Moontide (1942)

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Ida Lupino and Jean Gabin (and Claude Rains and Thomas Mitchell!) in a strange piece of borderline noirishness!
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US / 95 minutes / bw / TCF Dir: Archie Mayo, Fritz Lang (uncredited) Pr: Mark Hellinger Scr: John O’Hara, Nunnally Johnson (uncredited) Story: Moon Tide (1940) by Willard Robertson Cine: Charles Clarke, Lucien Ballard (uncredited) Cast: Jean Gabin, Ida Lupino, Thomas Mitchell, Claude Rains, Jerome Cowan, Helene Reynolds, Ralph Byrd, William Halligan, Victor Sen Yung, Chester Gan, Robin Raymond, Arthur Aylesworth, Arthur Hohl, John Kelly, Ralph Dunn, Tully Marshall, Vera Lewis, Tom Dugan.

On Amazon.co.uk a commenter called Now Zoltan (I assume that’s not his real name) has complained that I omitted this movie, which he regards as quintessential to the genre (“a cornerstone noir, one of my favourites”), from my A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir. He also complained about a typo as if it were an error of fact, which I thought was a bit unfair: 675,000 words of information-dense text? Of course you can expect a few typos—though hopefully not very many!

Anyway, I checked my entry for this movie in my personal catalogue and saw that I’d given it the NSH (noirish) rather than the NOIR classification. Since it stars Lupino, Gabin and Rains, three of my all-time favorite actors, and since Fritz Lang was involved, in the ordinary way I’d have bent over backward to include it in the book—i.e., to persuade myself it was sufficiently noir that it oughter go in.

An enigma on the back of a conundrum, and puzzling too.

It had been yonks since last I’d watched the movie, and to be honest I could remember little about it, so I decided to give it another whirl to see if I could work out why I’d decided to omit it. Here goes.

Jean Gabin as Bobo.

Bobo (Gabin) is a longshoreman, and ostensibly a good one, but he has a penchant for hard drinking. Tonight in the saloon called The Red Dot he’s well and truly hammered, to the dismay of his sidekick Tiny (Mitchell), who wants to head north to where there’s more longshoremanning work, and better-paid. But Bobo drinks on, befriending bartender Charlie (Halligan) and oddly teetotal bar habitue Nutsy (Rains), making the acquaintance of grouchy Pop Kelly (Aylesworth), trying to pick up barfly Mildred (Raymond) and getting into a fight with Mildred’s boyfriend Mac (Kelly).

Barfly Mildred (Robin Raymond) seems pretty amenable to the attentions of Bobo (Jean Gabin).

The rest of the night’s a bit of a blur, but he wakes up in the morning to find himself on a decrepit bait barge (a barge where fishermen can come and buy live bait). Apparently during the night he befriended the barge’s owner, Henry Hirota (Gan), and accepted his job offer: to staff the barge for two bucks and a bottle of sake a day, plus living space aboard the hulk. But also Bobo learns that there’s been a murder in town: during the night someone strangled Pop Kelly. This worries him momentarily, because when he was a kid Bobo nearly strangled a cousin who badmouthed Bobo’s dad, and more recently, while drunk, he would have strangled a man had Tiny not hauled him off. As we’ll learn, the reason he and Tiny have been traveling together is that Bobo has been paying Tiny as a way of keeping his mouth shut about that night.

Henry (Chester Gan) is delighted to find his barge is getting spruced up.

Bobo’s friendship with Nutsy is a flourishing one; when Nutsy discovers that somehow the longshoreman has acquired Pop Kelly’s hat he says nothing, but later burns it.

That night the two men are out walking along the beach when they see a young woman walking into the water fully clad, her clear intention being suicide. Bobo dives in and saves her, lying to the investigating cop (Dunn) that the girl, Anna (Lupino), is his girlfriend and they were just horseplaying in the water. (Attempted suicide was a crime in California at the time, which must have been really helpful when trying to talk someone in off the ledge.)

Ida Lupino as the rescued Anna.

Next morning, when Bobo wakes on the barge, he finds that Anna has tidied the place up a bit and cooked him some breakfast. She’s still suicidal but he cheers her up . . . and, as you’ll have guessed, over the next day or two love blossoms and they plan to get married and live on the barge. I felt my usual unease about the trope of the far older, crusty man pulling the far younger and utterly gorgeous, talented woman, which always seems to me like the masturbatory fantasy of far older, crusty male producers, directors and writers. It’s a trope that occurs a lot in Gabin’s later movies. Here the age difference between actor and actress was “only” about fourteen years, so I wasn’t quite as aware of it as usual.

Bobo (Jean Gabin) and Anna (Ida Lupino) get to know each other.

Eventually we discover who did kill Pop Kelly (although the motive for their doing so goes unexplained). The killer also tries to do for Anna, and the stretch of the movie while she’s critically ill in the hospital and Bobo’s seeking revenge outside it genuinely does rack up tension.

There are some great scenes earlier too. One that especially caught my attention occurs in The Red Dot, where Nutsy spells out to Charlie, Henry and Tiny himself his observations on the relationship between Bobo and Tiny, and why Tiny is the only person who doesn’t know that Bobo and Anna are getting married in the morning:

Nutsy to Henry: “Did you ever hear of a pilot fish?”
Tiny: “I’ve heard of a pilot fish. Why?”
Nutsy [still to Henry]: “A pilot fish is a little fish that attaches itself to a shark. The shark does the work. The pilot fish just hangs on, and enjoys a nice living hanging on. See what I mean?”
Charlie: “What is it? A guy’s going to get married. He tells everyone he meets. What’s so secret about it? What’s it got to do with pilot fish?”
Tiny: “Oh. Married? Him and that hash hustler?”
Nutsy: “Yes, and the best of luck to both of them.”
Tiny: “Oh, sure, sure.”
Nutsy: “And, if I might make a suggestion, why don’t you start looking around for another shark?”

