It’s Fritz Lang versus CinemaScope, for the first and last time. The format suited to snakes and funerals effectively hamstrings the great filmmaker’s expressive camera direction, yet the movie is one of the best of MGM’s last-gasp ’50s costume dramas. Corrupt smuggler Stewart Granger is redeemed by the faith of a young boy who believes in him; in this story the words “He’s my friend” take on a big significance. Come see director Lang struggle to adapt the wide-wide screen to accommodate his brand of real cinema.
Warner Archive Collection
1955 / Color / 2:55 widescreen / 87 min. / Street Date August 13, 2019 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Stewart Granger, Jon Whiteley, George Sanders, Joan Greenwood, Viveca Lindfors, Liliane Montevecchi, Melville Cooper, Sean McClory, Alan Napier, John Hoyt, Donna Corcoran, Jack Elam, Dan Seymour, Ian Wolfe.
Cinematography: Robert H. Planck
Film Editor: Albert Akst
Original Music: Miklos Rozsa
Written by Jan Lustig, Margaret Fitts from the novel by J. Meade Falkner
Produced by John Houseman
Directed by Fritz Lang
By the mid ’50s Fritz Lang’s career was beginning to sputter out, as were the big studios where he filmed. The two pictures that would finish up his ‘American Period’ were likely produced on all but empty RKO lots. MGM was already working with a skeleton staff, compared to the bustling factory it had been six years before.
Although Lang’s American films were often respected, he was far from a popular figure around town. It had taken Lang several years to fully adjust to the English language, but Hollywood never really embraced him. Hollywood crews especially disliked his autocratic manners on the set, disparaging him as a dictatorial Prussian. A number of actors wouldn’t work with him twice, although he did sustain a multi-picture business relationship with Joan Bennett. Even fellow expatriates Peter Lorre and Marlene Dietrich had issues with the man who had once been the most powerful director in Europe.
The Hollywood studio system has generally been flexible with any director whose films made money, but the powers-that-be at MGM hated Fritz Lang. He was the opposite of a submissive employee, and his first American film Fury, a drama about lynching, defied the studio bias against socially conscious themes. An MGM executive attending a preview reportedly called Fury “a lousy one from this lousy German son of a bitch — not worth looking at.” The show went on to be a big hit, but MGM dumped Lang anyway.
Lang had a good run with Darryl Zanuck at Fox but then bounced between studios and independent producers, making a number of fine pictures but only a few more hits. He returned to MGM only once. 1955’s Moonfleet is a swashbuckling boy’s adventure set among smugglers on the Dorset Coast in the mid- 1700s. Although the show looks big, it was carefully budgeted and mostly filmed on interior sound stages. Lang came aboard only two weeks before filming began, as a director for hire. He was not allowed to tinker much with the script. He did not have final cut and was not pleased with the result.
J. Meade Falkner’s novel has classic lines that screenwriters Jan Lustig and Margaret Fitts (Stars in My Crown) tilt toward a harsh vision of a world run by greed and self-interest. Smuggler-rogue Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger, more melancholy than usual) is upset when the young but determined John Mohune (Jon Whiteley, excellent) shows up in Moonfleet, a notorious smuggler’s roost. John is the heir to the fallen Mohunes, who built the local church but lost their fortune; the decaying Mohune mansion is the source of dark legends. John’s dying mother has sent him for protection to Jeremy Fox. Jeremy was once her lover, until the cruel Mohunes turned the dogs on him; he still carries huge scars on his back. We of course suspect that Jeremy is John’s biological father.
Jeremy Fox has misspent his life as an international criminal, hiding behind his class prerogatives. He has recently returned from misadventures abroad, accompanied by Mrs. Minton, a jealous mistress (Viveca Lindfors). He tries to ship John off to school or to the colonies, to no avail. The boy continues to idolize Fox even after learning that he is the leader of the smugglers. Fox is about to get involved with a new colonial swindle run by a pair of decadent nobles, Lord and Lady Ashwood (George Sanders & Joan Greenwood). In the ancestral Mohune tomb, John discovers clues that might lead to the missing family treasure, a fabulous jewel. That’s just what Jeremy needs to buy his way into the Ashwoods’ dirty scheme. As he prepares to steal John’s inheritance, Jeremy finds himself attracted to the boy’s innocence and loyalty, and the memory of his lost love.
