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Blood on the Moon (1948)

Though the Westerns was far from his favorite genre, director Robert Wise broke through with one that he always claimed was his “first big feature.” He only directed two other Westerns in his distinguished career, which may account for the fact that rather than being a paean to the wide-open spaces, Blood on the Moon is more of a psychological study. It combines the Western with film noir, a style with which its director, star Robert Mitchum, and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca were already quite familiar.

Mitchum stars as a cowboy who comes to the aid of an old friend (Robert Preston) in a conflict between a cattleman and homesteaders. Preston’s goal is to force rancher Tom Tully to sell his herd at a loss, but, disgusted with his friend’s underhanded tactics and more than a little attracted to Tully’s tomboy daughter (Barbara Bel Geddes), Mitchum switches sides, leading to a series of violent confrontations.

Wise had moved from the editing room to the director’s chair with producer Val Lewton’s noirish horror films The Curse of the Cat People (1944) and The Body Snatcher (1945). Just before Blood on the Moon, he had directed his first true noir, the low-budget Born to Kill (1947), with Lawrence Tierney and Claire Trevor. Musuraca was a master of light and shadow who had also worked for Lewton along with filming the quintessential noirs The Spiral Staircase (1946) and Out of the Past (1947). The latter had made Mitchum—whose morally ambiguous, surly image was perfectly suited to the style—one of the kings of the genre. All of that came together in the moody, intense Blood on the Moon. Although a critical and box office success, the film was initially overshadowed by such epic 1948 westerns as Red River and Fort Apache. Over time, however, the film has attracted a devoted following who rank it among the best examples of Western noir.

d. Robert Wise, 88 minutes, 35mm

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Classics and Park Circus LLC. Print courtesy of the BFI National Archive