Directed by Fritz Lang
Produced by John Houseman
Screen Play by Jan Lustig & Margaret Fitts
Based on the novel by J. Meade Falkner
Director Of Photography: Robert Planck
Film Editor: Albert Akst
Music by Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Stewart Granger (Jeremy Fox.), Jon Whiteley (John Mohune), George Sanders (Lord Greenwood), Joan Greenwood (Lady Greenwood), Viveca Lindfors (Mrs. Minton), Liliane Montevecchi (Gypsy), Jack Elam (Damen)
Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet (1955) is a movie people seem to delight in tearing down. It helps that it’s a long way from Lang’s best work — there’s plenty to criticize. But me, I’ll take Lang’s bad over About Anybody Else’s good. And there’s a lot for movie nuts to appreciate here.
If Disney had asked Fritz Lang to direct Treasure Island (1950), you might’ve ended up with something like Moonfleet. There’s a young boy. There are smugglers instead of pirates. And there are lots and lots of opportunities for the kind of deep, dark, moody scenes Lang excelled at.
The story suits Lang so well it’s hard to believe he was brought in as a director-for-hire just a few weeks before the cameras rolled. You see, MGM hated Lang. Fury (1936), his first film for the studio — his first American film period, had been a big hit. But they hated him so much they didn’t work with him again until Moonfleet. They gave him a paltry budget, a script he wasn’t allowed to fine-tune and no approval of the final cut. Lang was not the dictatorial artist here, he was an employee, plain and simple.
Lang was never loved in Hollywood. From studio heads to actors to crew members, few people worked with him more than once.
Lang: “In Moonfleet we tried to create a period film entirely in the studio; we shot everything there, even the exteriors.”
Along with being assigned a set-bound period picture with very little time to prepare for it, Lang was handed CinemaScope as part of the package. The director was not a fan of the process, and as Moonfleet shows, it threw a monkey wrench into Lang’s style. ‘Scope pictures at the time relied on longer takes and fewer closeups, giving Lang a helluva time when it came to his usual way of cutting, and types of shots, to create rhythm and suspense. He’d never make another ‘Scope picture.
John Mohune, an orphan (Jon Whitely), arrives in the village of Moonfleet looking for Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger), an old flame of his deceased mother. Fox is a gentleman wrapped up with a group of smugglers (one of them is Jack Elam!) — and with little time, aptitude or interest, for caring for a young boy. But the search for a hidden diamond brings them together — and makes them the targets of pirates, soldiers and the greedy, crooked Lord and Lady Greenwood (George Sanders and Joan Greenwood). Sanders comes off like his Nazi creep in Man Hunt (1941), just with a wig.
There are some terrific scenes here and there, particularly the ones set in the church graveyard and tombs. Lang keeps the picture planted in the boy’s point of view, much in the way William Cameron Menzies did with Jimmy Hunt in Invaders From Mars (1953), and it works well. It’s probably why I liked this so much as a kid (when I didn’t know, or care, who Fritz Lang was). After all, to a young boy, what’s cooler that pirates and thieves and skeletons? Some lazy editing — the last 10 minutes must’ve been cut at four o’clock on a Friday afternoon — makes it quite obvious that Lang wasn’t able to see his movie across the finish line. But when it’s good, it’s really good, and when it’s not good, well, it’s still good.
Warner Archive has done Lang and DP Robert Planck a great service with their new Blu-Ray of Moonfleet. We can now appreciate the somber color palette (the Eastmancolor looks quite good), the glorious painted backdrops and the sheer enormity of some of the MGM sound stages. Maybe that makes this more of a treat for those who want to look at how the movie was made rather than just watch it. But what’s wrong with that? Lang’s movies have always appealed more to us Film Geeks anyway.
Highly recommended. (Remember, it has Jack Elam as a pirate.)