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Moonfleet (1955, Fritz Lang)

Moonfleet is a very strange film. The protagonist is ten year-old Jon Whiteley; the film starts with him arriving in the coastal village, Moonfleet. It’s the mid-eighteenth century. Moonfleet is a dangerous, scary place. Sort of. Whiteley is in town on his own because his mother has died (Dad is a mystery, but nowhere near enough of one) and she’s sent him to look for an old friend. The old friend is Stewart Granger. He’s an old flame. Mom and Granger hooked up, then her rich family ran him out of town. The family fell on hard times, moving away from Moonfleet, so Granger moved back. Not because he’s nostalgic for Whiteley’s mom, but because it’s a good place to run a smuggling ring. He seems to have known the mom at least moved.

And Granger’s got zero interest in having a ward. He spends most of his time drinking and carousing. He lives in Whiteley’s family manor, but it’s closed down and janky. He has his friends over to get blasted and hook up with the various women who throw themselves at Granger. Granger does have a live-in girlfriend, Viveca Lindfors, whose credited role suggests he seduced her away from a husband but it’s not in the story proper. Granger’s introduction actually has him with a different woman, Liliane Montevecchi. She’s Romani. She’s not credited as Romani. Anywhere, she might not even have a line. She’s there to do a seductive dance with lots of leg and cleavage. Lindfors gets very jealous because she’s only showing cleavage and not leg.

Okay, remember when earlier I said the protagonist is a ten year-old? Yeah, the movie makes this quick shift for much of the first act to being ladies getting hot for Granger. It’s almost like it’s a kids’—well, boys’, there’s nothing for a ten year-old girl except learning hot dudes like Granger get to treat them terribly and they should go back begging for more—but it’s like Moonfleet is a kids’ movie with stud Granger in it for Mom and all his ladies for Dad. It’s weird. Especially since the sexual nature of Granger’s various relationships isn’t implied. It’s explicit. Granger’s best pal is George Sanders, a lord who slums it at Granger’s pad to get wasted, gamble, and hook up with loose poor women. It’s okay because his wife, Joan Greenwood, knows all about that behavior. She’s fine with it, because she and Granger are schtupping. Sanders suspects he’s being cuckolded but isn’t sure and isn’t really too worked out about it. Granger’s subplot—or the closest thing he gets to a subplot in the ninety minute picture—involves Greenwood wanting him to run off with her and Sanders. Sanders is keen to it because Granger is ostensibly a lower class scoundrel who climbed the social ladder. Greenwood just wants to keep schtupping Granger, just not in England.

Back to ten year-old Whiteley. Much of the first half of the film has Granger trying to get rid of him. Or Granger’s smuggler gang threatening to kill Whiteley. Granger’s got a tenuous hold on the leadership role. At least until he shows off his sword-fighting skills to convince to rabble to stay in line. So it’s one of those kids’ adventure movies where the kid is in constant threat of vicious murder and there’s wanton (1950s acceptable) sex. Moonfleet is weird.

Whiteley’s adventure has him trying to find his grandfather or great-grandfather’s hidden treasure. Everyone in the town has been trying to find it for years but they’re all really dumb because once Whiteley gets one clue, Granger is able to figure it out.

The other major reason Moonfleet is weird is it manages to work. Lang’s direction is never particularly good. He doesn’t do action well. Not just the sword-fighting, which has bad editing (from Albert Akst), but like stage direction. It’s sluggish, like Lang is making the actors move too slowly across the Cinemascope frame. Robert H. Planck’s photography is also… unimpressive. The day-for-night stuff is always wonky, but the various interiors are always a little off too. The film’s got some really nice sets. Planck just doesn’t seem to know how to light them effectively. It’s fine. Lang doesn’t know how to shoot them effectively either. Moonfleet would probably work a lot better, visually, in black and white and Academy Ratio. Lang and Planck utterly wasted the Cinemascope.

And the script is slight. Supporting characters aren’t memorably written or performed. None of the supporting performances are bad—though all the men’s makeup is bad and there’s a lot of it; it’s bad on all dudes but Granger—they just aren’t memorable. Even though the smuggler gang is a bunch of recognizable faces, none of them distinguish themselves.

But Granger and Whiteley are both really good. Whiteley gets through lots of bad dialogue and sells the earnestness right. He brings some depth to the part; like, we don’t know what this kid’s life has been like, even if he does sound like a proper little English boy. His accent is a little out of place occasionally, however. And then Granger sort of seems to know he ought to be in this kids’ adventure picture about maybe this scoundrel being the dad and maybe not being the dad but it doesn’t matter because deep down everyone knows he really wants to be the dad. Only Moonfleet isn’t that movie. But Granger pretends.

He’s never more comfortable in the film than with Whiteley and the smugglers and never less comfortable then when with Sanders and Greenwood.

Sanders is okay. It’s a small part with nothing to it and no reason for George Sanders. Other than putting him in a wig and making him as unrecognizable as George Sanders as possible.

