Blood on the Moon (1948)

Blood on the Moon (1948) is a wild Western with film noir credentials. Those credentials are sounder than may first appear, and are real.

Robert Wise, the director of Blood on the Moon brought the urban, psychological, shadowy, violent and complex aspects of film noir to this movie, making it very likely the greatest admixture of the Western genre with the film noir style.

It begs the question as to what film noir and Western have in common, and it's likely the fact that both of them ultimately deal with morality.

The lead elements of film noir are first and foremost visible. These are a difficult to follow and relatively layered plot of crosses, triple crosses and identities.

These typically complex stories are also played out in the shadows where possible. Blood on the Moon not only opens with an epic and miserable rain storm, and in that storm is the figure of the drifter, stoically on the wander, the forever hired hand, here played by Robert Mitchum.

Filming of Blood on the Moon began in February 1948 and ended in May of the same year, with Sedona, Arizona, the Rocky Mountains, California, Utah and New Mexico serving as locations. 

The idea for Blood on the Moon (based on Luke Short's Gunman's Chance) came from Robert Wise and Theron Warth, who pitched the idea to producer Dore Schary as a mood piece akin to Out of the Past and Crossfire, both produced by RKO. Schary agreed to produce the film and signed Lillie Hayward to write the screenplay.

Robert Mitchum as the loner cowboy anti-hero of Blood on the Moon (1948)

An unusual film noir foray out of the 20th century city into the 19th century West.
Blood on the Moon (1948)

Inspired by the production design of Citizen Kane which Wise co-edited, Wise had the interior sets built with visible low-ceilings. 

The effect of these ceilings is to place the action more in the psychological camp, simply by creating depth, dimension, and of course the feeling of being enclosed. It works a treat in Blood on the Moon, most especially in the picture's epic fist fighting scene.

Cowboys and gangsters - - everyone plays cards.

Shadows in the Old West
Blood on the Moon (1948)

That feeling of being imprisoned by the walls is common in the normally urban environs of film noir, but is a unique feeling to bring to the wild opens of the West. While the West is a place of physical challenges too, it is not normally the scene of psychological challenges. Fear and paranoia are not one in the same, and far from each other. 

In order to create the night scenes of the film, Wise and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca used infrared film, which in Musuraca's opinion, could cause headaches regarding problems with colour of clothing and tone of makeup.

The drag-out knock-down bar brawl between Garry and Rilling took three days to shoot. Wise wanted a realistic fight where the winner comes out on top badly beaten and exhausted instead of the usual Western brawls and had Robert Mitchum and Robert Preston do the fight instead of stunt doubles.

Robert Preston, cunning cowboy in
Blood on the Moon (1948)

One of the most incredible punch-ups in movie history occurs in
Blood on the Moon (1948)

The result stretches the boundaries of the genre, creating movie magic, right in the heart of Blood on the Moon, and the brawl must be one of the more memorable from not just the era, but from all moviedom.

It would have to be sensibility from across the river in film noir. The mood of impending violence runs rich, from the rainstorm, to the two epically filmed cattle stampedes, which seem horrifically dangerous, and the bar scene. 

That bar scene is tough, down to every degree. The moment that the room blacks out, when Robert Mitchum throws his gun - no less - at the light to throw the room into darkness, we have one of the more pure film noir displays of the decade.

Cowboys Up. Robert Mitchum in
Blood on the Moon (1948)

Cowgirls down. Barbara Bel Geddes in
Blood on the Moon (1948)

The complexity of the story seems to certainly be something that signals the world of film noir. Variety magazine of November 1948, certainly felt this:

Blood on the Moon is a terse, tightly-drawn western drama. There's none of the formula approach to its story telling. Picture captures the crisp style used by Luke Short in writing his western novels...Picture's pace has a false sense of leisureliness that points up several tough moments of action. 

Barbara Bel Geddes in
Blood on the Moon (1948)

As did The New York Times of November 1948:

Blood on the Moon is a terse, tightly-drawn western drama. There's none of the formula approach to its story telling.

Blood on the Moon itself at one point offers a small amount of help in navigating its complexities, even if the complexities are there for effect, the effect being to create a suspenseful sense of mystery and even an interior, or indeed psychological glimpse at the situation from the characters points of view:

Jim Garry: It starts with your double-cross of a bunch of jug-headed farmers and the hiring of gun hands. It goes on to your making love to a man's daughter to get her to turn against her own father, and your try for Lufton today. It's past that, to the death of Kris Barden's son, and it winds up right here, with Reardon waiting outside to see if I go with you, or if he shoots me in the back.

Robert Mitchum's character may be out West, but he is perfect as a film noir hero as a mysterious and brooding stranger with a conscience. This is a man more familiar to the world of film noir, whether he has been weakened by war or banged up fore a crime he did or did not commit, the heroes of film noir are not the white knights of the typical western of this day, who ride in to save things with little ambiguity.

