Cast & Crew
In the early 1900s, Wes Anderson is arrested for "moonlighting," a term the locals use for nighttime cattle rustling. Outraged by Wes's crimes, a mob led by rancher baron Alex Prince and his men, refuse to wait for the trial and storm the jail. They seize the hobo Tidy, mistaking him for Wes, and hang him and throw his body in the river. The uproar gives Wes an opportunity to escape, but as he witnesses the senseless killing of the amiable Tidy, he swears revenge. Later, Rela, Wes's former sweetheart, comes to claim his body, and is told a story by Clem Usqubaugh, the undertaker: After the lynching, a mysterious man, claiming to be a relative of Wes, arranges for an expensive funeral for the deceased. At the funeral, the man delivers a eulogy, describing the dead man as a wanderer who was basically good, but discontent with his lack of money. After warning that the ghost of the dead man may seek revenge on the lynchers, he robs the men in attendance, pays the undertaker's bill with the stolen money and escapes. After the undertaker then explains to Rela that the man has not been seen since, she returns home to Rio Hondo and reports to Wes's younger brother Tom, with whom she is now romantically involved, that Wes is still alive. Meanwhile, the vengeful Wes sets fire to Prince's barn, and lassoes and drags to death the mob ringleaders who were instrumental in Tidy's lynching. In a gunfight with two of Prince's men, Wes is shot in the shoulder, so he returns to his mother's house, where he has not been for five years, to hide until he recuperates. Although he had hoped to renew his romance with Rela, she refuses to see him. However, when Wes is lured out of the house by a bobcat threatening the ranch animals, he runs into the self-sufficient Rela, who is also tracking the cat. Although Rela still loves Wes, she has decided on a life with Tom and makes Wes promise not to ruin their plans. In Rio Hondo, at the bank where he works, Tom, who is distracted by Wes's secret reappearance, makes mistakes and is dismissed by the bank president, Mr. Mott. On his way home, Tom is followed by Wes's friend, the outlaw Cole Gardner. Cole is welcomed at the Anderson house after Wes recognizes him, and Cole later convinces Wes to join him in a robbery of the Rio Hondo bank. Because Tom is troubled by his dismissal and has always secretly admired Wes, when he overhears the plans, he decides to join them. Although Wes tries to dissuade him from the outlaw life, Tom argues that he wants the money to marry Rela. During the night, Wes slips out to Rela's ranch and warns her that Tom has gotten the same wandering "bug" that bit him. Wes again tries to renew their romance, but the angry Rela sends him away and warns that if anything happens to Tom, she will hold Wes responsible. On the morning of the holdup, Cole, Wes and Tom enter the bank and take the money. However, as they leave, Mott shoots Tom dead, and Wes and Cole escape in Mott's horseless carriage. Soon a posse is sworn in and begins a search for the two outlaws. Rela convinces the sheriff to deputize her and, as she promised Wes, begins her own search for him. At the hideout, which is concealed by a huge waterfall, Cole doublecrosses Wes and escapes with all the stolen money, leaving him unconscious and tied up. Cole soon encounters Rela and shoots at her, but Rela kills him in the resulting gunfight, then retrieves the stolen money and resumes her search for Wes. She finds him at the cabin and after untying him, takes him at gunpoint toward town. While they are crossing the waterfall, she slips and nearly drowns. Instead of abandoning Rela to make his escape, Wes climbs down and rescues her. At the cabin where Wes treats her injured leg, Rela confides that, while she was drowning, she realized that she drove Wes to moonlighting five years ago with her need for a "perfect relationship." When she admits that she still loves him, Wes tells her that he has decided to turn himself in and asks her to wait for him while he serves his prison sentence. The next day, they cross the waterfall and head for town.
Julian Dunzberg M.d.
M. L. Gunzburg
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)
According to an October 1952 Daily Variety news item, Joseph Bernhard bought the screenplay from writer Niven Busch, planning to produce it for Twentieth Century-Fox release, and was negotiating with Jennifer Jones to star in the film. An October 1952 Los Angeles Times news item added that The Moonlighter was to be a follow-up to Ruby Gentry and would reunite its star, Jones, with the director, King Vidor. The Los Angeles Times news item reported that Alan Ladd and Kirk Douglas were among the actors being considered for the male lead.
According to Warner Bros. production notes and Hollywood Reporter production charts, portions of the film were shot at the Ray Corrigan Ranch in Simi Valley, CA and Gene Autry Ranch in Placerita Canyon, New Hall, CA. The waterfall scene was shot at Peppermist Falls in the High Sierras. Despite the 3-D presentation of the film, which the New York Times reviewer claimed served no practical purpose other than exploitation, the Hollywood Citizen-News reviewer commented that Western film fans were getting used to color and would not be pleased with its black and white photography. The Hollywood Reporter review likewise lamented that color would have enhanced the picture. The Hollywood Reporter review also noted the novelty of the outlaws in the film using an automobile as a means of escape.