Fox has a funny habit of stretching the definition of film noir. First, it releases the courtroom drama Boomerang under its Fox Film Noir banner, and hot on its heels is the romantic drama Moontide. But aside from a teensy selection of scenes, the noir label is a something of a misnomer. The flick is actually a low-key weeper, a serene tale about two lonesome souls who finally find love in each other's arms. That's not to infer the film is at all sub-par, since it is a pretty decent watch. But being promised one thing and presented with another can be more than a little jarring sometimes, especially in the case of Moontide.
Grand Illusion's Jean Gabin plays Bobo, a dock worker with a carefree approach to life. Despite the protests of his pal Tiny (Thomas Mitchell), Bobo spends his nights drifting aimlessly from bar to bar, stirring up trouble and getting even more sloshed wherever he goes. But after going out on a real tear one night, Bobo awakens to find himself in a terrible spot. A barroom acquaintance has been found strangled to death, and with his fuzzy memory, our hero assumes he's the culprit. Faster than you can say The Morning After, Bobo sets about piecing together the events of that fateful night, laying low long enough to figure out which way is up. Eventually, he crosses paths with Anna (Ida Lupino), a troubled girl he saves from drowning herself. The couple strike up a budding relationship, though much to the chagrin of Tiny, who threatens to incriminate Bobo for the murder if Anna doesn't allow him to keep leeching off him.
It'd be an understatement to say that Moontide makes some curious storytelling decisions. The film begins with an ideal film noir premise, with Bobo unaware of whether or not he drank himself into committing murder. But about twenty minutes in, it pitches this part of the story out the window and proceeds to focus on the romantic aspect instead. That's all well and good, since certain events occur later on that require Bobo and Anna's affection for one another be as strong as can be. Moontide doesn't disappoint in this department, but it has a tendency to forget it's still at least part of a noir. The central mystery is hardly referenced until the end, and when it is, it's usually in a quick scene that ends up adding nothing to the plot. There's a barfly played by Claude Rains who uncovers a damning piece of evidence that may link Bobo to the crime, but what he does with it thereafter never ties in with the story. You almost get the feeling that the makers of Moontide didn't even want to make a film noir, even though such inspired sequences (especially the fog-drenched climax) are easily the film's best.
But does all of this make Moontide a bad film? Absolutely not. It may not be that adept at doing what it set out to do, but in no way is it unwatchable. Even though the film likes to ignore its noirish duties, its creators have ensured that there's always something onscreen to capture our attention. Integral to the story is Bobo and Anna's relationship, which moves along naturally and rings with more than a hint of sweetness. Though the film's source novel was of a much seedier nature, the filmmakers introduce just the right amount of sentimentality to accompany the story's rugged nature. In one of the French actor's few American outings, Gabin does a terrific job of playing Bobo as a lovable rogue. You get the idea that he's as capable of being a sweetheart as he is of letting his temper flare, an aspect of his personality that's very much pivotal to the story. Serving every bit his equal is Lupino, whose Anna comes across as damaged goods while remaining one tough cookie til the end. Also lending solid support is Mitchell as Tiny, who grows all the more sinister as he realizes Anna has laid claim to his meal ticket.
I can't say I completely liked Moontide, thanks mostly to a story that was too wonky for its own good. But I have to admit that I was always interested to see where it would go next, and it did a decent job of keeping me occupied in the meantime. Though it's not the noirish excursion you'd hope it to be, Moontide serves up a plenty enjoyable picture in its own right.