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The Stalking Moon

The Stalking Moon
Warner DVD
1968 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 109 min. / Street Date August 26, 2008 /
Starring Gregory Peck, Eva Marie Saint, Robert Forster, Frank Silvera, Lonny Chapman, Noland Clay, Russell Thorson, Nathaniel Narcisco, James Olson.
Charles Lang
Art Direction Roland Anderson, Jack Poplin
Film Editor Aaron Stell
Original Music Fred Karlin
Written by Alvin Sargent, Wendell Mayes from a novel by Theodore V. Olsen
Produced by Alan J. Pakula
Directed by Robert Mulligan

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Eager to work again with director Robert Mulligan and producer Alan J. Pakula, Gregory Peck holds center stage in The Stalking Moon, a suspense Western clearly trying to bring something different to the ailing genre. After a decade of intimate films keyed to sensitive acting (To Kill a Mockingbird, Baby the Rain Must Fall, Up the Down Staircase), Peck and Mulligan tackled the great outdoors with a tale seemingly suggested by the last act of Peck's Cape Fear: one man alone defending hearth and home against a murderous, unstoppable foe.

Alvin Sargent and Wendell Mayes' no-nonsense script elevates The Stalking Moon above other socially conscious serious westerns of its year. The movie presents frontier life as unforgiving and the issue of racism as a given state of affairs. Forced to spend the night in a dirty stage outpost, a motley assortment of strangers simply don't talk to each other. An Apache child attracts sullen stares as opposed to an openly bigoted reaction. Life is tough enough as it is.

Trail scout Sam Varner (Peck) retires on a day that the army rounds up a group of Arizona Apaches. Among them is Sarah Carver (Eva Marie Saint), a white woman who for ten years has lived as a captive. At first Sarah can only haltingly express herself in English; we get the feeling that the Apaches have discouraged her from speaking at all. Varner reluctantly takes Sarah and her young boy to a stage line. When he realizes that they have nowhere to go, Varner offers to let the mother and son stay on his ranch in New Mexico.

A renegade named Salvaje has been slaughtering whites all across the desert. Only later does Sarah let Sam know that Salvaje is her boy's father, and that the Indian is specifically after them both. Sam's scout friend Nick Tana (Robert Forster) arrives at the ranch to warn that the murderous Salvaje is on his way. Sarah is convinced that there is no defense against the cunning Apache warrior.

The Stalking Moon creates a number of interesting and sympathetic characters. Finally entering middle age, Peck is impressive as an action man obviously past his prime. The Army officer (Frank Silvera) needs a man of Sam's experience but can't persuade him to stay on. Sarah Carver begs to be evacuated from the locale immediately, without saying why. Like Sarah's son, Nick Tana is a socially unacceptable 'breed' and understands the boy's position midway between the white and Apache societies. The kid tries to escape to rejoin his father; Nick teaches him to read numbers, so as to play poker and join in the white man's world.

The film makes a point of minimizing dialogue. Varner and Carver barely say an unnecessary word, and not just because Sarah can't yet manage a normal conversation. Eva Marie Saint does a commendable job of expressing emotional paralysis, brought on by the fear of Salvaje's imminent return. She is apparently raped once again before her ordeal is finished, and the one embrace she shares with Varner is more for security than affection.

Salvaje has been built up as a formidable, almost supernatural menace. Before Sam knows it his little farm is under a one-man siege. With stealth and cunning, the Indian is soon killing off the defenders one by one. To its credit, The Stalking Moon offers no guarantees that its leading characters will survive.

Cinematographer Charles Lang's beautiful landscapes make a fine contrast with The Stalking Moon's grim suspense. Robert Mulligan's direction sketches vivid characters and imposes no political subtext; this is the exact opposite of the civil rights pleading of shows like Hombre. But violent siege conclusions have become so familiar that we can predict many of the film's story points before they happen. We know that Sam's neighbors will be early casualties, and that Salvaje will wait patiently for the defenders to drop their guard.

Once Salvaje stops being an unseen threat, The Stalking Moon loses some of its momentum. Varner and Nick are experienced Indian fighters, and the final confrontation occurs in ordinary daylight. The film sees Salvaje only as a maddened animal. We never find out if he intends to recover his family or destroy it. Mulligan's other characters are so interesting that the bloody finale seems an easy out; we'd prefer to see Gregory Peck and Eva Marie Saint building their future together. On its own limited terms The Stalking Moon gets an "A" for excellence.

Lonny Chapman is a standout as a stage passenger rattled by Sarah's sneaky Apache son. James Olson has a small bit as an inexperienced army officer.

Warners' DVD of The Stalking Moon can boast a clean enhanced transfer with vivid color. Fred Karlin's non-traditional music score has gained its share of praise, although this reviewer didn't find it particularly memorable. The disc has no extras at all, and may indicate that Warners intends to go lean with its deep library offerings. The standard headshot of Gregory Peck on the cover also points to a more commercial realignment at WHV. The disc is available separately or as part of a Warner Home Video Western Classics Collection, with Escape from Fort Bravo, Many Rivers to Cross, Cimarron (1960), The Law and Jake Wade and Saddle the Wind.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Stalking Moon rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 1, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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