Safe at Home
By Kent Jones
In Robert Mulligan’s unsung masterpiece of moral suspense, a boy is rescued from oblivion by three patiently vigilant adults
In 2009, anything shot through old lenses is bound to find a home in the hearts of at least a few film lovers. “Unwanted” specular highlights and veiling glare are treasured imperfections, and day for nights and unreal night-lighting are happily tolerated or even overlooked. Every piece of predigital cinema now seems to be cherished, and in the joyously inflationary economy of Internet cinephilia, where every corner of the past is being busily rummaged, maestros and masterpieces are proliferating. Of course, in light of today’s average product, everything pre-1990 really does look good. But to encounter a genuinely great film like The Stalking Moon is something else again. Not that this late-1968 Robert Mulligan item is lost or even unknown, nor is it a film maudit. It is best described as unredeemed.
On January 23, 1969, the then newly minted movie critic Vincent Canby judged Mulligan’s sole Western “a rather pious, unimaginative suspense film” that “moves stolidly forward with more dignity than excitement,” not unlike its star (Gregory Peck) who “must be thinking about his duties on the board of the American Film Institute, rather than on survival.” Studying a 40-year-old Times review won’t take anyone very far on the road to enlightenment, but the preponderance of terms from the same strain of judgmentalism is interesting. Canby’s put-downs belong to the same family as “likeable but somewhat ineffectual and undynamic” (Robin Wood) and “terribly conscientious” (Pauline Kael). Reading such descriptions today, one might ask: “In comparison to what?” To Godard, Fellini, Bergman, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, and The Battle of Algiers, I suppose.
In the years since its release, The Stalking Moon has not exactly been ignored. Bertrand Tavernier judged it Mulligan’s masterpiece in 50 Years of American Cinema, his critical dictionary co-written with Jean-Pierre Coursodon, and Dave Kehr tells me that it was a cult item at his campus film society. Nevertheless, it is still a movie that can be comfortably dismissed, and the same can be said for everything else by Mulligan, To Kill a Mockingbird (62) excepted. He remains a filmmaker in need of rescuing. But unlike Fuller or Ulmer, Mulligan’s problem is that he operated not at too low but too elevated a level. His choice of subject matter often aligned with official concerns and national moods—race relations in the early Sixties (Mockingbird), inner-city education in the late Sixties (Up the Down Staircase, 67), Forties nostalgia in the early Seventies (Summer of ’42, 71), “ethnic” melodrama in the late Seventies (Bloodbrothers, 78). At a time when the most adventurous figures in cinema were blurring the distinctions between foreground and background, Mulligan stuck to an older form of presentation that Kael judged to be “heavily pointed,” not without some justification. If acting in the late Sixties and early Seventies was shifting into a suppler register, you would never know it from watching Mulligan’s output—every one of his films is based on a tight linking system between actors and environment, resulting in what Fred Camper has called “the emotionalization of space.” In truth, Mulligan was sometimes too careful about keeping his emotional i’s and t’s dotted and crossed, particularly in those earlier films where the acting can get so broad that it threatens to burst out of its surroundings like a sausage from its casing.
Mulligan’s background in live television drama cuts two ways. At certain moments, you can feel him pouncing on the emotional subtleties he’s divined in his material, underlining them with cuts and camera movements that, in Fear Strikes Out (57) or Love with the Proper Stranger (63), feel a little too on the nose, lit for maximum legibility. On the other hand, of all the American directors who came out of live TV, Mulligan was the only one who thought in purely visual terms—he fully embodied Astruc’s ideal of the caméra-stylo. There are lengthy passages in many of his films—Mockingbird, Up the Down Staircase, Summer of ’42, The Other (72), The Nickel Ride (74), virtually all of The Stalking Moon and The Man in the Moon (91)—during which you can turn off the sound and follow the action without any diminution of clarity or impact. Today it looks like visual purity. In 1969, even enlightened sensibilities viewed Mulligan’s character-centered cinema as rickety, touchingly quaint, or pedantic.
