#37 in my ranking of Fritz Lang’s filmography.
Sometimes you see an entry on a list that boggles the mind. There’s no accounting for taste, for sure, but when I read that Cahiers du Cinema placed Fritz Lang’s Moonfleet at number thirty-two on its list of greatest films of all time I was simply confounded. It’s a throwback to the boys adventure stories he had been making in Germany before Metropolis in one form or another (most obviously in his Spiders films but also his later Woman in the Moon), and, much like most of those kinds of movies he made from that time, it’s just not that good. It’s mostly kind of dull, lacks any real narrative focus, and is hardly ever that exciting, choosing to leave almost all of its limited action for the back half. There is a spine to it, at least, which is probably what Cahiers grasped onto, but the film around that spine ends up feeling so malformed and kind of just boring, draining any real emotional investment.
John (Jon Whiteley), a young boy of about ten, comes to the town of Moonfleet to find Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger), an old acquaintance of his now deceased mother. The man he finds is the prim and composed front for a smuggling ring that the authorities in the area have determined to root out and destroy. Backed by Lord Ashwood (George Sanders) and Lady Ashwood (Joan Greenwood), Fox has little to fear. This really dominates the first half of the film, and in the end I feel like very little of it actually matters.
The spine of the film is Fox. He’s a bad man who grows into a good one through his care of little John. First, he tries to send John away to a boarding school, but when John escapes the carriage and walks all the way back to the Mohune estate (the house that his own family built some decades past by the notorious pirate Red Beard, who was John’s ancestor), Fox takes a liking to the boy and keeps him around. When John accidentally finds the smuggler cache, Fox’s men turn on him and the boy in an effort to both keep the secret safe and allow for some power struggle within the gang. It’s at about the halfway point where there’s an interesting sword versus halberd fight where the movie finally feels like its picking up.
Really, my biggest problem with the film is the first half. It’s slow, does very little with its time, and, once Fox and John go on the quest to discover the lost diamond of Red Beard, none of the gangland politics feels important anymore, especially considering the amount of time dedicated to it. There’s also some kind of subplot involving the Ashwoods who are building and fitting three ships to take to pirating enemies of Britain (I’d call this being a privateer, which might not have been noble but was mostly an acceptable occupation since it was usually directly authorized by the crown). They want to include Fox, for some reason, and it’s pretty obvious that Lady Ashwood has a thing for the younger, more attractive man who is not her husband. Does any of this matter? I’d say incidentally since the ending revolves around the three turning on each other, but the pirating stuff doesn’t matter to it at all.
The movie works best when it’s just Fox and John, and, thankfully, the back end of the film is mostly the pair of them together. There’s an amusing bit where Fox steals a major’s uniform and walks right into a British jail so they can search in a well for a diamond that’s pretty fun, in particular. That Fox softens is solidly done through his efforts with John, turning it into a father-son relationship that functions well enough.
Granger holds up his end of the film well. Sanders is always a joy, especially in smaller parts where he can be more interesting, and Greenwood is sultry and fun to listen to as always. Little Jon Whiteley is there, but there’s not much more to expect from a child actor that Lang probably couldn’t direct all that well (there’s a story of him screaming at the child and belittling him pointedly). Directing child actors is notoriously hard, so I won’t exactly hold it against Whiteley for having a mostly just present performance.
I really don’t see what Cahiers du Cinema saw in this. Its second half is better than its first, but it culminates in a mostly lackluster overall experience that doesn’t excite all that much, which is not a great thing to say about a boy’s adventure movie. This script, adapted from the novel by J. Meade Falkner, really needed some cleaning up and paring down to give it better focus. Also, that diamond seems really small when compared to how its spoken of. They talk about it like it’s going to buy a nation, but it looks like it couldn’t buy a decent sized apartment.