The Moonlighter (1953)

Directed by Roy Rowland
Written by Niven Busch

At last, we get another pairing of Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray after their masterpiece Double Indemnity! Unfortunately for us, it’s in a mediocre Western trying to use the gimmick of 3-Dimension! to bring in and excite an audience. Honestly, the 50s 3-D movement is weird to me. I’ve seen a handful of films billed with the 3-D, including the next film in this westerns marathon, Hondo, and the Alfred Hitchcock classic Dial M for Murder. What must that experience have been like? When they brought back the 3-D technology in this millenium, I was certainly skeptical, with it often used in very gimmicky ways, and often done in a headache inducing manner. It has come a long way since even a decade ago, but what about half a century ago!? I can only imagine.

So MacMurray is the titular “moonlighter”, which is a term for a criminal who goes into ranches and rustles cattle by the moonlight, making away with ranchers prized heads in the cloak of night. Wes Anderson, as he is named (I know, right?) has been captured and while he sits in a jail cell, the sheriff attempts to fend off a lynch mob dead set on hanging him. Due to some slick, unintentional mix-ups, another man, in for vagrancy, fills the knot meant for Anderson, allowing him to escape. Anderson makes his way back home, where he soon discovers his girl (Barbara Stanwyck) is now his brother Tom’s beau (William Ching). But after Tom is fired by the bank, he joins with his brother Wes and his partner in crime (Ward Bond) in relieving the bank of its funds, which leads to even more troubles for the Anderson clan.

Writing, and I imagine reading, that synopsis is immediate proof that there is too much going on here. For one, it felt as though screenwriter Niven Busch came across the term “moonlighter” and decided to make a movie about it. It’s mentioned far too often throughout with a “hey guys, isn’t this a cool thing” feeling. The jail house swap and Wes’ subsequent remorse is a far more fascinating theme than that of Wes coming home to steal his girl back and rob a bank. This turn in the narrative was way too safe and standard as far as westerns go, which, as you can imagine, results in the mediocre film we get.

MacMurray is fine in the lead role, as is Ward Bond, though he’s always been a little insignificant. Not great, but rarely bad. Stanwyck is the real disappointment here, but that is more the scripts fault than her performance. Stanwyck is hardly given anything to do here, but when she does appear she is good as ever. I honestly can’t think of many shots throughout the film where the 3-D effect would have been important, other than perhaps the opening credits. There is a location utilized late in the film, a rather impressive and stunning waterfall location which might add some depth to the technology, but again, my curiosity about this concept during the 50s continues. I’d love to actually see it, and read a little more about it.

But back to the ending, even though that waterfall was stunning, it felt a little underutilized for how wonderful that location was. Similarly, there is a shootout scene between two fo the characters which could have been a great opportunity to build tension and suspense, but director Roy Rowland plays it so safe that the scene is just okay. And that’d be a pretty good way to describe the whole affair. The direction is very safe and unexciting, and the screenplay is either trying to hard or not enough, I can’t decide. But regardless, the result is a sub-par western which wastes the talents of its cast. MacMurray and Stanwyck deserve a little better than this. It’s not offensive by any means, but instantly forgettable.

★★ – Didn’t Like It

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