Monday, January 12, 2009

DVD: Moontide (1942)

What a singularly odd movie. Where to begin?

Let’s get the plot out of the way. Itinerant wharf rat Bobo (Jean Gabin) saves the life of suicidal “hash wrangler” Ida Lupino. Their budding romance is enough to keep him working at a bait barge in a California harbor. But Bobo may have committed a murder during an alcoholic blackout. And his only friend, played by Thomas Mitchell, may be willing to trade on that fact to secure his own future.

The story of the movie, full of almosts and near-misses, is far more interesting than the one in it. Moontide was meant to serve as the great Gabin’s introduction to a wide American audience; the film’s mixed reception contributed to his return to France. The source novel, by character actor Willard Robertson, is by all accounts a catalog of depravity that was greatly watered down for the screen. Original director Fritz Lang walked off the production – apparently due to a clash with Gabin over mutual paramour Marlene Dietrich – and was replaced by Archie Mayo. Salvador Dali contributed to the blackout sequence, only to have other hands complete the actual design.

I’d love to say that Moontide transcends such turbulent origins, but I can’t. Every compromise shows. The movie is a jumbled, fascinating mess.

At first, novelty carries the day. Nothing in Moontide feels remotely real. That otherworldly mood is partly a result of logistics; plans to shoot in San Pedro, California were scrapped after Pearl Harbor, so filming took place on a huge soundstage. But mainly it’s the forced marriage of American and European sensibilities that anesthetizes the proceedings. After a while longueurs set in, to use le mot juste.

The thin, obvious story doesn’t help much. Neither does the self-conscious approach to the lives of “little people.” I wouldn’t have been surprised to read the credit “Written by Barton Fink.” The actual script is by novelist John O’Hara.

Gabin lobbied to cut out stereotypical French behavior, but he still manages to carve exquisite jambon in his performance. He does have several fine moments, like one on the restorative powers of breakfast. Mitchell’s jovial stage Irishness has rarely been put to better use. Lupino and Claude Rains work their customary magic.

All for a movie that remains inert. I never thought about turning Moontide off, but I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Primarily so I could start talking about it. Three last thoughts:

I don’t care what Fox says, Moontide is not noir. It’s melodrama. Pure, uncut, prison-grade melodrama.

The movie uses an instrumental version of Irving Berlin’s “Remember” as its theme of undying romantic love. Which is fine unless you know the lyrics. (“You promised that you’d forget me not/But you forgot to remember.”)

If you are compelled to call a character Bobo, do not compound the error by having everyone repeat his name.

Miscellaneous: A Critical Question

It’s posed by Bill Crider. UPDATE: The link is now fixed.