A moonlighter is a man that ropes cattle by moonlight, usually other people’s cattle and thus making said moonlighter a criminal. Such is the case in this film starring Barbara Stanwyck and the man in question, Fred MacMurray. Waiting in jail for his trial, Wes Anderson as played by MacMurray knows that he will not make it due to the lynch mob waiting outside and yet by some bit of luck, he manages to escape that fate and another gets hanged in his place. So it is that Anderson looks to get revenge upon the men, win back his girl as played by Stanwyck whom he abandoned many moons ago and set himself up financially, at least for a little while. Though a happy ending is given, tragedy strikes before that which leads to some incredible tension and opposition between Anderson and his lady-love.
Shot in 3D, the film is a fairly average affair as far as westerns go though, Stanwyck and MacMurray raise that material up through their very presence. For most of the picture, Stanwyck plays second fiddle to MacMurray until the final act which was a bit of a shame but given the title, one knew what the film would be about and that would be MacMurray’s character who at first looks like he is going to change his stripes until he does not. One has to wonder just what it is the film was trying to be as at first, it was about revenge and then it was about romance until finally, it turned into a heist and chase movie. Throughout it all, the actors would do a great job at keeping the audience interested including William Ching as Anderson’s brother and Ward Bond in a minor role as an old friend.
What really works against this film aside from its identity crisis is the conclusion the filmmakers decided to go with that finds Stanwyck and MacMurray in love once again and his character willing to turn himself in and she, promising to wait for him. It is good in theory and it does leave things off with the obligatory happy ending but it makes the chase scene where she goes after him after being deputized essentially a waste of time. A better finale would have seen Stanwyck taking her former lover into the authorities, a little grim perhaps but at least a little stronger than the one that was tacked on. Still, the two actors do manage to pull it all together, yet out of the four movies that the two would co-star in together, this one was by far the worst.
With a clunky story balanced by the performances within, The Moonlighter is at least worth a look but it is not a film that anyone would find memorable or would want to watch again. A sad affair, especially given all of the talent involved.
2.5 out of 5