Despite not being originated by Fritz Lang, Moonfleet’s mix of romantic themes are a good match with Lang’s predilection for stories about implacable fate. Even in his Indian-set German films The Tiger of Eschnapur and The Indian Tomb, his characters talk about strange Irish legends, and Moonfleet encourages a ‘mythical’ interpretation even though the story skips fantastic content in favor of a simple moral tale. A rogue adventurer with a checkered past is redeemed by idealistic sentiments. Director Lang engages well with the mysterioso atmosphere, as the film abounds with creepy graveyards, criminals hanged at the crossroads, secret passages below stone churches and a tombstone angel that stares like a demon. But Lang shows little interest in the story’s gallery of supporting characters. The star billing goes to the villains George Sanders and Joan Greenwood, who do little more than chortle greedily and encourage Jeremy to kill John Mohune and be done with him.
The production strives to make a big-looking movie within the faltering MGM studio– we’re told that it is Lang’s most expensive American production. But the costumes and interior sets are stock items, and most of the lighting is not up to Lang’s standard. The opening scenes evoke some of the mood of David Lean’s Great Expectations, with the frightened John stranded on the lonely moor. The rolling hills and boiling night skies are artful, yet artificial –the wild country landscape is barely disturbed by a breeze.
Everybody blames CinemaScope, which was just two years old but had taken over most of MGM’s high-end productions. The ‘advantage’ of CinemaScope impairs Lang’s exacting editing rhythms — some early C’Scope pictures followed the flawed idea that a wide screen meant cutting within scenes was less necessary. Lang seems uncomfortable with the requirements of filling the frame. The truth is that early CinemaScope lenses were disliked by everyone save for art directors. Although MGM could demand the best, the lenses cut down on the light and added distortion to the field of view, especially very early lenses. When not perfectly adjusted, the extremes of the frame warped like a fun-house mirror. Panning shots are the first to reveal this flaw. Wider-angle ‘scope lenses also didn’t exist at this time, so Moonfleet’s visuals overall have a stand-off look, staying wide to avoid close-ups that would invariably take on even heavier distortion, the ‘CinemaScope Mumps.’
With Lang calling the shots Moonfleet of course still looks good. The ‘scope frame enables a few gimmicky compositions, like John’s frightened view of a circle of staring faces, and a fight with a long-pole Halberd that swings the entire width of the screen. But the lack of wide angle anamorphic lenses works against John’s rope-bucket descent into a claustrophobic well. In the wide format, the well seems as big as a missile silo.
The secondary cast members get few close-ups, which does no favors for potentially interesting characters, like John’s little friend Grace (Donna Corcoran). Alan Napier has a nice bit as a friendly parson but the wide framing pushes him to the background, as it does everyone else — Sean McClory, Jack Elam, Dan Seymour, Ian Wolfe, and the interesting Skelton Knaggs of Val Lewton’s The Ghost Ship. The smugglers mostly loiter around the ‘scope screen, as did the hole-in-the-wall outlaws in Lang’s Rancho Notorious. The expressive, beautiful Viveca Lindfors (These are the Damned) apparently didn’t inspire Lang at all: her pivotal character is treated as a nag, and made unattractive with exaggerated makeup. An awful hairstyle draw Ms. Lindfors’ hair into a tight knot atop her head, making her look like a cooked onion.
Producer John Houseman oversaw a string of prestigious ’50s accomplishments at MGM. Moonfleet may have been a budget effort in between more lavish Houseman pictures for Vincente Minnelli — The Cobweb, Lust for Life, etc.. The Los Angeles location of Portuguese Point stands in for a Dorset beach. I’ve not heard it mentioned, but it seems logical that the enormous interior-exterior sets of the moors, horse paths and crumbling Dorset buildings were repurposed and altered from the previous year’s Brigadoon — we even see patches of yellow ‘heather’ springing up here and there. Some of those movies made heavy use of an expensive new scenery dock MGM had built to accommodate gigantic wrap-around cycloramas — that giant stage where the big backdrops lowered into a slot in the floor so the scenic artists didn’t have to climb scaffolds.
But the impressive artificial scenery was a holdover from older techniques, at a time when audiences were demanding the realism of actual locations. Compared to the same year’s On the Waterfront, the ‘pretty’ Brigadoon seems a throwback to the past. MGM at least used superior Eastmancolor for Moonfleet, after their nickel & dime experiment with Anscocolor (Agfacolor) in Brigadoon, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Kiss Me Kate, Escape from Fort Bravo and others.
