Moonfleet is a very strange film. The protagonist is ten year-old Jon Whiteley; the film starts with him arriving in the coastal village, Moonfleet. It’s the mid-eighteenth century. Moonfleet is a dangerous, scary place. Sort of. Whiteley is in town on his own because his mother has died (Dad is a mystery, but nowhere near enough of one) and she’s sent him to look for an old friend. The old friend is Stewart Granger. He’s an old flame. Mom and Granger hooked up, then her rich family ran him out of town. The family fell on hard times, moving away from Moonfleet, so Granger moved back. Not because he’s nostalgic for Whiteley’s mom, but because it’s a good place to run a smuggling ring. He seems to have known the mom at least moved.
And Granger’s got zero interest in having a ward. He spends most of his time drinking and carousing. He lives in Whiteley’s family manor, but it’s closed down and janky. He has his friends over to get blasted and hook up with the various women who throw themselves at Granger. Granger does have a live-in girlfriend, Viveca Lindfors, whose credited role suggests he seduced her away from a husband but it’s not in the story proper. Granger’s introduction actually has him with a different woman, Liliane Montevecchi. She’s Romani. She’s not credited as Romani. Anywhere, she might not even have a line. She’s there to do a seductive dance with lots of leg and cleavage. Lindfors gets very jealous because she’s only showing cleavage and not leg.
Okay, remember when earlier I said the protagonist is a ten year-old? Yeah, the movie makes this quick shift for much of the first act to being ladies getting hot for Granger. It’s almost like it’s a kids’—well, boys’, there’s nothing for a ten year-old girl except learning hot dudes like Granger get to treat them terribly and they should go back begging for more—but it’s like Moonfleet is a kids’ movie with stud Granger in it for Mom and all his ladies for Dad. It’s weird. Especially since the sexual nature of Granger’s various relationships isn’t implied. It’s explicit. Granger’s best pal is George Sanders, a lord who slums it at Granger’s pad to get wasted, gamble, and hook up with loose poor women. It’s okay because his wife, Joan Greenwood, knows all about that behavior. She’s fine with it, because she and Granger are schtupping. Sanders suspects he’s being cuckolded but isn’t sure and isn’t really too worked out about it. Granger’s subplot—or the closest thing he gets to a subplot in the ninety minute picture—involves Greenwood wanting him to run off with her and Sanders. Sanders is keen to it because Granger is ostensibly a lower class scoundrel who climbed the social ladder. Greenwood just wants to keep schtupping Granger, just not in England.
Back to ten year-old Whiteley. Much of the first half of the film has Granger trying to get rid of him. Or Granger’s smuggler gang threatening to kill Whiteley. Granger’s got a tenuous hold on the leadership role. At least until he shows off his sword-fighting skills to convince to rabble to stay in line. So it’s one of those kids’ adventure movies where the kid is in constant threat of vicious murder and there’s wanton (1950s acceptable) sex. Moonfleet is weird.
Whiteley’s adventure has him trying to find his grandfather or great-grandfather’s hidden treasure. Everyone in the town has been trying to find it for years but they’re all really dumb because once Whiteley gets one clue, Granger is able to figure it out.
The other major reason Moonfleet is weird is it manages to work. Lang’s direction is never particularly good. He doesn’t do action well. Not just the sword-fighting, which has bad editing (from Albert Akst), but like stage direction. It’s sluggish, like Lang is making the actors move too slowly across the Cinemascope frame. Robert H. Planck’s photography is also… unimpressive. The day-for-night stuff is always wonky, but the various interiors are always a little off too. The film’s got some really nice sets. Planck just doesn’t seem to know how to light them effectively. It’s fine. Lang doesn’t know how to shoot them effectively either. Moonfleet would probably work a lot better, visually, in black and white and Academy Ratio. Lang and Planck utterly wasted the Cinemascope.
And the script is slight. Supporting characters aren’t memorably written or performed. None of the supporting performances are bad—though all the men’s makeup is bad and there’s a lot of it; it’s bad on all dudes but Granger—they just aren’t memorable. Even though the smuggler gang is a bunch of recognizable faces, none of them distinguish themselves.
But Granger and Whiteley are both really good. Whiteley gets through lots of bad dialogue and sells the earnestness right. He brings some depth to the part; like, we don’t know what this kid’s life has been like, even if he does sound like a proper little English boy. His accent is a little out of place occasionally, however. And then Granger sort of seems to know he ought to be in this kids’ adventure picture about maybe this scoundrel being the dad and maybe not being the dad but it doesn’t matter because deep down everyone knows he really wants to be the dad. Only Moonfleet isn’t that movie. But Granger pretends.
He’s never more comfortable in the film than with Whiteley and the smugglers and never less comfortable then when with Sanders and Greenwood.
Sanders is okay. It’s a small part with nothing to it and no reason for George Sanders. Other than putting him in a wig and making him as unrecognizable as George Sanders as possible.
Greenwood’s… better than Lindfors? Lindfors seems miserable being in the film. She and Granger have negative chemistry.
So… Moonfleet. It’s a weird fail. The worst part is the end, which—for most of the film—is all the picture’s got going for it, the possibility of a solid ending. And then there’s a misstep and then a stumble and then a face-plant.
Moonfleet doesn’t deserve Whiteley or Granger.
Directed by Fritz Lang; screenplay by Jan Lustig and Margaret Fitts, based on the novel by J. Meade Falkner; director of photography, Robert H. Planck; edited by Albert Akst; music by Miklós Rózsa; produced by John Houseman; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Jon Whiteley (John Mohune), Stewart Granger (Jeremy Fox), Joan Greenwood (Lady Ashwood), Viveca Lindfors (Mrs. Minton), Melville Cooper (Felix Ratsey), Sean McClory (Elzevir Block), Alan Napier (Parson Glennie), John Hoyt (Magistrate Maskew), Donna Corcoran (Grace), and George Sanders (Lord Ashwood).