It's hard to imagine how 20th Century Fox topper Darryl F. Zanuck expected 1942's "Moontide" to transform the great Gallic thesp Jean Gabin into an American movie star.

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It’s hard to imagine how 20th Century Fox topper Darryl F. Zanuck expected 1942’s “Moontide” to transform the great Gallic thesp Jean Gabin into an American movie star. A twisted romance set among waterfront lowlifes, the b&w pic resonated with neither critics nor auds, though as this DVD debut makes clear, there seems every reason to hope cineastes may now embrace it for what is always was: a keenly observed, highly atmospheric film distinguished by several superb performances and a captivating, if quotidian, mise-en-scene. Solid extras like a full commentary track and meaty “making-of” featurette should only help raise its standing.

Based on a salacious 1940 novel by thesp Willard Robertson as scripted by literary highbrow John O’Hara, pic follows unlikely romance between rough vagabond stevedore Bobo (Gabin) and San Pedro hash-house waitress Anna (Ida Lupino in unusually vulnerable mode), a would-be suicide he saves from drowning. Material may be tame by today’s standards, but anyone familiar with the production code and its strict enforcement will marvel at how Zanuck and company ever got it made. Bonus features imply they barely did.

Though much must be inferred (prostitution, casual sex, violent tendencies), some elements remain eyebrow raisers even now, most especially the strange homoerotic relationship between Bobo and his psychopathically possessive friend Tiny (Thomas Mitchell, brilliantly cast against type), who ultimately assaults Anna in an attempt to keep Bobo for himself. Also notable is Claude Rains’ unexpected turn as a dog-eared wharf philosopher.

“Moontide’s” virtues extend beyond storyline and acting to tone and mood. For that, Fritz Lang deserves some credit, as studio records reveal he shot three weeks of footage before Archie Mayo ascended as helmer. Salvador Dali hovers as well, having sketched the alcohol-fueled blackout scene that haunts Bobo.

But kudos for the pic’s fog-shrouded, noir-lit nautical setting really belong to lenser Charles Clarke (who netted an Oscar nom for his work) and art directors Richard Day and James Basevi, both legends in their field. Though obviously soundstage bound, the pic smells of salt spray.

Extras here add much, providing context for fully appreciating the film. But though the featurette “Turning of the Tide: The Ill-Starred Making of ‘Moontide'” is one of Fox’s best — insightful comments and useful information balance out the occasional vapidity — the commentary track is more problematic.

Prepared and narrated by the worthy Foster Hirsch, it suffers from his stubborn refusal to let the pic breathe. He fills practically the entire run time with overdub, resulting in needless repetition and annoying padding. That said, Hirsch has certainly done his homework, and the best of the information he imparts enriches our appreciation of a film that seems poised for increased regard.

Moontide

$14.98; Release date: Sept. 2, 2008

Production

Fox Film Noir.

Crew

Running time: 94 min.

Cast

Cast: Jean Gabin, Ida Lupino, Thomas Mitchell, Claude Rains

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