoulder blouse and wielding a pistol. The tag line read, "The most man-woman excitement to explode off the screen in Natural Vision 3-Dimension!"
Some have speculated that Stanwyck, discontent in her personal life after a divorce from Robert Taylor, began accepting inferior scripts as a means of keeping constantly busy. During 1953 alone she had starring roles in five movies. It could be that she was thinking of films such as The Moonlighter when she explained how one might be drawn into a sub-par project:
"The answer is simply that you make a horrible mistake. You get taken in by what seems like a basically good idea and a sort of rough temporary screenplay and you sign to do the picture without ever seeing a completed script. Within one week after the start of shooting, everybody knows that the thing is just not jelling. But by that time you're hooked. So you do the best that you can -- and you privately hope that nobody goes to see it."
Producer: Joseph Bernhard
Director: Roy Rowland
Screenplay: Niven Busch (story and screenplay)
Cinematography: Bert Glennon
Art Direction: Dan Hall
Music: Heinz Roemheld
Film Editing: Terry Morse
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Rela), Fred MacMurray (Wes Anderson), Ward Bond (Cole Gardner), William Ching (Tom Anderson), John Dierkes (Sheriff Daws), Morris Ankrum (Alexander Prince), Jack Elam (Slim, Strawboss), Charles Halton (Clemmons Usqubaugh - Undertaker), Norman Leavitt (Tidy), Sam Flint (Mr. Mott, Bank President)