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Fox Film Noir

Fox Film Noir
1942 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 94 min. / Street Date September 2, 2008 / 14.98
Starring Jean Gabin, Ida Lupino, Thomas Mitchell, Claude Rains, Jerome Cowan, Victor Sen Yung
Cinematography Charles G. Clarke
Art Direction James Basevi, Richard Day
Film Editor William Reynolds
Original Music David Buttolph, Cyril J. Mockridge
Written by John O'Hara from a novel by Willard Robertson
Produced by Mark Hellinger
Directed by Archie Mayo

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Having released all of its legally available core titles to DVD, Fox has been promoting ordinary suspense pictures (Dangerous Crossing) and glossy who-dunnits (Black Widow) to its ongoing Fox Film Noir series. The highly unusual Moontide certainly looks like a film noir, but its stylistic inspirations and narrative agenda are atypical of films in the noir universe. Technically speaking, of course.

Moontide came together as a vehicle for Jean Gabin, the French star stranded in Hollywood by the German occupation of his country. France's top romantic tough guy, Gabin was accustomed to starring in classics by Jean Renoir and had difficulty establishing himself in the American market, where he was an almost complete unknown. Fox fashioned an appropriately moody vehicle to suit Gabin's workingman's persona. The respected producer Mark Hellinger gathered top talent eager to work with the French star -- Ida Lupino, Claude Rains. But only a couple of pictures later Gabin would leave Hollywood to rejoin the fight against the Nazis. His American stay would be remembered less for the films he made than for his torrid affair with Marlene Dietrich. She considered him her ideal man, the one that got away.


Hard-drinking longshoreman Bobo (Jean Gabin) prefers to live without responsibilities. He seems content to be under the influence of Tiny (Thomas Mitchell), a loafer who demands a cut of Bobo's earnings for silence about certain unlawful events in Bobo's past. Against Tiny's wishes, Bobo takes a job running a bait barge. He befriends local night watchman Nutsy (Claude Rains) and wealthy surgeon Dr. Frank Brothers (Jerome Cowan), whose boat frequently needs repairs. Then Bobo rescues a suicide case, Anna (Ida Lupino), and earns her trust. They form a relationship and decide to marry. But Tiny resents his loss of control over Bobo and decides to intervene on their wedding night.

If Moontide doesn't seem like a typical film noir, it's because it more closely resembles the French film movement called Poetic Realism. In search of a good fit to introduce Jean Gabin to America, Fox went the artistic route. The original director was Fritz Lang, but he and Gabin didn't get along. John O'Hara and an uncredited Nunnally Johnson worked over the script to dodge the complaints of the Production Code, and came up with a moody story with vague, almost completely unresolved crime elements. Under the direction of Archie Mayo the story drifts but the eccentric characters stay in sharp focus, resulting in some genuinely perverse situations. Bobo is a strange mix of aimlessness and romantic commitment. Tiny uses a towel to beat a naked Claude Rains in a shower (!). Even though Tiny lives by extorting money from Bobo, Bobo feels sorry for him and looks out for his best interests. When an old salt called Pop Kelly (Arthur Aylesworth) is found murdered, various characters cover up evidence that points to Bobo -- or to Tiny once again trying to frame Bobo. Few of these plot complications are actually resolved, a fact that probably frustrated viewers in 1942. As if skipping chunks of narrative, the story eventually finishes as a bittersweet melodrama.

Moontide's plot may seem erratic but its visual atmospherics are consistent with French Poetic Realist movies like Marcel Carné's Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows) or Julien Duvuvier's gloriously romantic Pépé le moko. The dock dwellers exist in a romantic fog-world, a kind of moral limbo unlike the rigid fatalism associated with film noir. The characters are limited by their personalities, but no dark external forces appear to be at work. Crimes occur all the time, yet no set relationship is established between guilt and punishment. Bobo may indeed have beaten men to death in drunken fights; that's his nature as much as it is Tiny's nature to be cruel. Anna's despair can't be narrowed down to one specific cause.

The disc extras explain that Moontide was originally scheduled to be filmed on location, a plan that had to be changed after the Pearl Harbor attack, when the San Pedro docks became military security zones. Fox's designers built a harbor and a curved rock jetty on a giant indoor stage set, further adding to the air of fantastic artifice. Bobo's bait barge is frequently surrounded by fog, while the sound of wistful phonograph music drifts in from another shack on the breakwater.

Jean Gabin's easygoing Bobo is somewhat lighter than the dour workingmen he plays in French films like Le jour se Lève and La bête humain. Bobo makes a rather clownish entrance, stumbling into a bar tangled with packages and his dog. He flirts with a barfly who can't be openly identified as a prostitute. But Bobo is soon sober and stays that way. From the moment he falls in love with Anna, we can tell that a tragedy is coming.

As pointed out by Foster Hirsch in his commentary, Fox probably saw Moontide as a variation on the popular Seventh Heaven, a "nice boy meets hooker" tale. Ida Lupino is predictably radiant as the "broken blossom" Anna, expressing the despair of a woman whose background is too sordid to even be discussed. Tiny's cruelty and frustration over Bobo conjures notions of suppressed homosexuality, which still don't tell us exactly why Tiny is whipping Nutsy in that bathhouse. As for Nutsy, he's a rather awkward intellectual who tries to look after Bobo. Nutsy burdens Anna with a weird, unnecessary speech about "avoiding modesty in marriage.' Culminating in a wedding ceremony on a stinking bait barge, Moontide comes off as a perverse hybrid of French Poetic Realism and Steinbeck's Cannery Row.

The Production Code nixed most of the content of the original screen treatment. Amid the loose ends and unexplained details are several tender character moments. In place of the original's tragic murders the film concocts a bittersweet medical miracle, one that leaves the lovers in a disturbingly de-sexed relationship. Are we to believe that Bobo and Anna's love will rise above the squalor of the docks, because her injury precludes them from having sex? Moontide encourages us to reverse-engineer its odd story developments, and all the evidence points to absurdities imposed by censorship. There aren't many films this strange, and we understand immediately why audiences rejected it.

Fox's DVD of Moontide joins its Fox Film Noir collection with a nearly flawless B&W transfer, indicating how obscure this moody drama has become. Although the packaging breaks with the series by not assigning the title a number, the extras haven't been scaled back. Author Foster Hirsch provides a bright commentary and an interesting featurette examines the many odd circumstances behind the film's production. Hirsch, Eddie Muller and Alan Rode appear on camera to ponder both the story inconsistencies and the unique situation of a French star starting from scratch in the American film industry.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Moontide rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary by Foster Hirsch, featurette Turning of the Tide: The Ill-Starred Making of Moontide, Still photo galleries
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 3, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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