To enumerate all the good movies of actor Robert Mitchum would make a long list. To his very best works, however, counts the 1948 Western movie Blood on the Moon. This film turned out to be one of the few examples for a perfect blend of two very American genres, namely the Western and film noir.

Thus creating a sort of sub genre, the noir Western; those films questioned the exclusively dark urban, modern ingredients of melodrama, intrigue and criminal schemes. Blood on the Moon actually is one of the earliest movies of that kind, as author Alan K. Rode enlarges on in the title at hand. Rode is a renowned movie specialist, documentarian, producer and also a charter director and the treasurer of the Film Noir Foundation.

The small 5 x 7 booklet in the Reel West series (that explores specific Westerns in detail) in nine chapters approaches various aspects of the movie such as cast, staff, the genesis of the Western and film noir genre, production, and distribution politics at RKO Pictures.

“Blood on the Moon was the celluloid bridge that facilitated the transference of the Western movie genre and the film noir movement to emerge as a commingled forerunner of the stylized Westerns that would dominate American cinema and television during the next decade. The film’s pictorial and narrative artistry represented RKO Pictures at its pinnacle of creativity, just before the studio’s precipitous decline and eventual ruin under Howard Hughes.”
Director Robert Wise translated a noir plot usually associated with the urban jungle into a rural, at times wild and uncontrollable environment of the open country. It is the narrative of one mysterious loner, Mitchum as Jim Garry, who is confronted him with evil schemes, treason, and the forces of nature, set in the American West of roughly 80 years in the past. Nevertheless, the open range became an equally dangerous and lethal environment as the dark and rainy streets of Los Angeles. (RKO, the studio behind the production, was the most important film noir contributor, so staff there knew how to convey atmosphere and employ proper camera angles and lighting).
Besides, there is no lack of hard rain, long shadows, thunder, storm, darkness and other dangers in Blood on the Moon, as hired gunmen, foul play, stampedes or enemy Native Americans would stand by to stop the protagonist escaping a plot he ends up caught in. Just like so many other protagonists in films noir who try to tie up loose ends, identify their real allies or enemies and maneuver though the dark wilderness of concrete and stone in the city.
The movie plot is simple: it was adapted from Luke Short’s 1941 serialized novel Gunman’s Chance. Loner Garry accidentally finds himself in a stampede of steers belonging to rancher Lufton, who is part of an ongoing and typical feud between homesteaders and ranchers. Garry’s old acquaintance Riling (Robert Preston), a shady criminal who wants to swindle the rancher out of his herd, tries to use him in carrying out that plan. Garry first agrees, then falls in love with the Lufton’s daughter, realizes the impact of the intrigue and finally sides with the rancher. One highlight of the story is one of the probably longest, most gritty and credible barroom fights in movie history between Garry and Riling, filmed without stunt doubles.

Robert Wise delivered a powerful Western that takes about half of ts fascination from magic shots of mountains, the range, lighting and corresponding shadows. And there are more dark or nighttime scenes than daylight shots, and the overall impression is that of a most realistic and grim atmosphere. The film owes that to the legendary director of photography Nicholas Musuraca and Roy Webb’s soundtrack composition.
Film noir over the years developed into a complex and most impressive style, that also would grow as the restrictions of the self-regulatory PCA initiated by censor Joseph Breen in 1930 slowly lost grip. And an American audience that after years of newsreel footage from various theaters of war and avantgarde films from Europe was used to violence, psychological plots and demanded realistic if unusual characters. All of which could be found in another noir Western, also staring Mitchum from 1947, Pursued; or Blood on the Moon. “The film is decisively in the vanguard of a different style of Western produced during the postwar period. Blood on the Moon also remains historically emblematic concerning the regression of the Hollywood studio system and the attitudinal changes in American popular culture,” states Rode.

The many details and artistic decisions Wise and RKO made during production, post production, at the sets in Colrado, Mew Mexico and California, the strenuous transformations from book to script to movie and several anecdotes concerning Mitchum’s breathtaking performance are extremely fascinating and explain some of the film’s magic.
“It was the movie that put Robert Wise in the forefront of emerging film directors at the beginning of the end of the Hollywood studio system. It is arguable that without Blood on the Moon, there would have been no The Day the Earth Stood Still, I Want To Live!, Odds Against Tomorrow … [and others] … Blood on the Moon established Robert Wise as a bankable, A list director, and we are all much the better for it. [The film] anointed Robert Mitchum as perhaps the most appealing male movie star of the post-World War II era. The picture wouldn’t be what it is without Mitchum’s performance.”
A highly informative read presented by an expert; a title that will obviously appeal to the die-hard film noir fans.

Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2023

Alan K. Rode. Blood on the Moon. (Reel West Series) University of New Mexico Press, 2023, 136 p.