by Alan Rode
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When does the formula plot of a guilt-ridden man tormented by his conscience not become a foundation of a 1940’s atypical film noir? With director Frank Borzage at the helm of Moonrise), the hard-boiled repartee and blind alley themes associated with classic film noir are eschewed for the subjective moral shadings typically associated with romanticist art
Moonrise is straightforward and unambiguous. Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark) comes of age in a small town down South. As a child, Danny is forever haunted and tormented by the specter of his father being hanged for murder. Well-to-do Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges) continues to delight in sadistically bullying the diminutive Hawkins into young adulthood. At a local dance, both young men square off over the affections of schoolteacher Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell). Events turn ugly when Sykes tries to brain Danny with a rock, but ends up having his own skull crushed. Danny hides the body in the swamp and tries to concentrate on Gilly, who becomes increasingly attracted to the troubled young man. When Sykes’ body is found, and Sheriff Clem Otis (Allyn Joslyn) starts closing in, Danny becomes crazed with fear and guilt, jumping off a ferris wheel and nearly strangling a harmless halfwit mute (Harry Morgan) who found his pocket knife left near the body. Danny attempts solace with his worldly-wise hunting companion, Mose (Rex Ingram) who counsels him to face up to his responsibilities. Just when all hell breaks loose and Danny goes on the run, he experiences an Epiphany during a conversation with his Grandma (Ethel Barrymore). Danny comes to terms with his father’s death, (his father murdered a doctor who maltreated Hawkins’ mother resulting in her death) and his own culpability in manslaughter. He surrenders to the Sheriff and both he and Gilly prepare to face his uncertain future together.
The formula plot is merely a blank canvas that is artfully filled in for a visual feast. A veteran director of silent films from 1913, Borzage was one of the most sentimental and romantic of directors who made his mark with transcendental, sensitive films such as Seventh Heaven (1927) and Street Angel (1928). Moonrise commences with a series of montage reflections of the hanging party marching down to through the darkened town to the gallows, the outline of the hanged elder Hawkins transposed over the crib of Danny, and concludes with instances of Hawkins’ childhood angst and torment. The presentation and transposition of this scene reminds one of a haunting series of lithographs or paintings. Another startling sequence is Danny’s panic on the Ferris wheel after he notices the Sheriff eyeballing him from the forward car, climaxed by his subsequent leap, plunge to the ground and unconsciousness. Even though Moonrise is not an “A” picture, the effective use of sets to evoke the southern swamps, scrubland and claustrophobic atmosphere of a small, sleepy town are stunningly effective. One downer was the film’s musical score, which was overloud and jarring.
Both the script and the performances were evocative of the mood that Frank Borzage strove to create. Lyrically, Borzage eschewed Sleepy Time Down South for the Sidewalks of New York in the casting of Dane Clark as Danny Hawkins. Clark gives it his all and brings off a difficult part exceedingly well. I didn’t notice that Clark (or any of the other actors for that matter) lacked southern accents until he was obliged to occasionally let loose with a “I reckon” or “Yankee” that momentarily punctured my suspension of reality. Clark succinctly projected the internal moral dilemma faced by Hawkins without resorting posturing or overacting. Moonrise may well be his finest screen performance.
Gail Russell plays the schoolmarm with the right mixture of initial primness, concern, and genuine affection with a dash of lust. Russell’s well-chronicled slide down the Hollywood Babylon oblivion chute awash in a sea of booze ended tragically at age 36 in 1961. Allyn Joslyn scored as one of film noirs most unusual John Lawmen. Imagine a southern sheriff without a drawl who speaks gently, waxes philosophical (“Murder is like love, it requires two people”) and never threatens or brandishes a weapon! At the final denouement, he even prevents a deputy from handcuffing the surrendering Clark, remonstrating with him to “let him walk in like a man”. Perhaps Borzage just didn’t have it in him to cast another heavy other than Lloyd Bridges in this picture. Ethel Barrymore lends credibility as only she could in a brief, but pivotal scene as Grandma Hawkins. Both Harry Morgan and Rex Ingram add additional heft in interesting supporting parts. Ingram’s character, in a surprising display of late 1940’s racial tokenism, is refreshingly absent any stereotypes or similar stupidities.
Moonrise is a visually excellent and interesting picture that defies easy categorization. It is an unusual film noir that is definitely worth seeing.
Alan Rode is a film noir aficionado living in San Diego, CA.
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