Jean Gabin was in his early forties when he made his first American film (Julien Duvivier’s 1944 The Imposter was the only other) during the Second World War, when he was stranded in Hollywood. This was Moontide, written by John O’Hara from a novel by Willard Robertson. (That same year, Gabin’s Quai des brûmes co-star, Michèle Morgan, dazzlingly starred as Hollywood’s Joan of Paris.) Fritz Lang worked on the film for four days, and he may have quit—I really don’t know—because of Gabin’s (possibly not very deep) anti-Semitism. (When he and Marlene Dietrich, after the war, were lovers, Gabin would jealously erupt at the mere mention of Lang’s name, referring in the most derogatory ways to the Jewish filmmaker who had once also been Dietrich’s lover. My sense is that Dietrich taunted Gabin with the fact that he was venturing into terrain where Lang had come first. Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and other Gentiles in her past, including Claudette Colbert, apparently didn’t faze him.) Archie L. Mayo, whose ethnicity I do not know, took over Moontide, and the result is a slow though extraordinarily beautiful black-and-white film, with a titanic performance by Gabin that nearly matches his work, in France, in Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1936), Jean Renoir’s La grande illusion (1937) and La bête humaine (1938), and Marcel Carné’s Quai des brûmes (1938) and Le jour se lève (1939), the last of these, especially, among cinema’s greatest performances.
Gabin plays Bobo, a longshoreman on the San Pablo waterfront—a role, then, again placing the actor on a misty, shadowy wharf. Bobo drinks hard, his binges an attempt to drown the boyhood memory of his nearly having killed a boy with his bare hands. (Clearly, La bête humaine is the Gabin film perhaps most evoked here, and it’s worth noting that Lang eventually made his own version of the Zola novel, the disastrous 1954 Human Desire.) The morning after, when an ornery old man who had been drinking next to him at a bar turns up dead, bare-handedly strangled, Bobo, who can’t recall a thing, worries that he is the murderer. As a means of hiding out, including from himself, he takes a job on the water, on a bait barge—the water, a symbol of both his boyhood memory and current amnesia and uncertainty. The barge is owned by a Pacific Asian immigrant: a reflection of Bobo’s own vulnerability as a foreigner seizing upon America as a place to start over. That night, Bobo rescues a girl, Anna, a hash-house grill cook who attempts suicide by drowning. The irony is perfect. Bobo’s saving a life intensifies his worry that he has also taken a life; but Anna, whose past he isn’t interested in knowing lest this somehow cloud his own attempt at starting over, touches his heavily guarded heart. They fall in love, thus jeopardizing Bobo’s relationship with Tiny, who has been extracting money from Bobo on the basis of the boyhood incident—it was Tiny who had pulled Bobo off of the boy Bobo was choking—and who now tries tightening his grip by suggesting that Bobo murdered the old man at the bar. Anna and Bobo don’t invite Tiny to their wedding on the barge; when that night, while Bobo is helping an acquaintance with his boat motor in order to earn much needed money for himself and Anna, after Anna confronts Tiny with her realization that he is the killer Tiny nearly kills her with his bare hands. Bobo approaches Tiny on the pier in the dark; terrified, Tiny, who can’t swim, backs down into the sea, where he drowns. Anna lives, permanently crippled; at last Bobo carries his bride over the threshold.
I do not know what to make of Bobo’s thrice abandonment of Anna: first, when he is denying his love for her for the sake of his self-image as a “gypsy”; secondly, when (with her encouragement) he leaves her to attend to somebody’s motor; and thirdly, when she is in life-or-death surgery, as he vengefully goes after Tiny. Otherwise, the film is lucid, strong, and affecting. Indeed, the theme of “starting over” embraces a third character, Bobo’s friend Nutsy—regrettably, this nickname several times is indistinguishable from “Nazi”—who, unbeknownst to Bobo, burns evidence that might incriminate Bobo for the old man’s murder. (Like Anna, Nutsy sounds a bit like a British immigrant.) Highly educated but at a low ebb, Nutsy, a barfly and a pauper, doesn’t seem able to start over; he has left one life behind without quite being able to start another. Too, the man with the motor trouble, married, finds himself in the dilemma of not knowing whether he should start over. His mistress tells him, “Let me know if you make up your mind.”
Visually, the heavy reliance on long-shots and the gorgeous gloom—this is a film of the night—illuminated by shafts of electric light create the landscape of a dream. This echoes other Gabin films and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) and John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home (1940). Mayo and his cinematographer, Oscar-nominated Charles G. Clarke, conjure a haunting, poetic vision of suspended lives in a suspended time and place—a San Francisco Bay of the mind. (The studio set thus helps, not hinders Mayo’s artistic achievement.) The film noir elements perhaps count for less; a blackout dream sequence, for example, is close to ridiculous.
The humanity of the film is unassailable. It isn’t just that one roots for Bobo and Anna, whose right to happiness seems to have been too long violated; counting also is the equal, that is, uncondescending and sympathetic treatment accorded the Japanese man and (I presume) son and business partner—this, at a time when racism was targeting the Japanese in other Hollywood films and targeting Japanese-Americans at home.
The acting is all excellent, with the exception of Gabin, that is, who is superb. Ida Lupino, who plays Anna, and Thomas Mitchell, who plays the sadistic Tiny (his nickname is key to understanding the depth of ridicule that has helped twist his heart and soul), both were lauded at year’s end by the National Board of Review, and Claude Rains fascinates as Nutsy. Indeed, this may be the performance of Mitchell’s career, although one wonders how Mitchell, a homosexual, felt about the villainous role’s deeply embedded homosexual accents. It’s worth noting that Mayo has a fairly terrific track record with actors: John Barrymore’s Svengali (1931), Barbara Stanwyck’s Gambling Lady (1934), Al Jolson, Ruby Keeler and Helen Morgan in Go Into Your Dance (1935), Bette Davis, Leslie Howard, Humphrey Bogart and Charley Grapewin in The Petrified Forest (1936), Bogart in Black Legion (1937), and Eugenie Leontovich and Don Ameche in Four Sons (1940).
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