D: Roy Rowland / 77m
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray, Ward Bond, William Ching, John Dierkes, Morris Ankrum, Jack Elam, Charles Halton, Myra Marsh
Cattle rustler Wes Anderson (MacMurray) is in jail waiting to be tried for his crimes but there’s an angry lynch mob planning to storm the jail and hang him from the nearest tree. When an innocent man is hanged in his place, Wes vows to seek revenge against the lynch mob (and any others). During an encounter with the head of the lynch mob and two of his men, Anderson is wounded in the shoulder. He manages to get away and heads for the town of Rio Hondo where his mother (Marsh) and younger brother Tom (Ching) still live on the outskirts.
While recuperating, Wes hopes to restart his relationship with old flame Rela (Stanwyck), but while he’s been away for the last five years and hasn’t stayed in touch, she’s agreed to marry Tom in order to have a more secure future. Wes is reluctant to accept this but doesn’t try to interfere. Then one day an old friend of Wes’s, Cole Gardner (Bond) drops by with a plan to rob the local bank. Tom, who works at the bank, convinces Gardner and an averse Wes to be a part of the robbery. What happens as a result leads to Wes and Gardner being hunted by Rela, and a shootout in the nearby hills.
Originally released in 3D – in Natural Vision, no less – The Moonlighter is a bland, unexceptional Western that’s of note mainly for the pairing of Stanwyck and MacMurray in their third movie together. Otherwise, there’s not much to recommend, with Wes’s antipathy for lynch mobs being jettisoned once he’s injured, and Gardner’s bank job taking over as a way of moving the story forward. What twists and turns there are, are unremarkable for the most part, though the ease with which Rela is deputised to go after Wes and Gardner is probably the biggest surprise the script – by the usually more reliable Niven Busch – comes up with. It all hinges on Rela’s love for Wes, and how determined she is to bring him to justice (though the actual outcome seems arrived at because of convenience rather than any credible dramatic necessity – it’s a short movie, after all).
Rowland’s uninspired, pedestrian direction makes the movie seem more of a drag than it actually is, though there’s a rough energy to the early scenes leading up to the lynching. However, this energy isn’t kept up, and with the introduction of Rela and Tom the movie begins to falter, trying to set up a romantic triangle that never really takes off or convinces. Similarly, the speed with which Wes agrees to rob the bank seems forced and implausible, but not as much as his acceptance of Tom’s being a part of it. As the reluctant lovers, Stanwyck and MacMurray inject a little of their own energy into their scenes together, but it’s not enough to keep the viewer interested in how things will turn out.
Rating: 4/10 – lacklustre and plodding, The Moonlighter hasn’t the pace or the style to be anything than a standard oater with few pretensions; Stanwyck and MacMurray are as watchable as ever, but the script and direction doesn’t support them enough to help them overcome the dreariness of the material.