Thursday, August 9, 2012

In short: Moonfleet (1955)

During his time in Hollywood, especially his final years there, when his energy for fights with producers as well as the studio system were on the vane, the great director Fritz Lang took on some rather unexpected projects.

Case in point is Moonfleet, a film that may include all most elements fit for a swashbuckling adventure movie, but is filmed as a gothic melodrama, with all the darkly lit sets, gloomy weather, dark double lives and even darker pasts that genre necessitates. All these elements are of course the sort of thing Lang felt especially at home with, as evidenced by many a silent movie thriller, western and film noir.

So, unsurprisingly, as long as Moonfleet tells the story of charming rogue and smuggling ring leader Stewart Granger being reminded of his better nature by the trust of a child (Jon Whiteley), getting in trouble with the law (that has been hounding him for quite some time) and stumbling onto the trace of a hidden diamond supposedly protected by a ghost, via a mood of slight dread and as the story of people living under the shadow of their pasts, Moonfleet may not be a masterpiece but a quite effective, if somewhat slow-paced, part of the gothic adventure genre, with the expected flashes of visual genius. Ironically, the film becomes at its least exciting (and interesting) whenever it actually turns into a swashbuckling movie.

Lang seems to have neither interest in, nor real talent for, the scenes of fencing and daring tricks Moonfleet's script from time to time asks of him to realize, so whenever his film takes on the outward signs of things that should be straightforwardly exciting, it becomes rather drab, never even making much use of Stewart Granger's talent for and experience at exactly that sort of thing. It's not a catastrophe, though, for the script (at least as it shows on screen) does not put too much emphasis on these aspects, preferring the gothic as much to the swashbuckling as Lang seems to do.

One of the positive surprises of the film is how comparatively unsentimental it treats Granger's change by contact with little John Mohune, even - very Lang and very un-Hollywood, that - more than just suggesting it's not the boy's innocence that wins the smuggling dandy over, but more the shared past with the boy's mother (this being a Hollywood film from 1955, there's no hint at the boy possibly being Granger's son, even though it would fit the film's backstory quite well), and mere chance.

As a whole, Moonfleet is a film I find easier to respect than to love. I absolutely adore Lang's visual treatment of the gothic, and do appreciate the film's slightly cynical undertone but I find the treatment of human emotions here a little too abstracted to completely convince me; I never can shake the feeling Lang sees human psychology as a much more mechanical thing then is helpful to create breathing characters. Admittedly, that's a problem I have quite often with the man's films, so this might not be so much a failing of Moonfleet, but a philosophical difference between Lang and me.

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