Shoot-out in the dark as film noir meets the Wild West in
Blood on the Moon (1948)

On the contrary Robert Mitchum plays a character that would be more familiar from later Westerns and in fact a staple by the time Clint Eastwood rode into many small towns in the 1970s and beyond; this is a gloomy kind of guy who seems himself only a few steps away from becoming an outlaw himself, an ambiguous hero dominating the action with mood alone, leaving viewers wondering which side he was on. 

These darkness and shadows make Blood on the Moon seem gloomy and pessimistic, but the story is more about the redemption of a lost cowboy, Jim Garry (Robert Mitchum), who finds meaning through the love of a woman named Amy (Barbara Bel Geddes).

The opposite of Jim Garry is his so-called pal, Tate Riling played by Robert Preston. Rather than redemption, Riling falls deeper into the noir-like mix of murder, and deception. Even his romance with Amy's sister, Carol Lufton (played by Phyllis Thaxter), is a deceitful one, and one of the meanest relationships in the story. Riling uses Carol for his advantage, at times against her own family, and in order to grab land rather than love, and although Carol's character comes and goes a little, she is really in love with him. 

Although Mitchum as an actor seems to always contain badness, even if it is contained, its his morality that guides the story, and his rival Riling has few redeeming qualities and is bad all the way through. The relationship between the two comprises the full focus of the picture. As the story begins, Riling has invited Garry to join him, knowing what an expert he was with a gun, and this relationship is the character study that forms the crux of the film.

The title of Blood on the Moon is not explained in the picture, but superstition has it that when there is blood on the moon, due to a particular atmospheric appearance of colour red,, it's a sign that someone is going to be killed. 

It is also typical of the novels of Luke Short which in general paint a dark picture of the old West and Hollywood has made good use of them in making some really good westerns. Blood On The Moon is one of the best screen adaptations of one of his stories.

Other films made from Luke Short stories also display this fine noir sensibility; consider Ramrod (1947), Ambush (1950), Station West (1948), Vengeance Valley (1950), and Coroner Creek (1948) and all of them are in various aspects what may be termed 'dark', and almost noir like film stories set in the old west.

Although RKO was a major studio a large proportion of its output in the 1940s was lower-budget movies, and many of these were psychological urban horrors from the Val Lewton unit, almost a particular genre unto themselves at the time. And of course RKO made plenty of gritty thrillers in the film noir style. 

Like the other studios, RKO Radio Pictures also made westerns at the time, although no picture better demonstrates that the studio was used to making the noir films than this epicly shadowy Western Blood on the Moon.

Much of Blood on the Moon's bleak look is the work of director of photography Nicholas Musuraca, who did the job on many of the Val Lewton horrors, including the hugely important Cat People. Nicholas Musuraca was capable of doing more typical cinematography such as in I Remember Mama, for which he received his only Oscar nomination. But his speciality was cloaking the screen in mysterious and evocative swathes of black. 

You would think this would be difficult in a Western, which should be made up of empty plains and sunny skies. 

But Musuraca used lighting techniques that could turn anything into a silhouette, or edges and corners into indistinct patches of darkness. Clouds and buttes in Blood on the Moon turn into foreboding black shapes, but it is still a precise set of moods he achieves. 

It does add to the atmosphere, and at the same time it is also probably part of RKO's general trend of hiding the lack of budget, by making the best use of what was available. Director Robert Wise was another graduate of the Lewton unit and added to the atmosphere by composing tightly framed shots with scenery and foreground clutter obscuring areas of the screen. 

Often characters move straight towards the viewer, virtually staring into the lens, and this adds to the general feeling of menace, and so like the other well-made film noirs of the 1940s, as well as those Val Lewton horrors, the final impression is of a surreal nightmare world from which there is no escape. 

Violence embodied, latent and overt in Robert Mitchum
Blood on the Moon (1948)

Robert Wise was also an expert at shooting intense action sequences, often spaced out with moody dialogue scenes. Robert Mitchum was a perfect performer of such laconic moodiness which makes those quieter moments stand out. Like Humphrey Bogart, Mitchum began life as supporting player, but film noir gave him an entirely new opportunity as a leading man. 

Barbara Bel Geddes is great as Mitchum's tomboyish love interest, and it is an active and assertive part, creating a kind of private detective thriller set in the Wild West.

They are few and far between those film noir western hybrids, but of them all, Blood on the Moon is probably the most exciting and the heaviest hitter of them all.

Blood on the Moon (1948) on Wikipedia


  1. I served as a double for Robert Mitchum largely because of my size and I could ride a horse. I had been recently discharged from WW11. I was broke, but, Director Wise paid me $20.00 a day plus room and board. The filming was in the mountains here in Colorado. My name is Bruce Jacobsen. I live in Denver, Colorado. Native son. I’m 96 years old. I don’t expect to ever hear from you. But. 303 964 2131 will find me.

  2. Hi Bruce, my name"s Michael Hoban, in central Fla. (Only a kid, at 82) Great job you did sir; must have been a trip being in Mitchum's shoes; i bet he was a nice guy ...under all that tough guy facade!?

    My names Michael