Directed by Archie Mayo with an uncredited assist from Fritz Lang, the 1942 film noir Moontide is an interesting snapshot of domestic life. It’s somewhat of a hodgepodge, with the John O’Hara screenplay creating a foggy fable out of Willard Robertson’s novel of the same name.
It’s the look of Moontide that really sells it. Cinematographer Charles G. Clarke was nominated for an Oscar for his work and his lensing of the spare settings is lyrical. He captures the pier and its encircling mist with a sense of doubt, while the fragmentary interior of the Red Dot is contrasted with the lived-in bliss of the bait shack.
French actor Jean Gabin makes his Hollywood debut as Bobo, a scruffy drifter with a dog. He wanders, comfortable in the knowledge that he has no place to lay his head. One night, he enters the Red Dot Bar and drinks himself silly. He hits on a woman (Robin Raymond) and hangs around with his friend Tiny (Thomas Mitchell), who has been using him for years.
Bobo drunkenly lands a job at a bait shop thanks to Hirota (Chester Gan). One night, he’s out strolling with his pal Nutsy (Claude Rains) when he come across Anna (Ida Lupino) as she’s trying to off herself. He saves her and they begin a topsy-turvy romance. Just when happiness seems within reach, Tiny surfaces to secure his meal ticket.
At its core, Moontide is a movie about home. Bobo and Anna find family with each other and work to nurture some sense of normality. They shop for curtains, paint, borders. They try to set up a life, even while their particular histories meddle with their potential happiness.
The past is one of those unavoidable elements of proper film noir and Mayo’s picture employs it well. Bobo is content with the way his life is going, at least on the surface. When bliss threatens to undo what he views as personal freedom, his eyes start to wander. He runs from Anna and finds himself back in the Red Dot. A familiar tune sends him home.
Anna has given up on existence and her past is hinted at. Tiny says she used to work at some sort of hash joint, while Robertson’s novel casts her as a prostitute. Regardless of Anna’s nature, she’s reached the point where wandering into the sea seems like a solution.
In Bobo, Anna find redemption and she finds a sense of normalcy. There is order, routine. Like Bobo, she runs off at first and doesn’t believe that she’s worthy of happiness. And like Bobo, she makes a commitment when she starts to value herself enough.
Moontide is, in many respects, a fairy tale for society’s underbelly. It takes two ne’er-do-wells and gives them love. It allows Bobo’s grubby exterior to serve as a quality rather than a detriment and he is admired for his roguishness. Even the eternal night-watchman Nutsy is pleased to know him.
And it’s Nutsy, played warmly by Rains, who is the most perceptive observer of the Tiny/Bobo dynamic. He compares Tiny to a pilot fish, noting that Bobo is the shark he’s been living off. Tiny, says Nutsy, will need to find a new shark on account of the imminent nuptials of his food source. There is, incidentally, a murder.
Moontide is also a picture about personality and the characters are well-drawn. The details are interesting, even when pieces drag into conventional melodrama. It seems that Lang had greyer circumstances in mind, but clashes with Darryl F. Zanuck set that approach out to pasture and had the German director fleeing the scene.
Regardless, there’s enough substance in Moontide to make this a worthy film noir. It may suffer from a conservative conclusion and some hollowed-out middle ground, but the performances and style strengthen what truly is a unique take on love, home and the perpetual effects of a spotty past.