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Review: Moonfleet (1955)

Directed by: Fritz Lang | 87 minutes | drama, | Actors: Stewart Granger, George Sanders, Joan Greenwood, , , , Melville Cooper, Sean McClory, Alan Napier, , Donna Corcoran, Jack Elam, , , Lester Matthews, Skelton Knaggs, Richard Hale, , , Frank Ferguson, Booth Colman, Oliver Blake, , , , , , , Elspeth Dudgeon, Alex Frazer, Colin Kenny

Fritz Lang was not a fan of Cinemascope, the system introduced in 1953 by the American film company Twentieth Century Fox for recording and projection of extra-wide images on cinema film (so-called wall-to-wall projection). The acclaimed German director said of the technique: “It wasn’t made for people. It’s only good for snakes and funerals. ” Yet once he was persuaded to include a movie in Cinemascope and that was for ‘Moonfleet’ from 1955. This adventure film, based on the story of J. Meade Falkner and in the style of Robert Louis Stevenson’s much-filmed novel ‘Treasure Island’ , can safely be called an outsider in Lang’s oeuvre. Not only because he makes exceptional use of Cinemascope, but also because it is his only American film (on the westerns ‘The Return of Frank James’ (1940), ‘Western Union’ (1941) and ‘Rancho Notorious’ (1952) after) which is situated in a distant past.

“Two hundred years ago, the wild moor of Dorset ran to the sea. Here, in caves and remote villages, the smuggler gangs operated. One evening in October 1757, a little boy came here looking for a man he assumed was his friend… “With those words begins the boy-book-like” Moonfleet. ” The boy’s name is John Mohune (Jon Whiteley) and he has received a letter from his mother, who recently passed away, which took him to the village of Moonfleet. There he goes looking for a Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger), an “old friend” of his mother – it soon becomes apparent that they once had a relationship. In the letter John is carrying, his mother asks Fox to take care of her son. Jeremy Fox, an opportunist who gets along just as easily with wealthy (mostly corrupt) aristocrats as with the street scum, is not waiting for John. In his position as leaders of a band of notorious smugglers, he cannot use an orphan around him. But when little John, who adores his foster father unconditionally, discovers a treasure map of one of his notorious forefathers, Fox is suddenly eager to build a relationship with the boy. Would that tough smuggler still have feelings in his thunder?

After Fritz Lang, who had already enjoyed great success in Europe, emigrated to America in the mid-1930s, he had a very productive period. But although he produced more films, he had less and less influence on how they looked. He had to conform to the wishes of the mighty studios in Hollywood. In 21 years he made the same number of films and it was clear that Lang got less and less pleasure in his work because the films became more and more pessimistic and simpler in style. Moonfleet is one of the director’s last films before returning to Berlin, where he ended his career. Although Lang was forced into the Hollywood straightjacket here too, he still managed to leave his mark on the film. The visual aspect is fine. The sets are deliberately artificial in a charming way and Lang knows better than anyone else a gothic. Victorian style, with stylish costumes and sets and despite the director’s aversion to Cinemascope, the technique works fine here. Miklós Rósza’s score also adds to the atmosphere.

The fact that “Moonfleet” has to compete with a similar adventure film as ’s “Treasure Island” (1934), is largely due to the scenario written by Jan Lustig and Margaret Fitts, which lacks a clear tension. While you are still waiting for the climax, the story fades like a candle. Moreover, the main characters for an adventure film experience very few adventures. Fortunately, “Moonfleet” has a pleasant pace (the film lasts less than an hour and a half) and there is plenty to enjoy visually. The cast is good to very good. Stewart Granger, who did his own stunts, was at the height of his fame as a romantic lead and comes off quite a bit as the opportunistic Jeremy Fox. Child star Jon Whiteley is charming as the orphan John Mohune, who is at the whim of Fox. There are supporting roles for well-known (British) character actors such as Joan Greenwood, Melville Cooper, Jack Elam and the Swedish Viveca Lindfors. And no one can sno so deliciously corrupt aristocratic  play as the fantastic George Sanders!

At the time, “Moonfleet” was praised by the leading French film magazine “Les Cahiers du Cinéma” as “one of the most beautiful adventure films ever, with one of the most beautiful child characters in film ”. That is of course a great exaggeration. “Moonfleet” is an expertly made, but unremarkable film. In the oeuvre of a grandmaster like Fritz Lang, this film belongs to the lower regions of the middle bracket. Visually certainly worth it and at times exciting and moving, but you expect more from a film by Lang. Nevertheless, a nice film to watch with the whole on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

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