Recognizing the familiar in the atypical; that sounds like the kind of triumphant banality commonly attached to a piece of cod sociological theorizing. In fact, it’s just my own clumsy way of pointing out how even the apparently uncharacteristic works of great filmmakers are frequently nothing of the sort. When one has in mind Fritz Lang’s time in Hollywood it’s tempting to think of film noir and leave it at that. However, that would be not only a mistake but a disservice to a man whose mastery of cinema meant that genre labels represented no limit, but instead offered extended opportunities to tackle the themes which interested him. Moonfleet (1955), despite its smugglers and 18th century trappings, is recognizably a Lang film and features elements that crop up all through his work.
Young John Mohune (Jon Whiteley) is an orphan, on his way to the village of Moonfleet on the Dorset coast to look up the man his mother told him to find after she had passed. With a lowering sky and a deserted road, the atmosphere is already vaguely threatening and a tumbledown churchyard watched over by a stone angel heighten that feeling. When a claw-like hand is suddenly thrust from below the ground, well we’re veering into the realms of a Gothic nightmare. That sense is hardly dispelled when the youngster awakens in a local tavern to see a gallery of grotesques gazing down on him. Nevertheless, he’s a phlegmatic type and unfazed by the experience, which is just as well as he’s about to witness a flogging and a shooting, carried out by the man he’s been traveling to see. Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger) is an ambiguous character, a man of some means but clearly a rogue too. It’s apparent that Fox and the boy’s mother had been close but it’s also plain that he’s reluctant to have responsibility for the child’s welfare thrust upon him. The lad is a determined sort though, neither intimidated by the violence all around nor the dissipated and bawdy company his new guardian regularly keeps. As the trappings of a horror movie ebb and flow like the tide itself, the adventurous elements of the story gradually dominate, with the prospect of lost treasure being recovered, and all the romance that promises. While the characters hunt for a fabulous diamond, the fact is both Fox and young Mohune are mining for a different kind of treasure, the former slowly coming to the realization that he might just have a chance of regaining some semblance of the honor he’d thought forfeit and the latter, well his treasure is the boundless optimism of youth and a simple faith in the the notion of friendship.
A colorful CinemaScope adventure with swashbuckling elements is unlikely to be the first mental image conjured up with the mention of a Fritz Lang film. Nevertheless, as I said above, Lang wasn’t a servant of any particular genre. He even made a number of westerns – Western Union, The Return of Frank James, Rancho Notorious – with varying degrees of success and all of those were at the very least interesting and bore signs of the director’s stamp. His films frequently deal with concepts of justice, of an uneasy relationship between morality and hypocrisy, where ambiguity resides on the periphery of society and the facade of respectability is ever at risk of slipping and revealing something altogether less savory underneath. Moonfleet weaves all of this into the fabric of its narrative and the heavy reliance on sets and the studio backlot suit the director better; with Robert Planck’s cinematography casting brooding shadows, Lang creates some wonderfully atmospheric tableaux in the church, the cemetery and the crypt below, where the monuments to the past watch impassively over the intrigues of the present, all punctuated by the rich score of Miklos Rozsa.
Moonfleet is a movie with what I would term a deep cast, meaning there is an abundance of well known and instantly recognizable performers right down the list. Despite that, the focus remains firmly on Stewart Granger and Jon Whiteley at all times. Granger had a real flair for playing characters who had a dismal opinion of themselves, if not outright villains then heroes (or perhaps even anti-heroes) burdened with doubt and locked into a lifetime of regret. His Jeremy Fox quite literally carries the scars of a thwarted love, and there is the sense of some distant guilt hanging heavy on his conscience. His courtship of villainy and vice feels more like a self-imposed punishment than an indulgence. His potential redeemer comes in the form of Whiteley, who it is strongly hinted but never explicitly confirmed may be his own son. It’s not so much the innocent adoration but perhaps more the steadfast belief of the boy that imbues the man with the moral courage he thought he had squandered. There is something both moving and uplifting about the coda that brings the movie to a close, where Whiteley throws open the gate to his ancestral home, opening up the path to a better future and asserting in response to the doubts cast by the parson whether his guardian will ever return, not with boldness but with a simplicity borne of conviction: “He’s my friend.”
As for the rest of the cast, the majority play types of varying degrees of worthlessness. George Sanders could take on the part of a cad with his eyes closed, his debauched and decaying aristocrat, purring with honeyed ennui plots and schemes in vain. His faithless wife is portrayed in her trademark slinky style by Joan Greenwood, a woman who will be forever associated with the role of Sibella in Kind Hearts and Coronets in this viewer’s mind. The striking Viveca Lindfors is a venomous blend of the pitiful and the malignant as Fox’s spurned mistress, beautifully framed with a serpent as companion in the image above, although I feel she’s underused. To some extent, the same could said of Melville Cooper, John Hoyt, Dan Seymour, Jack Elam and, in his final screen role, the unforgettable Skelton Knaggs. Sean McClory fares better as the dissatisfied innkeeper/smuggler and gets to shine in one of the movie’s big set pieces – the face-off with Granger, where he swings a cruel looking halberd, must have been something to behold projected on the big screen.
Moonfleet has been released on Blu-ray by Warner Brothers but, for now at least, I’m still reliant on my old French DVD. It’s been a while since I last watched anything by Lang, which is odd as he has always been one of my favorite directors, and I’ve had it in mind to feature this title for some time. I believe it hasn’t the greatest reputation among Lang’s works but I like it a lot. It has mood and atmosphere, chills and adventure sharing screen space with tried and tested themes of the director, and what’s even more important, there’s a positivity and buoyancy at its core that I cannot fail but respond to.