Saturday, March 7, 2009

MOONTIDE (2oth Century-Fox 1942) Fox Home Video

Archie Mayo’s Moontide (1942) is the film that was supposed to make an American star out of French actor Jean Gabin; already a megawatt personality in French cinema but a relative unknown elsewhere. The problem isn’t so much that Gabin’s performance in the final cut of Moontide is bad. On the contrary, he acquits himself of the role of Bobo (originally called Frenchy); a disreputable lady’s man/sailor who walks – or rather, saunters - through life without a care in the world.

The biggest hurdle for the film is its generally bad script from Nunnally Johnson and John O’Hara. Based on Willard Robinson’s sordid novel, the property was condemned outright by Hollywood’s censorship code for its references to homosexuality, rape and prostitution. These aspects in the story are never outwardly represented in the film, leaving Moontide utterly emasculated of its’ more potent and juicy content.

The story opens with Bobo arriving at The Red Dot, a seedy waterside nightclub where he attempts to make the acquaintance of a ‘working’ girl whose boyfriend of the evening thinks otherwise. Bobo’s best friend is Tiny (Thomas Mitchell, cast against type); a clingy, somewhat effeminate sadist who derives rather bizarre pleasure out of snapping his wet towel after the naked buttocks of Nutsy (Claude Rains, also painfully cast against type). For some reason, Bobo never quite makes the connection that Tiny is hot for him.

Instead, Bobo meets Anna (Ida Lupino); a careworn prostitute who attempts to drown herself in the surf after she has been brutally gang raped. Bobo’s kindness resurrects Anna’s hopes for genuine happiness. Indeed, Bobo – who never considered women as anything but playthings, experiences a conversion to romantic love. He marries Anna, sending Tiny into a reckless desire to destroy them both with a frame up for a murder he has committed. After attempting to brutalize Anna, and succeeding in crippling her, Tiny is hunted down by Bobo and forced onto a jetty in the fog where the surf consumes him.

In the original novel, Anna is raped and killed by Tiny, leaving Bobo to avenge his wife by murdering Tiny. Hollywood’s code of ethics prevented any of these plot points from reaching the screen, thereby blunting the impact of the story to an extent where what emerges on film is mildly alarming at best and filmed entirely on the Fox backlot with immeasurable aid from Charles G. Clarke’s and Lucien Ballard’s evocatively spooky cinematography.

Unfortunately for all concerned, Moontide did not do well at the box office. It also did not make Jean Gabin a star in America. In retrospect, it’s perhaps easy to see why. Gabin’s soothing intercontinental charm is vocally expressed, but his carriage and visage are more pug ugly than leading man material. The two don’t seem to go together or fit – except to remind us of a bizarre blend between Paul Henreid and Humphrey Bogart.

Ida Lupino, who had departed Warner Brothers to freelance, was corralled into the Fox stable temporarily by Darryl F. Zanuck (her biggest fan on the lot). Still, and despite Zanuck’s great admiration for her, Lupino’s career at Fox was hardly dazzling. In Moontide, she turns in a rather sympathetic performance as damaged goods given a second lease on life, though her fresh face is more cute than careworn. Thomas Mitchell’s maniacal closet homosexual is not the actor’s finest hour. Neither is Claude Rains’ village idiot. Despite both men being exceptional craftsmen from Hollywood’s golden age, neither breaks beyond the barrier of tragic miscasting in this film. In the final analysis, Moontide is a blip rather than a bombshell of noir excellence.

Fox Home Video’s DVD is beautifully rendered. The image throughout is crisp, though never harsh. The gray scale exhibits exceptional tonality throughout with fine details evident even during night scenes. Age related artifacts and film grain are present, but do not distract. The audio is mono as originally recorded and remastered with adequacy. An audio commentary from Foster Hirsch is exceptionally thorough, while the featurette ‘Turning The Tide’ is a fairly accurate account of the film’s ill fated production.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)



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