Robert Mitchum faces tough decisions. Image: AllPosters

We’ve often thought there should be an Oscar category for casting directors.

Now, you may disagree with our view, and certainly the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences concurs with you.

But don’t you find, sometimes, there are movies that make you marvel at how perfectly the actors enhance it?

For example, look at Blood on the Moon (1948), a dark western starring Robert Mitchum, Barbara Bel Geddes, and Robert Preston.

This is a film about money and land disputes – as many westerns are – which means deceit and double crosses.

Mitchum stars as a drifter and former rancher who accepts a job from a long-time friend (Preston) who’s developing a new cattle enterprise in a backwater town.

But he discovers his friend’s endeavour isn’t quite what he thought, and that one of Preston’s rivals (Bel Geddes) isn’t afraid to publicly accuse him of traitorous conduct.

The tone of the film is cynical; it has a seen-it-all, nothing-surprises-me stance. For example, one of the characters talks about the kind of friendship you can buy for “75 bucks a month, no questions asked.”

The film is visually striking, with its use of darkness and shadows, which suits a story about greed, because greed is, by nature, dark.

Robert Preston works all the angles. Image: Hi-Def Digest

Many notable noir-ish westerns were made in the late 1940s and early 1950s. These were known as psychological westerns – or, as BFI refers to them, “westerns with an anxious streak”.

Blood on the Moon is an excellent specimen for several reasons.

First, Mitchum is an antihero with a sketchy past. “I’ve been mixed up in a lot of things,” he says, “but I’ve never been hired for my gun.” Yet even that is now for sale because his finances don’t allow him to be choosey.

Second, there’s a lot of money Up For Grabs. Some noirs deal in gambling or liquor; here the commodity is cattle. When Preston receives an envelope stuffed with illicit cash for his cattle dealings, he jokingly calls it “working capital, courtesy of the United States government.”

Third, the business arrangements are murky. At first, you don’t know who you can trust, and this includes Mitchum’s character. It takes a while to sort out everyone’s Motivations.

Finally, like many noir-like films of the late 1940s, Blood on the Moon is about Loss, such as the loss of friendship, love, and purpose.

Perhaps the most poignant scene about loss is when rancher Walter Brennan is told about the death of his son.

Brennan stands at a well on his property, hauling up a water pail, when he receives the news. He takes it stoically, but he looks like someone who’s been punched in the gut. “Big price to pay for a bit of grass,” he says, referring the previous death of his wife, and now his son. He then walks towards the cabin, pail in hand, a broken man.

His posture and gait ask, What was it all for?

The solitude of the Old West. Image: ArtForum

Blood on the Moon is based on the 1941 novel Gunman’s Chance by Luke Short. According to Wikipedia, Short (whose real name was Frederick Dilley Glidden) lived in Canada for a while and worked as an assistant archaeologist in New Mexico before he became a novelist in the 1930s.

The story takes place after the passage of the Homestead Act of 1862. This act, says ourdocuments.gov, “accelerated the settlement of the western territory by granting adult heads of families 160 acres of surveyed public land for a minimal filing fee and five years of continuous residence on that land.”

Although it’s a generous and egalitarian idea – at least, to those who weren’t First Nations folks – things didn’t always work out as intended. Some families didn’t have the means to cultivate the land or raise cattle. And, as our movie shows, there are always those who will prey on others and/or hoard communal resources.

In true film noir fashion, Blood on the Moon doesn’t sugarcoat the human experience. It’s taut and engrossing, and has a perfect cast. We highly recommend it.

Blood on the Moon: starring Robert Mitchum, Barbara Bel Geddes, Robert Preston. Directed by Robert Wise. Written by Lillie Hayward. RKO Radio Pictures, 1948, B&W, 88 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

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