And maybe there was something else at work. “We were in the process of a nightmare that I didn’t understand,” Mulligan said of the late Sixties, “and that I didn’t feel anyone else understood. I mean, the riots were going on, the campuses were being burnt, the ghettos were being burnt, the marches were going on, people were being killed. It just didn’t make any sense.” Such bewilderment was not exactly novel, particularly for an ex-marine, but it left Mulligan on the square side of his generation of filmmakers. In comparison to Altman, Peckinpah, Pennebaker, and Sarafian, also born in 1925, Mulligan looks like the college professor who stayed behind to teach an empty classroom while his colleagues went out to march. And his bewilderment is reflected in his movies. All that careful emotional linking underscores what now seems like a uniquely powerful sense of home. Mulligan tends to his films the way other people tend to their houses, often displacing eroticism from people to space and light, and creating safe environments for his actors to prepare the groundwork for dramas of experience intruding upon innocence, of the unknown arriving to permanently alter the known. This drama is enacted and re-enacted again and again, from Fear Strikes Out through The Man in the Moon. In 1969, when everyone was supposed to be ravenous for experience and innocence seemed as suddenly outmoded as a crewcut, The Stalking Moon, a drama of defending home, was not destined for success.
The Stalking Moon came to Mulligan and his producing partner Alan Pakula as a George Stevens hand-me-down (another guarantee of squareness), adapted by Wendell Mayes from a novel by T.V. Olsen. “I loved it because it’s kind of Hitchcock in the West,” said Mulligan, “a Western full of terror as opposed to adventure.” The description fits the film more than Olsen’s novel, which also lacks adventure but is filled with incident, a wealth of historical detail, and some overly familiar oppositions and conflicts, all jettisoned by Mulligan and Pakula and their writer, Alvin Sargent.
The situation is simplicity itself. A cavalry company led by a retiring scout named Sam (Peck) and his half-breed trainee Nick (Robert Forster) raids a band of Apache women and children, and from out of the milling crowd steps a blond-haired woman of about 40 named Sarah (Eva Marie Saint) with her unnamed half-breed son (Noland Clay). She asks Peck to accompany them to the railroad station, and he grudgingly complies. Gradually, as he starts to understand that Sarah and her child are being tracked by the boy’s father, a murderous renegade named Salvaje who slaughters everyone in his path, he finds himself protecting and caring for them. He brings them back to his ranch in New Mexico, where they wait for Salvaje to find them. Gone from the novel are the boy’s sickly baby brother, the woman’s pride and loquaciousness, Sam’s desire for family and his subsequent marriage to Sarah (there is not one kiss between Peck and Saint, just an embrace that’s more protective than romantic). Most surprisingly for a movie made in 1968, also gone is Salvaje’s backstory as the sole survivor of a massacre—you would never know from watching The Stalking Moon that it is based on a novel by the same man who wrote Arrow in the Sun, adapted one year later as the violently anti-militarist Soldier Blue. And gone from this alleged slice of “Hitchcock in the West” are the tactical details of two adversaries relentlessly tracking each other through the woods.
“It just didn’t work,” said Mulligan, “and a lot of that may have to do with the basic silence of the movie.” Silence and spareness: the film has about five locations and as many principal characters, two of whom (the boy and Sam’s ranch hand Ned, played by Russell Thorson) speak a combined total of ten words, while the other three keep their verbalizing to a minimum. What drove Mulligan and Pakula to shift the dramatic focus from a man looking for a home and family to a three-way exchange between a man who lets his basic human instincts override his sense of privacy, a traumatized woman and her dangerously confused son? The terror elements of The Stalking Moon are immaculately rendered, particularly a scene where Peck waits in the darkness as Salvaje, a largely unseen menace (thanks to extremely deft cutting and a little judicious undercranking), patiently advances into the house. But Mulligan invests the highest percentage of his energies elsewhere.
