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Moonfleet (DVD Review)

22 Nov, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Stewart Granger, George Sanders, Joan Greenwood, Alan Napier, Viveca Lindfors, Jon Whiteley.

As one of the few color and even fewer widescreen movies that Fritz Lang directed in his 41-year career, this undeservedly obscure (in America) 1955 yarn about a lad who falls in with 18th-century pirates points up the disconnect in critical sensibilities from country to country.

In Europe and especially France, the picture has always been revered and got a DVD release in the French “Legendes du Cinema” series, which is a tip-off to the esteem in which it’s held. Stateside at MGM, trouble has always followed it around. Lang accused producer John Houseman of cutting the film in ways the director loathed, though it likely would have been a commercial flop anyway. This belated U.S. home release comes courtesy of controlling Warner’s on-demand unit (though once upon a million years ago, there was a laserdisc release).

As a child’s-eye-view of British coastal cutthroats, exotic women, saloon living, underground hideouts and personal loneliness, the result is naggingly affecting thanks in part to Miklos Rozsa’s score and an apposite turn by child co-lead Jon Whiteley. Though Whiteley’s most famous performance in a brief career came in a movie mostly forgotten today, the previous year’s The Little Kidnappers had won him a special Oscar shared with youthful co-star Vincent Winter (accepted for them, in absentia, by TV’s “Lassie” star Tommy Rettig). For a youngster, Whiteley had a grown-up face that suggests intelligence beyond his years — or at least to the pirate leader (Stewart Granger) to whom his ailing mother sends the lad for care and safekeeping. If only she knew — and she probably should, given a long-ago romantic dalliance that got the Granger character intentionally attacked by dogs belonging to her family. The kind of dogs that inflict scars of all kinds.

Take away High Society, Raintree County and not too many others, and you can watch most MGM movies from the 1950s with obvious evidence of tightened wallets. And yet according to Patrick McGilligan’s exemplary Lang bio The Nature of the Beast, this picture had the largest budget of the M/Metropolis director’s American movies, which began with MGM’s classic Fury in 1936 (this picture marked Lang’s first return to the studio). The exteriors are frequently dark and often transparently shot on a set, while the Eastman Color MGM too frequently used in those days was a synonym for mud. And yet Rozsa and the production design contribute heavily to a consistently eerie mood, and the interiors prove that Lang knew how to make a costume picture. More than most actors of the day Granger knew how to wear well-tailored duds (he’d played the lead in Beau Brummell just the year before). And George Sanders (as a so-called lord so slimy that he uses his wife as Granger bait) was the kind of actor who could look natural, or at least not foolish, wearing one those wigs the well-dressed male might have donned in 1757.

The movie runs just 86 minutes — a case of slightly choppy continuity engaging in a trade-off with reasonably brisk pacing. In any event, the picture seems to pick up steam as it goes: Whitely has to be lowered into a well (inside a bucket, no less), and there’s an exciting carriage scene that seals several fates involving characters played by three of the top-billed actors. This sets up a capper that I’ve always found moving — a scene I suspect is more than a little responsible for the movie’s cult. At the time, though, the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther gave Moonfleet another of his standard clueless drubbings (he’d recently panned East of Eden as well), and the film didn’t even rate an engagement at one of the downtown movie palaces in my hometown. Ultimately, it took Jean-Luc Godard and other French critics to put it on the map. Nothing new about that.

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