Moonfleet does at least look a little more exotic than MGM’s other early CinemaScope costume dramas, with improved dramatic lighting. Considering the limitations of his lenses, Fritz Lang blocks scenes well. His underground grotto is a standout — it reminds us a bit of the ‘flashlight chase scene’ from the classic Metropolis. But in the dialogue scenes Lang can’t do much more than hang back with wide shots. It sounds as if Lang wasn’t deeply involved in the editing process on this work-for-hire job. The studio’s all-powerful supervising editrix Margaret Booth was the final arbiter of all cuts. She had a habit of lopping off extraneous atmosphere and ‘unnecessary’ artistic touches, giving MGM product a uniform ‘quality’ sameness. Booth had massacred John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage, which, to be fair, was a victim of inter-office warfare at Metro. Twelve years later, she wanted to chop up Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, which was saved only because the front office was in too much of a rush to get it finished and done with. Ms. Booth is also responsible for chopping a full reel from Roman Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires, and adding ‘kooky’ sound effects and a cartoon prologue. (In Ms. Booth’s defense, she would later be chosen to edit John Huston’s Fat City, and they reportedly got on well together.)
One real indicator of stiff economizing is the main title sequence, where shots of ocean waves hard-cut behind the dissolving text. Whatever the intention was, the result looks like a serious mistake. Was a re-roll of the optical not in the cards?
Fritz Lang tells the story straight, but the spooky/mystery elements combine well, especially given the support of a brooding Miklos Rozsa soundtrack score. After John and Jeremy’s triumph with the impossible recovery of the treasured jewel, the ‘fatal’ elements intrude again, spelling bad news for most of the top-billed players. Did the insightful producer John Houseman pick up on the spooky, deterministic elements in the original story, and immediately think of Fritz Lang?
The finale is so strong thematically that even MGM’s indifferent editing cannot dent its magical spell. The badly wounded Jeremy Fox honors young John Mohune’s comradely trust, and allows his legacy to be one of chivalry. Critic Andrew Sarris was greatly moved by this finish, enough to suggest that it’s a poetic recreation of the myth of The Flying Dutchman. Will Jeremy be doomed to wander the seas until he truly deserves John’s faith in him? The final image of John reopening his ancestral home carries a feeling of bleak optimism, based on a mis-read of his beloved friend. This ‘bleak optimism’ is comparable to the conclusion of Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past. Both films end with characters going forward with their lives, having been falsely informed about the person they most loved. I normally blanch at the notion of remaking movies by great directors, but the untapped riches of Moonfleet could be interpreted in a half dozen interesting directions.
Reference: Fritz Lang. Lotte Eisner, Oxford University Press 1977.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Moonfleet is just what this film needed. The okay 2010 DVD just couldn’t get close enough for us to read all the detail we wanted to see in all those wide scenes. The added resolution of HD allows us to better follow the performances of Jack Elam (funny) and Donna Corcoran (charming). Sanders and Greenwood must have been hired for just a few days. Now we can get a better look at the makeup-hairstyle-costuming crime committed on the person of Viveca Lindfors … did someone hate her? I don’t often notice these things, but she’s just made to look ghastly.
The rich color also looks better, even if the Dorset town of Moonfleet could really use an ordinary sunny day once in a while. Those painted backdrops no longer look hazy. We can admire the way the expert coachman maneuvers around what had to be extremely cramped roadways on that enormous exterior set, that one that’s a suspect holdover from Dig a Broom.
As is often the case with the composer Miklos Rozsa, the beautiful music is reason enough to put this one up on the monitor. The flamenco dancing scene with Liliane Montevecchi (The Young Lions) is said to be authentic, but Lang doesn’t lend it much visual excitement. The case says that the disc soundtrack is in 2.0 stereo. The extras are nil, save for a trailer; the packaging uses the dreadful, design-challenged original poster art. I can’t say that I received the same rush of sentiment from the conclusion that Andrew Sarris did; Margaret Booth’s editing seems a little to eager to race to the ‘the end’ card. But the show does manage a wistful undertone.
The IMDB says that MGM also filmed the show in spherical 1:75, you know, in case CinemaScope flopped. That seems a crazy thing to do two years down the line, when ‘Scope had obliterated 3-D and was pretty much accepted by everybody. Those executives at Metro had strange ideas about economy — trim the studio overhead to zero, but shoot the &%@% picture twice?
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: August 13, 2019
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson