Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Stalking Moon (1968)

     The Stalking Moon (1968) [D: Robert Mulligan. Gregory Peck, Eva Marie Saint, Robert Forster] Army scout Sam Varner quits to work his ranch in New Mexico. On the last raid, Sarah Carver, a white woman who was kidnapped by Salvaje, an Apache warrior, is rescued with her half-Apache son. She wants to get away as fast as possible, as she knows he will come after her. Sam doesn’t want to be burdened with her, but agrees to take her to Silverton to catch the train, then offers her a job as cook on his ranch. Salvaje is a vicious killer, who wants his son back, and also wants to punish all those who in any way involved in Sarah’s escape. At least eight bystanders are murdered by him. Sam wins the showdown, of course. The final shot shows Sarah helping him into the ranch-house.
     A well done Hollywood bread-and-butter Western, the kind that provided a steady income for the studios, and later became a staple of 1950s and 1960s TV. There’s very little dialogue, which means the story has to be carried by the photography and the acting. Gregory Peck is one of those actors who can convey much with his face. It’s not just an eyebrow twitch or a narrowing of the eyes, the whole face changes. Eva Marie Saint is almost as good.
      The movie is engaging while you watch it, although a modern audience knows too much to accept all the twists in the plot. Sam is too eager to leave the ranch and go after Salvaje, a tactical mistake that costs his two friends their lives. There are touches of humour, for example in Sam’s attempt to get Sarah and the boy to make small talk during meals. The ethos and dangers of the West are nicely represented. The movie’s look and characterisations are heavily influenced by the “adult Westerns” of the 60s. Sam is not a superhero, he nearly dies in the last fight. The stage coach post is a grungy looking assemblage of poles and adobe that somehow manages to be a corral and an inn. There is more than a hint that any encounter with a stranger could be lethal. And so on. But it’s still an old-fashioned Western in storyline: the hero, strong and taciturn, is a perfect gentleman with the ladies. Salvaje represents the wild and untamed society that was being replaced by order and lawfulness, often by brutal means. The violence is necessary, even when it’s regrettable.
      For the fan of Westerns, a good couple of hours, for the movie fan, a nice example of how movies used to be made. **½

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