The Dark Side of the Western
Drifter Jim Gary (Robert Mitchum - Crossfire) arrives in town to work for homesteader Tate Riling (Robert Preston) unaware that Riling is at war with Cattleman John Lufton (Tom Tully) over land and people suspect Jim of being a hired gun. Riling has come up with a way to steal Lufton's cattle from him and then sell them on to the army. When Jim learns what Riling is up to he switches sides which also helps when it comes to his feelings for Lufton's daughter Amy (Barbara Bel Geddes - I Remember Mama). But Amy's sister Carol (Phyllis Thaxter) has a thing for Riling and ends up betraying her father which in turn causes more trouble especially for Jim.
There is a very interesting scene in "Blood on the Moon" it features the meeting of Jim and Amy when he is riding though the middle of nowhere and she takes a shot at him. Unaware that he is being shot at by a woman he sneaks around and on finding her shoots at her several times, intentionally missing but doing so enough to force her into a river. Now on one hand with the accompanying playful soundtrack it is a comical meet cute, the sort where two people start of antagonising each other but ending up falling in love. Yet the amount of shooting and the lack of smiles makes it almost dark rather than playful which would be the usual tone of this sort of scene.
Dark is what we get a lot of in "Blood on the Moon" as director Robert Wise makes the most of enclosed spaces and shadows to create a gloomy atmosphere. It really stands out and with some film-noir style camera work with angled shots this western is a lot more about the atmosphere and the tone rather than what happens.
Now in a strange way Wise's focus on the look, the tone, the atmosphere is a good thing because when you strip that away all you are left with is a western standard with a battle over land and the wanderer who ends up switching sides. In fact story wise "Blood on the Moon" is simply cliche right down to the character of Jim being a gloomy sort who has had a run of bad luck including his cattle dying.
Now who better that Robert Mitchum to play a gloomy, dour yet likeable drifter who if things keep on going as they are could end up falling in to doing bad things to survive. It is a nice performance from Mitchum because he brings an element of good guy to the role but a sense of inevitably that he has no choice in the way things are going when it comes to how his life plays out. Aside from Mitchum well there is Barbara Bel Geddes who is not only typically attractive but brings some pluck to the role of Amy especially when it comes to the way she confronts people.
What this all boils down to is that "Blood on the Moon" is a good example of how you can take something cliche and turn it into something more. Director Robert Wise's focus on atmosphere lifts this into something more than just another old western.