The Moon is Down


The Moon Is Down

Screenplay by Nunnally Johnson

Based on the novel by John Steinbeck

Cinematography: Arthur C. Miller

Art Direction: James Basevi & Maurice Ransford

Music: Alfred Newman

Editing: Louis R. Loeffler

Produced by Nunnally Johnson

Directed by Irving Pichel

Theatrical Release: 1943



Cedric Hardwicke

Henry Travers

Lee J. Cobb

Dorris Bowdon

Margaret Wycherly

Peter van Eyck

E.J. Ballantine

Henry Rowland

Hans Schumm


Production Studio:

Theatrical: 20th Century Fox

Video: Fox Cinema Archive



Aspect ratio: 1.33:1

Resolution: 480i

Codec: MPEG-2

Disc Type: DVD-VOD

Bit Rate: Moderate (ca. 4.5~6 Mbps)

Runtime: 90 minutes

Region: 1



English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono


Subtitles: None


Bonus Features: None



DVD Clamshell Case: VOD

Street Date: April 16, 2013

The Movie: 8

A movie of unabashed propagandistic sentiment, based on a novel of unabashed propagandistic sentiment about the nature of wartime occupation written by John Steinbeck and published only the year before the movie version was made.

Wikipedia leads with this telling remark: “The Moon Is Down,” a novel by John Steinbeck, fashioned for adaption for the theatre and for which Steinbeck received the Norwegian King Haakon VII Freedom Cross, was published by Viking Press in March 1942. What is interesting about this statement is the phrase “fashioned for adaptation to the theatre” since the movie - adapted, produced and written by the multi-faceted Nunnally Johnson (Roxie Hart, The Woman in the Window, How to Marry a Millionaire and The Dirty Dozen, among many others) - speaks its language like a stage play, and one of ancient lineage methinks.


What is remarkable about the script, despite its consistent theme of the resistance to slavery and domination, is the absence of the word “freedom.” I don’t recall its ever being mentioned - and what a relief! In its place is another concept, the one that forms the dominant thread of the drama: less about armed resistance, though that gradually materializes, than the cost of occupation, moral and otherwise, to the occupying forces, as expressed by the motto: The flies have conquered the flypaper.

The story takes place in a small Norwegian mining town that is suddenly invaded by the Germans with the sole purpose of exploiting the mine and using the villagers to do their work for them. The village is remarkably ignorant of the war in Europe that has already being in progress for three years at least, and has been peaceful for generations, so at first, and despite summary executions of the people, they do not fight back and can barely bring themselves to resist passively.


The drama takes place largely in a series of dialogues between the German commander and the town mayor. The commander is played by Cedric Hardwicke without a trace of faux Germanic accent, which lends his character a universality that this story wants to convey. His Col. Lanser is efficient and tired - tired of occupation (he yawns absentmindedly when he receives his orders for invasion; he had the same job in the previous war and is sardonically reminded by the mayor how that worked out for him), and he has an historical viewpoint that makes his discussions with the mayor less platitudinous than we might expect for such a film. The mayor is played by Henry Travers, whom we can’t help but see as George Bailey’s guardian angel. And even though Capra’s film came three years later, Travers embodied that spirit in many of his roles, not least here, where he is guardian to humanity. Curiously, Mayor Orden is too surprised and bewildered to know what is expected of him when he first is confronted by Lanser, but, as the saying goes: Some men are born great, others have greatness foist upon them.


Despite the gravitas-lending presence of the likes of Lee J Cobb and Margaret Wycherly, it is left to other supporting characters to carry the drama forward, and so do they all with affecting brilliance: There’s E.J. Ballantine as Corell, “one of Quisling’s most trusted agents,” the owner of the town’s general store, who helps make possible the ease with which the Nazis are able to invade and occupy the village. Instead of showing how the townspeople react to his subterfuge, the script depicts Corell in heated disagreements with Lanser about the best way to govern the Norwegians. Clearly, Corell does not feel that Lanser takes him seriously and he takes his case all the way to Berlin, with results not entirely expected.


One scene that goes to heart of the matter occurs between the young, homesick Lt. Tonder, played by Peter van Eyck (whom I just watched last night in Billy Wilder’s second directorial effort, Five Graves to Cairo, where his character is a very differently motivated German officer) and Molly Morden, played by Dorris Bowdon in her last film appearance. (You might remember her as Rosasharn in John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath.) Lt. Tonder gives vent to his loneliness when he visits her alone in her house at night in a scene that could have gone wrong in so many ways, not remembering that only a few months before, her husband was executed for the accidental killing of another officer.

The title, by the way, comes from Macbeth. In Act II, Scene i, Macbeth, on his way to kill Duncan, asks his son, "How goes the night, boy?" His son replies, "The moon is down; I have not heard the clock."



Image: 7

Fox Cinema Archives, like Warner Archive, are not DVDs in the usual sense but burned just as we would do at home. They have no menus to speak of, only chapter advance every ten minutes. Unless “Remastered” these video discs are simply transferred “from the best materials available” and are thus entirely dependent on the condition of those sources. I might add that to date I have never come across a “Remastered” transfer in the Fox Cinema Archive series. That said, the image quality of The Moon is Down is quite good, especially for a film of this vintage. I say that not because movies form the forties are any less sharp or robust than later black-and-whites, but because, with few exceptions, studios don’t take the trouble to clean up what they’ve got and rely on old video transfers. However they got there, aside from the many specks under the opening credits, this one is a bit above average, with respectable sharpness and fairy well controlled contrast and image coherence.



Audio & Music: 7/7

Fox’s minimalist approach to the transfer offers clear dialogue and, considering the various attempts at dialect imitators, the audio track for The Moon is Down is good enough to not require the aid of subtitles. There not crackling good gunfire and several explosions that carry some unexpected authority.





Recommendation: 8

Among the many Hollywood propaganda films made to encourage American support of the war effort, this one is at once more direct and less mindless, thanks to John Steinbeck’s original conception and Nunnally Johnson’s faithful adaptation. Some of the sets are obviously just that; others not so much. The acting is all first rate. Warmly recommended.


Leonard Norwitz

© LensViews

May 15, 2013

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