The Moonlighter (1953)

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A tough cattle rustler (Fred MacMurray) escapes a lynch mob by mistake and returns to a life of crime. His ex-girlfriend (Barbara Stanwyck) is deputized and seeks to bring him to justice.

Wes Anderson (not to be confused with the modern-day director) is a cattle-rustlin’ criminal known throughout the land as “the moonlighter.” He’s been tossed in jail for the time being, but the town isn’t satisfied with leaving him locked up. They want to lynch him.

(Image: westernmovies.fr)
(Image: westernmovies.fr)

But when the mob comes looking for him at the jail, they get the wrong man, and Wes is able to escape as the other man is hung. He quickly returns to a life of crime.

Wes’ family and ex-girlfriend, Rela, believe that he’s truly dead at first. When Rela comes to the town where Wes was killed in order to claim the body, the coroner tells her that he’s already buried and the funeral was paid for by another relative, at which point Rela realizes that Wes, who is still very much alive, was that “relative.”

Roy Rowland directs 1953’s The Moonlighter, a western romantic drama. This film was originally released in 3D but was criticized for the use of the technique, which many reviewers saw as underutilized and pointless.

Now, it’s well-known that I’m not usually a fan of westerns. (I know, I know. I’m trying to watch more of them to get out of my movie comfort zone/find some that are worthy of my praise, but it’s a slow process!) I can probably count the ones I enjoy on a single hand. But if anyone could make me enjoy them it would be Stanwyck, and since I plan to watch every film she made I better get used to ’em!

I decided to start with this one because it is the third pairing of Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. Together, the two made up the fantastic pair that brought us one of the greatest noir masterpieces, Double Indemnity nine years prior to the release of The Moonlighter. My logic was this: If Stanwyck on her own couldn’t make me like a western, surely Stanwyck and MacMurray together could!

(Image: Ebay)
(Image: ebay)

And sure enough, they did make me enjoy this one.

I’m beginning to realize that maybe my problem isn’t with westerns as a whole, but specifically with the cowboys vs. native “savages” brand of western.

There is none of that in this film, which in the beginning seems a bit more like a crime drama masquerading as a western than a standard example of the genre. It becomes somewhat more typical of the genre as it moves along, but still avoids the elements I usually find most problematic in westerns.

The chemistry between Stanwyck and MacMurray is not quite as high here as it was in some of the other films they made together, but they still make a pretty great pair on screen, and they do have enough chemistry for the film to work.

Individually, both give quite good performances. Quite surprisingly, MacMurray outshines Stanwyck here, but partially due to the simple fact that his character is the focus of the film.

As for the story, it can be somewhat predictable but that is mostly made up for with moments of very high drama. It doesn’t pack a ton of surprises, but it holds the viewer’s attention quite well.

The score: 3.5/5

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12 thoughts on “The Moonlighter (1953)

    1. I believe they made four together in total. They aren’t offered considered one of the top “classic screen pairs,” but I’ve seen three of the films and have enjoyed them all! (Double Indemnity is, of course, the best of them.)

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  1. I’d never heard of this one…what an interesting premise, and an odd title! But then, in a strange way, I guess the title does make sense (he was moonlighting as the dead man’s relative, right?). Strange, too, that MacMurray plays a bad character from start to finish (I’m assuming), which if he’s the hero of the story would make ‘The Moonlighter’ somewhat of a film noir offering.

    And Lindsey! ‘The Gunfighter’! Do it!

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    1. I promise you I’ll watch The Gunfighter next week! I’m on a bit of a viewing ban this week because I have an enormous law exam tonight that I’ve been preparing for, but tomorrow I’ll be back in business.

      “The moonlighter” is what everyone in the town calls him — “the moonlighter strikes again” and all of that jazz in the newspaper before they knew who the culprit was. This one does have some noir-ish elements to it, especially in the beginning, which is probably why I enjoyed it!

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      1. Okay, next week…I promise I will not bother you again! And when you’re done with that one, I have some other Western recommendations for you. Hope you did well on the law exam!

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  2. I agree with your view of Westerns – if it’s just the “good” cowboys against the “bad” indians, then it’s a waste of time. However, there are a lot of thoughtful, almost philosophic Westerns that are fabulous.

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          1. As far as westerns: I really enjoy Anthony mann’s work better then john ford.
            Mann recommendations- Winchester 73, the naked spur, man from Laramie, and the furies
            Ford- the searchers is probably the best. But man who shot liberty valance and stagecoach are worth a watch.

            There are so many boring, repetitive plots and frankly bad westerns out there however the good ones are usually really good.

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  3. Haven’t seen this yet but I’ve read mix reviews on this one.
    The other 3 Fred macmurray films with stanwyck are very good. Double indemnity, remember the night and there’s always tomorrow. There’s always tomorrow is fairly popular, and I highly recommend seeing that one if you haven’t yet.

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