Assessing the Damaged

From my viewing, which took place many years ago, of a mere snatch of
Moontide I had retained a foggy memory only of fog, the nebulous stuff of both literal and figurative atmosphere, and Ida Lupino. These elements were enough to convince me to order the film, a brand new addition to the "Fox Film Noir" DVD series. A couple of nights ago, I watched Moontide and found it beautiful – in the way that something containing ugly aspects can be beautiful. Beneath the falseness of its dreamlike construction lies the truth of Moontide's essential substance: Loneliness, a condition intrinsic to human beings, and the need to be comforted and loved compel even those emotionally mangled to reach, from the crushing rubble that is the past, for one specific understanding soul.

Among the special features accompanying the film is a fairly short but densely-packed with information and insight documentary entitled Turning of the Tide: The Ill-Starred Making of Moontide. I was surprised – and yet not – to find two Noir experts – Eddie Muller and Megan Abbott – using the phrase "two damaged people finding each other" in summarizing the main point in the story's plot. I don't imagine for an instant that these cinephiles decided together upon the "two damaged people" label. It just fit, and they both knew it. The pair of dinged and dented souls to whom the description is applied are Bobo, a longshoreman and nomad, played by Jean Gabin and Anna, a former "hash-rassler" and wharf waif, played by Ida Lupino. Bobo has a dark secret buried in the shallow grave of memory: His quick temper and strong hands came to his aid when a man came at him with a knife – he strangled the weapon-wielding antagonist. Too, his most recent alcoholic blackout (depicted in a Salvador Daliesque sequence) gives rise to the suspicion that he has killed another man. Though under '40's Production Code dictates, Anna's past is kept unclear, she enters the story attempting to drown herself to escape this past and prevent the unfolding of an unpromising future. (Documentary contributors reveal that in the book, Willard Robertson's Moontide, on which the film was based, Anna, a prostitute, has been raped, is poor and can't find work.) Bobo pulls Anna out of the water, takes her home to his bait barge ... and, the next morning, Anna fixes eggs – sunny side up – for Bobo. She, a "damaged" person, becomes – almost inconceivably, at first – his "Sunny Side." "[A] gypsy is dying and a peasant is being born," observes Nutsy, Bobo's sage friend, of Bobo's transformation. A tender treatment of Irving Berlin's bittersweet "Remember," wafting from the phonograph of a neighboring barge, provides the film's love theme. How ironic: "You forgot to remember," reproaches Berlin's heartbroken protagonist – while Bobo and Anna must remember to forget.

, indeed, is, in Eddie Muller's full phrase, "[a] story of these two damaged people finding each other and falling in love." More generally, it is about these two and other damaged people. Tiny (played by the great Thomas Mitchell), weak and yet sadistic, having witnessed the murder-in-self-defense, has attached himself like a lovesick flea to Bobo and demands maintenance in exchange for silence. Nutsy (played by adorable Claude Rains) – wise, clearly well-educated and kind – hasn't "slept since about 1936" ("or was it '37?") and wanders about, casually-groomed, in an old "Smokey the Bear" ranger hat, philosophizing in his nightwatchman's off-time. (His toasting with a bottle of Coke suggests a reformed alcoholic.) Mildred (played by Robin Raymond), a young patron of the extremely lively Red Dot bar, is a prostitute. Everyone, it seems, bears scars, nicks and chips.

Having seen Moontide, when I heard "damaged people," I found myself wondering when experience becomes damage . At what point do some of us transmogrify from a person to bring to a relationship a unique perspective, shaped by the individual process of living, to something like those shelter puppies deemed "hard-to-place?" However horrific the event, however great the accumulation of events, it is, I decided, not what has happened but its effect on the affected that is the determinant. In Moontide, Bobo and Anna are damaged but not totaled, and each recognizes this not only in the other but in him/herself. I like to believe that those beyond the celluloid realm, you and I, too may assess our own damage and decree our own redeemability.