Thanks to the suggestion of a fellow blogger, le0pard13, I decided to dig out and rewatch Robert Mulligan’s 1968 suspense western The Stalking Moon. Although the film contains its fair share of action, it is essentially a slow burning mood picture which builds tension almost imperceptibly yet inexorably towards a conclusion that is both nerve-wracking and satisfying. A good part of its strength comes from the fact that it can be approached from a variety of angles; as the standard chase picture, an examination of race relations, a love story, a tale of friendship, and it even has a suggestion of the supernatural.
Sam Varner (Gregory Peck) is an army scout on the verge of retirement, having already bought a ranch in New Mexico. His last job for the army, helping bring a band of Apaches in to the reservation, leads to the rescue of a white woman who has been held captive for ten years. This woman, Sarah Carver (Eva Marie Saint), has a young half- breed son in tow and manages to persuade Varner to escort her to the nearest coach stop and help her on her way. At first, her eagerness to distance herself from her rescuers might appear to be rooted in some sense of shame at having given herself to the Apache – an idea reinforced by an uncomfortable stopover at a remote swing station. However, it soon becomes apparent that her desire to be on the move is based on an altogether more serious threat. It turns out that her boy is the son of Salvaje, a renegade Apache with a fearsome reputation. So begins a relentless pursuit that leads to Varner’s ranch and, eventually, a one man siege of the log cabin that seems to grow smaller by the second. All the while, the spectral presence of Salvaje lurks in the shadows or flits from rock to rock and the viewer starts to wonder if this man is indeed human. The film’s masterstroke is keeping Salvaje off the screen for so long; he remains a cipher, a kind of bogeyman who is spoken of in hushed tones but never seen. Even when he does appear, we are only given a fleeting glimpse of him before he vanishes again like some terrible force of nature leaving death and chaos in his wake.
Gregory Peck plays another of his stoical, straight down the line characters in The Stalking Moon. In truth, it’s one of those classic western roles wherein the hero knows that the right thing to do is the unhealthy option but goes ahead with it all the same. In this case Varner has the chance to put Sarah on a train and let someone else deal with the whole mess, but his own sense of honour rules that out. As he toys with his food and gazes repeatedly at the lonely, forlorn figure sitting on the train platform it’s obvious what he’s going to do. Peck was always fine in those parts where his character had to draw on that inner steel to tough out the most hopeless of situations, and the role of Sam Varner might have been tailor made for him. Eva Marie Saint is also good in a difficult part, a woman who has become something of a stranger among her own people and little more than a misplaced possession to the mysterious Salvaje. In a movie that’s short on dialogue she has few lines to speak yet manages to convey the vulnerability of her character without diluting any of the resolve that would have been required to live the way she did. Robert Forster makes an early appearance as Peck’s half breed friend and fellow scout who proves his loyalty right to the end. The Stalking Moon was the only western made by director Robert Mulligan, and that’s something of a shame since he did an excellent job and seemed at home in the genre. He made excellent use of the locations (Nevada standing in for New Mexico) and the widescreen photography to emphasise the isolation of his characters. The open spaces of the first half of the film highlight not only the vastness of the country but also the relentless nature of Salvaje who will follow Sarah to the ends of the earth if necessary. In contrast, the second half becomes claustrophobic with Varner’s cabin, and the encroaching mountains and trees, becoming the focal point.
Warner put The Stalking Moon out on DVD last year in R1 as part of their Western Classics box and it’s also available in much of R2, though not the UK yet, as a stand alone title. It’s been given a fine anamorphic scope transfer with good colour and detail. The disc is as basic as they come without even a scene selection menu, but that seems to be par for the course with WB at the moment. Having said that, it’s a movie that does manage to sell itself on its own merits. There are those who have put forward the theory that Once Upon A Time In The West has a hint of the supernatural about it, with the possibility of Harmonica being an avenging ghost. Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider also play around with a similar idea and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to view Salvaje in The Stalking Moon in that company. Anyway, it’s a damn fine film and one that’s well worth seeing.