When it’s on: Thursday, 26 April 2012 (2.25 pm)
Moonfleet is a 1955 offering by Fritz Lang that came towards the end of both the director’s American career and the studio system. Underfunded and unloved, the film ultimately found favour with French audiences who drew easy comparisons between its Gothic imagery and that of his earlier, German output.
It’s based on the 1898 novel by J Meade Falkner, but as is often the case the adaptation is a smash and grab of the text. The main diversion is a completely new main character, Jeremy Fox, who forms an unlikely double act with the book’s main character, young John Mohune. The setting, eighteenth century Dorset, is retained, as is the tale of south coast smugglers and skulduggery, though Fox looms large as the man with feet in both worlds – the gentleman of leisure, rubbing shoulders with the rich, and the leader of a motley crew of buccaneers. In Moonfleet, Fox is played by Stewart Granger at the apex of his box office clout. He finds the arrival of ten-year old John (Jon Whitely) an unwelcome diversion, but he’s strangely drawn to the boy, who turns up in Moonfleet at the behest of his dying mother; years ago she was Fox’s illicit lover. Back then, Fox was considered not good enough for the upper class Mohunes and was sent away with a flogging. But the years have been unkind to the family, now facing destitution, whilst Fox – thanks to his no-good profiteering – has become rich and powerful.
As the authorities steadily work out the source of Fox’s wealth, due in no small part to the testament of those he’s discarded along the way, his circumstances grow more desperate, and ultimately he comes to rely on John’s help in retrieving a long lost diamond that was hidden years ago by ‘Redbeard’ Mohune. Even in a lesser Lang there’s a dark edge, and it comes in the treacherous form of Fox, a morally bankrupt opportunist who is obviously going to double-cross John when the moment is right. This is made all the more tragic because the boy becomes swiftly devoted to his new benefactor, following him everywhere with adorable dedication and complete faith.
The reasons for the link between the two are telegraphed ahead without ever being made explicit and there are several lovely moments when Fox comes to John’s rescue without explaining why. The best of these comes in a duel between Fox and one of the treacherous buccaneers, the gentleman with his rapier battling the sort of enormous battleaxe that comes straight out of World of Warcraft. The final scene strikes an optimistic note that wasn’t in Lang’s original vision, but the director admitted later it was better than the dark and tragic climax he would have filmed.
Moonfleet clocks in at less than ninety minutes, giving it the feel of a Hammer-esque quickie that was in fact produced with 1962’s Captain Clegg, a smuggling yarn owing much to Lang’s earlier work. Captain Clegg is well worth checking out; it’s one of those Hammer releases made obscure because it didn’t deal in horror, but it deserves better and can be found tucked away on Universal’s Hammer Horror Series set. Moonfleet features less fun, yet stylistically it hits home. Much of the story is told in inky semi-darkness. Apart from John, its characters are a rogue’s gallery of grotesques. Our introduction to Fox’s gang of criminals is a shot of them glaring down at John, leering with menace and intent. The local poshos into whose company Fox works himself are little better. George Sanders puts in a reliable turn as Lord John Ashwood, who’s looking to make money from Fox’s capers. Lord John’s wife is played by Joan Greenwood, an altogether unlovely piece of work in fine silks.
Scarier than all of them is Moonfleet’s churchyard, according to legend haunted by Redbeard and concealing the hidden entrance to the smugglers’ cove. The pick of its jagged, shadowy gravestones is a glassy-eyed Angel of Death, perhaps the most frightening statue ever committed to celluloid and an early warning to John that all is far from well in the den of thieves into which he’s been sent.