13 September 2010

Moontide, A Wonderful Film, But Oh What Might Have Been

"It's getting to the point where I'm no fun anymore
I am sorry
Sometimes it hurts so badly I must cry out loud
I am lonely
I am yours, you are mine you are what you are."
From Suite Judy Blue Eyes by Stephen Stills

Aficionados of film love nothing more than a new discovery of something old. Recently for me that was movie called Moontide (1942). Surprised I never saw it? So was I.

So what did I have to whet my appetite? The cast! The great French actor Jean Gabin (an all time favorite of mine) starred along with Ida Lupino -- a criminally under-appreciated actress, whose performances I greatly admire. The supporting cast featured Thomas Mitchell and Claude Rains -- two greats for the price of one! Between them they've been in over a dozen legendary films from Stagecoach (1939) to Notorious (1946). Jermone Cowan was thrown into the mix for good measure. So that's a cast to lure any cinema buff.

Archie Mayo directed. He had two terrific films to his credit, Mayor of Hell (1933) and Petrified Forest (1936) and a lot of other decent work but he's by no means in the upper echelons of directors.

I love this from the plot summary on IMDb: "there's fog on the water and evil brewing."  Moontide relates the story of a longshoreman named Bobo (Gabin) who ties one on, as he is want to do, and awakes to wonder if he killed a man. He meanwhile takes a job at a bait shop and oh-by-way rescues a young lady (Lupino) who tries to drown herself in the ocean. Bobo and the young lady, Anna, shack up together in the bait shop (cozy!) and fall quickly and deeply in love.

Ahh but there must be complications and they are here provided by Bobo's old friend Tiny (Mitchell) who's really more of a particularly evil parasite than a bon ami. He aims to break up this happy couple. One doesn't associate Thomas Mitchell characters with creepy menace which is one reason his performance his so wonderful. What a snake! Bottom line is that Mitchell could act and thus could play anything, so it while was an interesting change, it should not be surprise that he is so bloody good in Moontide.

Bobo has a kindly friend, the night watchmen (Rains) who is also playing somewhat against type. Moontide is full of surprises and delights. Watching the four main stars interact is among them. Gabin in English, Mitchell a cur, Rains affable and Lupino... well as always. It's a delightfully unexpected stew.

It came as no surprise that Gabin was so effective as the flawed but ultimately honest and loving Bobo. His English was, of course, heavily accented (oddly this was ignored in the film despite the fact that his character was originally named Frenchie) but plenty lucid. He has been compared to Spencer Tracy but I think him much more charming and even a more interesting actor. Lupino was not for the first or last time playing a very vulnerable but inherently strong woman who needed a man but specifically one who needed her. Anna had her share of troubles put could take care of herself in a pinch and she was no dope.

Mayo's direction is at its best. Moontide is wonderfully atmospheric with a low fog shrouding much of the film and variously lending romance and menace to scenes.  The final showdown between Bobo and Tiny is as good a noir scene as you'll see.

Moontide was a wonderful personal discovery that on its own terms I quite enjoyed. However it clearly suffered from the rigid censorship still being enforced in Hollywood at the time. Some of the story lines could and should have been played out more, but alas the self styled moralists of the time would have none of it.

While I found Moontide to be a fully satisfying cinematic experience, I almost enjoyed the story of its making as much. The DVD the missus and I watched included a featurette about Moontide that included a number of talking heads, among them TCM host, Robert Osborne. There is the usual interesting trivia and gossip associated with the production of a film. In this case for example there is the fact that Fritz Lang was originally slated to direct and that both he and Gabin were nuts about Marlene Dietrich and had a history with her (lucky bums). But mostly one learns about the novel that provided the film's source material. It was written by Willard Robertson, himself a screen actor. It told a much darker and much fuller tale of the two protagonists and their fate. It'd would have made a helluva film.

Surely more lurid and prurient is not necessarily better but some rather large holes in the film could have been filled in. Such as what drove this young woman to attempt suicide? Lupino had to play Anna without benefit of a backstory. Moontide is about a way of life and a type of people that includes the seamier side and to bleach that out is simply wrong. That Mayo and company made such a good film out of it anyway speaks highly of all involved.

It's a continual frustration with a lot of what came out of Hollywood from 1934 through the end of the Sixties. Yes, its clever how directors and writers worked "around the production code", but the fact that they had to puts a huge blemish smack in the middle of a lot of films.  I personally don't miss the repetition of profanities, but for God's sake when a woman's a hooker or two unmarried people are cohabiting, let's just be out with it. I hate having to guess.

So Moontide would have been a different film without the strictures of the code. Oddly, and in contradiction to what I've just spouted, it might not have been better. Who knows what different direction the film might have taken. Perhaps more importantly it's all spilled milk that one needn't cry over. I'll have to learn to accept Moontide and other films like it, not for what they could have been, but for what they are.

What Moontide is, is a film I'm glad I discovered at long last.

1 comment:

R. D. Finch said...

Riku, thanks for writing about this film. Lupino is one of my favorite actresses of the 40s, and of course Gabin was incomparable always, not to mention the ever-reliable Mitchell and Rains. And I'm a big fan of this type of moody, noirish movie. I've been meaning to watch this for a while but wasn't sure about it. Your post has persuaded me to take the plunge.