Charlie (William Halligan), the Red Dot’s cheerful bartender.

This was the first of only two movies that Jean Gabin made in the US, the other being The Impostor (1944; vt Bayonet Charge; vt Strange Confession) dir Julien Duvivier. Gabin was one of the many involved in the European film industry who fled to Hollywood to escape the Nazi scourge. The trouble was that Hollywood really didn’t know what to do with him: a megastar in his native France, he was virtually unknown in the US at the time and certainly didn’t match the fashionable leading-man template. TCF initially appointed Fritz Lang as the director, but he and Gabin had “artistic differences” and Archie Mayo was substituted. This was probably a pity because, while many parts of the movie are spellbinding, it does suffer from an overlong romantic middle section as Bobo and Anna fall in love, choose curtains, agree there’s to be no premarital naughtiness (I gather this was for fear of the Hays Office), and so on. Although there’s a sequence when Bobo waits impatiently on the dock while Anna primps herself for the wedding that’s actually very funny, by then we’re a bit weary from an excess of saccharine cuterie.

Anna (Ida Lupino) just before and just after the wedding.

Aside from the uneven tempo and the failure of the narrative to tie up all its loose threads, there’s some rather clumsy editing and a very stagy feeling to much of the production—even though the movie’s adapted from a novel, not a stage play. Much of the action takes place on the bait barge, obviously, and it’s impossible to ignore that the barge and its adjoining section of dock are a set rather than the real thing. (The original plan had been to shoot the movie on location in San Pedro, but the Pearl Harbor attack meant that much of the dock was appropriated by the military.) Again, one can’t help feeling that Lang would have been more skilled at working around those problems than Mayo proved to be.

I assume that no reader of this site requires any introduction to Ida Lupino. Here, if you’ll excuse the tautology, she is absolutely luminous. Interestingly, although her dialogue is in US English, she speaks it in an accent far more in line with her homeland than in others of her US movies that I’ve seen. I can’t believe that this most capable and intelligent of players would by this stage in her Hollywood career have had the slightest difficulty producing any US accent she was asked for, so the decision must have been a conscious one by Lang or Mayo or even Lupino herself. Perhaps the notion was to draw attention away from Gabin’s thickly French tones by having two principal cast-members with “exotic” accents rather than just the one.

Claude Rains is splendid as always in a rather unusual part for him: as ever he’s playing something of an intellectual, but here it’s a disreputable, down-at-heel one, complete with a scrappy beard (most of which inexplicably disappears later on, although the mustache remains). Nutsy gives his job as a “nightwatchman” who spends the hours of darkness testing doors to make sure they’re locked. We assume this is a lie, that in fact he’s a petty burglar, but we never see any evidence to confirm this—another loose end.

Claude Rains as Nutsy.

The fourth of the quartet of Moontide’s leading players, Thomas Mitchell, gives a performance of genuine power as the parasite Tiny, as much in his moments of cowardice as he does in his moments of rage. At first we assume, because of Mitchell’s trustworthy-seeming features, that Tiny really is the loyal buddy to Bobo that he says he is. By the time we reach Nutsy’s “pilot fish” dissection of his character, we already know that he’s vile. Our awareness of the true extent of his vileness is carefully rationed out. By the later stages of the movie, as his desperation to destroy the bond between Bobo and Anna starts skyrocketing, we become truly terrified for her safety.

Tiny Thomas Mitchell) tells Anna she’s poisoning his friendship with Bobo.

This is also an admirable ensemble movie: characters who seem at first to be merely peripheral—like the adulterous dilettante Dr. Frank Brothers (Cowan), who initially seems quite tangential to the plot—later move closer to the story’s core in a very pleasing way. In the same vein it’s pleasing that barge-owner Henry and his assistant Takeo (Sen Yung), although both obviously of Asiatic extraction, rather unusually for this era of Hollywood aren’t treated as being in any sort of separate category to the rest of the characters—Henry in particular is just another pal among Bobo, Nutsy, Charlie and the rest.

Dr. Frank Brothers (Jerome Cowan) becomes a friend of Bobo and Anna.

So where does all this leave us in terms of answering my dilemma? Overall, Moontide is most certainly not a film noir, leave alone a “cornerstone noir”; it’s a romantic melodrama with some noirish aspects . . . as well as some soap opera aspects. It has often been described as being far more in tune philosophically and stylistically with the French Poetic Realist school of the 1930s than with film noir. However, the noirish aspects—and I don’t mean just the cast and, sometimes, the Oscar-nominated cinematography—are sufficient that, with hindsight, I probably should have included a brief entry on the movie in A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir; after all, in my attempt to describe noir and its surrounds, there are movies that are far more marginal to the genre that I did choose to cover.

Bobo (Jean Gabin) hunts down the killer.

Despite its many flaws, Moontide is very much worth watching, if for no other reason than the performances of not only its leading players but a slew of others down the cast list. In an essay posted on the TCM site, Glenn Erickson summarizes: “Moontide comes off as a perverse hybrid of French Poetic Realism and Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. . . . There aren’t many films this strange . . .”

And that’s about the long and the short of it.

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8 thoughts on “Moontide (1942)

    • I like the movie too, BND!

      It’s always a bit of a lottery as to when movies get covered here, as the queue is depressingly vast and I deliberately randomize my watching.

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