Looking. noticing. detecting. Children studying adults. Parents studying children. Wives studying husbands. Looking for signs, cracks in the armor, shifts in temperament, changes, some necessary, some terrifying, some both. This is the heart of Mulligan’s cinema. Dave Kehr has noted Mulligan’s use of the “subjective point of view,” and it’s true that he is utterly masterful at restricting space according to a given character’s viewpoint, as in sections of Mockingbird or Jason Miller’s gun duel with Bo Hopkins in The Nickel Ride. But the subjective pull is directly connected to this drama of looking, because Mulligan’s characters are also looking at themselves. The story of a boy who is periodically compelled to run back to his father is conveyed with a minimum of words and a maximum of looks.
A fairly typical scene. Peck has dropped off Saint and the boy at the railroad depot, and from the cantina where he’s having a quick drink they’re reduced to two figures in a desert landscape, primly seated as they await an uncertain future. Peck spots them out of the corner of his eye and Mulligan cuts to his POV of them through wooden crossbars. Back to Peck, who catches himself studying them and cocks his head away. He sits down on the edge of a table to drink his coffee and there they are again—a wooden beam gives them a jagged frame of their own. As Peck sits, he suddenly turns his head to look more intently. Cut to a closer angle on Peck, Saint and the boy larger still in the right side of the frame. He stands. Mulligan moves with Peck and then cuts to a close angle on his face as he lowers his head to ruminate and then turns to look, at which point we get his POV of the lowly mother and son, now the central event in the frame. We return to Peck in silent thought before he shifts his weight and Mulligan cuts to a variation on the original angle as he strides toward Saint and Clay. Thought and emotion in action.
This is visual language of the greatest refinement, and it’s fairly typical of Mulligan, as are the elegantly stark beauty of the images (including a perfectly orchestrated sandstorm), the carefully patterned refrains that help to build the film dramatically—the boy’s flights away from his mother and toward his father, the tracking movements over the same terrain up and down the mountain outside the house. Just as typical are those graceful push-ins on characters at key moments, with little sneak zooms that make the approaches less glacial and more warmly responsive.
Other Mulligan films are marred by unlikely and overemphatic Noo Yawk acting, either at the center (Summer of ’42) or the edges (The Other), but that doesn’t happen here, aside from a brief interlude with an oily racist. Peck’s quiet worry, Saint’s austere, shivering disorientation, Clay’s silent enactment of sadness and puzzlement, and Forster’s balance between severity and curiosity harmonize with the gentle light and the lunar New Mexican landscape into something exceptionally beautiful and unsettling. In atmosphere and even in design, The Stalking Moon feels close to the films Pakula would make after he and Mulligan brought their partnership to an amicable end—in fact, this was their last collaboration. But I don’t think that Pakula ever made a film as emotionally taut and precise, where acting, character, setting, and style stayed in such perfect alignment.
Where Pakula works toward a brooding tone in The Parallax View or the less successful Comes a Horseman, Mulligan’s film broods, along with its characters, on something specific: the emotional fate of a boy. In 1969, Vietnam was the number one candidate for cinematic allegorization, particularly in the Western. The Stalking Moon, on reflection, had something else on its mind. “We were seeing the desperate attempt of a handful of pathetically unequipped children to create a community in a social vacuum,” wrote Joan Didion of her 1967 spring in the Haight. “Once we had seen these children, we could no longer overlook the vacuum.” Clay might be any child lured away from authority and parental controls by the siren song of unchecked freedom, with no consciousness of its potential traps. Where TV writers and canny opportunists would soon create an unpleasant cornucopia of hysterics and solemn bromides around this theme, Mulligan and his collaborators reduced it to its essence in the purifying light of the Western genre and made something honestly moving. Sam and Sarah and Nick aren’t guarding the boy but watching over him, giving him their attention and creating a solid foundation for him in the process. They are silently and unhesitatingly holding the vital center. Whether by instinct, temperament, or inclination, Robert Mulligan was the only American filmmaker to wade into such painfully vexing and frightfully bourgeois territory, and come out with a truly great film.
Thanks to Dave Kehr, Mark Raker, and Bertrand Tavernier.