Vintage Noir Film: MOONTIDE (1942)

By Anthony Moretta

The skinny on this flick is its paper-thin story and trunky acting. Director Archie Mayo (with help from an uncredited Fritz Lang) does his best to make it mostly work with classic shadows, dutch angles, spacing and spunk.

Jean Gabin plays Bobo, an immigrant drifter planting feet with his traveling oaf, Tiny (Thomas Mitchell), in a seaside second-rater on the West Coast where the folks throw back the day's waste in shot glasses and flashes of upper tit. Bobo's got a taste for booze and other guys' honey. He soaks his liver and stammers to a stunning wake of a murdered man and fingers spasming to point blame, and the drunk foreigner is no stranger to suspicion. Bobo decides to stick around and wait this out, working at a bait shop on the shore. He necks a thrill when he takes in Anna - played by the great Ida Lupino - found wading into the water almost certainly to flood her lungs. The two quickly become a couple. Fried eggs and dinner, working the shop together, hugs, kisses, embraces and empathy.

Tiny's itching to skedaddle and needs Bobo to tag along. But, Bobo's got something going on here. Anna needs him, too. The thought of staying put begs him to ditch his fat friend, heading to lose himself and his shirt on the road again. Tiny tries to tear the birds apart. He blasts a darkness into Anna. He tells of a Bobo she doesn't know. Bobo the killer. And Tiny swears to spill if she doesn't let Bobo go. Anna wants to believe something else and gives Bobo a chance to come clean, learning that he maybe killed someone some years ago. Maybe he crushed the throat of a cousin in a fit of emotion. But, this new killing isn't Bobo's and it's Anna's place to set Tiny straight, calling him out as the strangler looking to split. Tiny doesn't take it well and puts Anna in the hospital, leading to a chase to crashing waves, Bobo's burning eyes pushing Tiny to the current and out of the way for good. Bobo and Anna wed. Bonne chance.

Hats off to Mayo and cinematographer, Charles C. Clarke, for making cascading, coastal California a claustrophobic casket. Gabin and Lupino work some magic, and ill-fate follows a witchy good time. And that's basically what Moontide is. A good time. Nothing monumental. Nothing majestic. A noir picked from the bin, assuredly lost in a decade full of better films. Most of the blame falls on screenwriter John O'Hara, adapting Willard Robertson's novel of the same name. The scenes are stretched to snapping limits and then recycled. How many times do we need Tiny to haunt, harass and hint at Anna? I'm sure in the book, the cycle works well when introspective breaks and expository recesses are given freedom to fill the pages. On screen, it's tired and annoying.

And why is Tiny so important? He's just Bobo's foil. A perfunctory link between the hardened do-gooder and the sad, suicidal waif. We know Tiny's problem. He thinks, 'Who's this Frenchie bastard getting to live the life? Clapping balls and breathing the sea.' Tiny's in the shit and in the world of noir, when you know the shit, you're in the shit and Tiny wants to put Bobo and Anna right there with him. The makers would've done a world of good to ditch the patterns and slice the flick in half - from beginning to Tiny's demise, then onto Bobo and Anna on the run.

However, it's not what we got. Mayo's movie is all fog and fatuous fury. There's no doubt Bobo is pounding Anna out everyday, and they do well to convey that in 1940s allowances. He's scattered, lost and loose. And Anna has death needled into her eyes. We're supposed to believe Bobo saves her. That she saves him. Yet, Mayo and company are more concerned with wrapping this thing up in ornamental toughness, shorting the tenderness that lifts the picture from total failure.

Anthony Moretta is from Brooklyn, NY and writes about '70s crime films at Goodbye Like A Bullet. His writing has appeared in Out of the Gutter Online and is featured in the comics anthology, Unfashioned Creatures. His independent film project, Travels, is currently in post-production and he's also developing an original comic book series.