Greenwood’s… better than Lindfors? Lindfors seems miserable being in the film. She and Granger have negative chemistry.

So… Moonfleet. It’s a weird fail. The worst part is the end, which—for most of the film—is all the picture’s got going for it, the possibility of a solid ending. And then there’s a misstep and then a stumble and then a face-plant.

Moonfleet doesn’t deserve Whiteley or Granger.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Fritz Lang; screenplay by Jan Lustig and Margaret Fitts, based on the novel by J. Meade Falkner; director of photography, Robert H. Planck; edited by Albert Akst; music by Miklós Rózsa; produced by John Houseman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Jon Whiteley (John Mohune), Stewart Granger (Jeremy Fox), Joan Greenwood (Lady Ashwood), Viveca Lindfors (Mrs. Minton), Melville Cooper (Felix Ratsey), Sean McClory (Elzevir Block), Alan Napier (Parson Glennie), John Hoyt (Magistrate Maskew), Donna Corcoran (Grace), and George Sanders (Lord Ashwood).


THIS POST IS PART OF THE STEWART GRANGER BLOGATHON HOSTED BY MADDY OF MADDY LOVES HER CLASSIC FILMS.


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M (1931, Fritz Lang)

I don’t think I’d ever realized M‘s technical importance. Lang creates quite a few filmmaking standards here, still in use today. Non-specific to genre, M features some brilliant off-screen dialogue work. It’s the earliest example (I’ve ever seen) of hearing a scene’s action while looking at something else. There’s also Lang’s approach to the sound. Lang uses the silence for the emphasis, shocking the viewer with loud noises every once in a while. There are, I’m sure, a few other ones, but those are most obvious.

Except for the genre specific norms. Watching M, one can see a lot of genre norms–the modern criminal investigation narrative, going back years, owes it all to me. There’s the suspect disappearing behind a moving car shot, but there’s also the detective who uncovers the long-hidden clue and has his eureka moment. Watching M is, at these moments, stunning. It’s seeing Lang create these familiar filmic mechanisms.

That use of sound, something I only mentioned in passing, is all the more amazing because of its place in film history. Talkies were very new when Lang made M and his masterful use of sound in film is something Hollywood wouldn’t begin to match for another ten years, until Welles and Citizen Kane.

But M isn’t just staggering because of its significance as a historical artifact. Lang and wife Thea von Harbou’s script is fantastic. The film’s without a central protagonist, just a handful of primary characters. There’s the police inspector, played by Otto Wernicke, and the criminal mastermind, played by Gustaf Gründgens, and then, of course, there’s Peter Lorre as the child murderer. Lorre appears early on, but isn’t really a big character until the second half.

The split of M is interesting. The film has a somewhat modern gimmick–the criminals go after the criminal the cops can’t catch. One could just see it as Ashton Kutcher’s breakout, “tough” role. Except the gimmick isn’t even a part of the film for the first hour. Instead, Lang concentrates on establishing the mood of a city in constant fear. He uses crane shots to both bring the city’s inhabitants together and to highlight their isolation. M is very much about the urban experience. But then he moves on to a lengthy review of the police’s attempts at solving the crime, followed, near the halfway mark, by the underworld getting involved.

The hunt for Lorre is split as well–there’s a lengthy break from it, as Wernicke questions one of Lorre’s pursuers.

Much of the film, in that first half, is exposition. But Lang opens the film with a measured sequence of a woman realizing her daughter is missing. This opening makes the second part, the lengthy exposition, involve and affect the viewer–it otherwise would not. The introduction to the underworld characters brings the human element back in and their decision to hunt Lorre keeps it in the rest of the film.

Only at the end, after M gives Lorre the chance to shine in a revolting role, do Lang and von Harbou stumble, bringing back the didacticism from their earlier efforts. But it’s too late for it to hurt M.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Fritz Lang; written by Lang and Thea von Harbou; director of photography, Fritz Arno Wagner; edited by Paul Falkenberg; produced by Seymour Nebenzal; released by Vereinigte Star-Film GmbH.

Starring Peter Lorre (Hans Beckert), Ellen Widmann (Frau Beckmann), Inge Landgut (Elsie Beckmann), Otto Wernicke (Inspector Karl Lohmann), Theodor Loos (Inspector Groeber), Gustaf Gründgens (Schränker), Friedrich Gnaß (Franz, the burglar), Fritz Odemar (The cheater), Paul Kemp (Pickpocket with six watches), Theo Lingen (Bauernfänger), Rudolf Blümner (Beckert’s defender), Georg John (Blind panhandler), Franz Stein (Minister), Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur (Police chief), Gerhard Bienert (Criminal secretary), Karl Platen (Damowitz, night watchman), Rosa Valetti (Elisabeth Winkler, Beckert’s landlady) and Hertha von Walther (Prostitute).


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