Gabin and Lupino shine as star-crossed lovers in an imperfect masterpiece.
Jean Gabin and Ida Lupino built careers for themselves playing haunted, tormented individuals, not least of which their starring turns in prototype film noirs including, respectively, Port of Shadows and High Sierra. The two teamed in 1942 for the downbeat romantic drama Moontide, another precursor to the genre that even its DVD making-of featurette diplomatically calls “ill-starred.” With a script that underwent intense sanitizing to meet the era’s rigid censorship standards and a switch in directors, along with friction between Gabin and the studio, it’s a wonder anything coherent resulted at all.
Yet the final film, though problematic and troubled in many ways, builds such pathos and depth that ultimately it becomes an unforgettable, if not entirely perfect (and sometimes frustrating) viewing experience. By no means a classic film, it’s so close you may be tempted to think more of it than it truly deserves, even though it deserves a lot.
The premise is tailor-made for late night viewing: Bobo (Gabin) a longshoreman and blackout drunk, prepares to leave the ramshackle California harbor town of San Pablo in search of more lucrative work. Bobo’s friend Tiny (Thomas Mitchell) has something lined up in San Francisco, apparently another job in which Bobo does all the work and the venal, lazy Tiny collects part of his wages as a “fee.” Bobo is blase and nonchalant, and spends their last night in town cavorting with a prostitute before embarking on an epic drunk that leaves him, the next morning, absent his memory and working on the dilapidated bait barge run by one of his fellow partiers (Chester Gan.) Bobo learns a local drunk was choked to death the night before, and that for reasons unremembered he’s wearing the victim’s hat.
Abandoning the job almost at once, while walking along the beach with drinking buddy Nutsy (Claude Rains), Bobo saves waitress Anna (Lupino) from drowning herself in the surf, even lying to the police to prevent her arrest. The two take the girl back to the bait barge, where she and Bobo begin a tenuous romance, full of hesitation and self-doubt. Locked in the tiny quarters, the two literally circle one another, their different kinds of cynicism flashing out whenever they feel threatened by the other. In time they begin running the bait shop together, slowly fixing it up and making a home for themselves, of sorts, away from the rest of the world.
If you’ve ever seen a movie before, you know that kind of peaceful isolation can’t last. The investigation into the murder continues in the background, while Tiny grows increasingly anxious and belligerent in demanding Bobo abandon the barge and head north. Bobo attempts to scare Tiny away with force but finds himself trying to explain his sometimes-explosive temper to Anna. He avoids her company at night, too, ostensibly to keep their relationship proper but with hints of some greater need for evasion working on his motives. On their wedding day, he abandons her again in order to fix the engine of a rich doctor’s yacht, leaving Anna at the mercy of a vengeful Tiny. As the DVD jacket copy promises, only one will survive, and the murderer’s true identity will come to light.
For however well it’s acted and at times perfectly visualized, most of the film’s problems come from adapting Willard Robertson’s novel into something compatible with Hayes Office standards. Anna’s backstory, including years of poverty and a rape, is all but erased from the final script. Lupino, superb actress that she was, manages to communicate the grief and crushed hopes with which such troubles have burdened her, but the story still suffers for their absence. Anna’s return to vitality under Bobo’s care is heartbreaking to watch, both to think of the character’s past and to fear for her future, thanks completely to her peformance.
Elsewhere a palpable homoerotic subtext runs through Tiny’s and Bobo’s relationship, and to a lesser degree the encounters Nutsy has with the other men as well; the locker room scene, in which Tiny slaps him around with a wet towel, is particularly hard to ignore for its metaphorical freight. Much has been made in other reviews (possibly too much) about the possibly homosexual relationship Tiny and Bobo may share. It’s a hard element to mistake, but there are other, larger themes at work that, too, get just too little exploration or development to reach their potential.
Gabin and Lupino’s natural chemistry fuels their romance onscreen, but as with Anna there isn’t enough done to explain Bobo’s restlessness. Despite Nutsy’s witty comparisons between living as a “gypsy” and a “peasant,” the script doesn’t offer much explanation besides his own carefree attitude, which seems given the stakes of the plot sometimes inadequate. Gabin has a great monologue in which he reveals the earlier mistake that allows Tiny to dictate his actions, and the scene hints at self-loathing and sorrow that Bobo possibly carries as consequence. It also hints at the violence that, in its way, unites the two, and shows Anna’s growing strength and confidence, illustrating the mutual need the two share.
If only those scenes had room to breathe, or flex their muscles. For however romantic the fog-smothered, lonely barge can seem under Charles G. Clarke’s Oscar-nominated cinematography, the setting also at times feels limiting. You want Bobo and Anna, for a variety of reasons, to simply enjoy a night on whatever town San Pablo can offer them. Partly this was a matter of logistics and staging. The onset of World War II limited the film’s production capabilities, cancelling on-location shoots for the more artificial locales of a soundstage. Yet those limitations work to amplify the gauzy artificiality of the characters’ world and intensify Clark’s moody aesthetic. Fritz Lang had originally agreed to direct the picture, but quit two weeks into shooting following friction with the recalcitrant Gabin. Veteran director Archie Mayo (The Petrified Forest) took over, but the exterior shots carry a distinct Lang sensibility, especially in the climactic scene in which a murderous Bobo stalks Tiny along the seawall. That conclusion, however, again carries the mark of the era’s standards and practices, so that it’s ultimately less than totally satisfying.
Regarding the supporting performances, Rains is excellent as always, even if his sage drunk character is somewhat stock. Mitchell, best known for his role as Scarlett O’Hara’s father in Gone With the Wind, is chilling as the barely restrained, almost reptilian petty criminal Tiny. His confrontation with Anna, itself a thinly disguised (once again for the benefit of the censors) attempt at sexual assault, is nerve-wracking.
The film’s ending, changed completely from the downbeat conclusion of the book, offers a sense of completion and happiness to Bobo and Anna’s lost souls you were hoping they’d get all along their lonely ordeal. Moontide is not a perfect movie, but for two characters this sympathetic you’ll find yourself wiling to believe all’s well that ends well.
Moontide is available on DVD as part of 20th Century Fox’s “Fox Film Noir” library of titles.
- Michael Kabel