Released: October 1, 1948
Director: Frank Borzage; Screenplay: Charles Haas based on a novel by Theodore Strauss; Cinematography: John L. Russell; Music: William Lava; Producer: Charles Haas; Studio: Republic Pictures
Cast: Dane Clark (Danny Hawkins), Gail Russell (Gilly Johnson), Ethel Barrymore (Grandma), Allyn Joslyn (Clem Otis), Rex Ingram (Mose), Harry Morgan (Billy Scripture), David Street (Ken Williams), Selena Royle (Aunt Jessie), Harry Carey, Jr. (Jimmy Biff), Irving Bacon (Judd Jenkins), Lloyd Bridges (Jerry Sykes)
Frank Borzage is not exactly the first name to come to mind in a noir countdown. Coming to prominence as the director of sentimental, romantic melodramas, and with his most acclaimed films being released during the silent era, Borzage was not the first choice to direct the adaptation of Theodore Strauss’ novel. Originally, it was planned for William Wellman to direct and the leading role was intended to be taken by a top-tier Hollywood star – traditional movie lore says that someone like John Garfield or Jimmy Stewart. Instead, the rights to the novel were acquired by the production company of Charles Feldman and the movie became a Republic release to be made on a limited budget. So rather than a prime Wellman at the helm, Borzage was given the film, and rather than the prototypical big-name star the leading role was passed onto the modest Dane Clark. The scaled-back production does little to stifle the success of the film, as to this Borzage greenhorn (meaning I haven’t seen his silent era work), it might be the best movie that he ever made (if not this, then The Mortal Storm).
I have seen Moonrise often referred to as “Southern gothic noir,” which I think is a very fitting description. It feels like something like the equivalent of a William Faulkner novel photographed in the noir visual style. Set in the swamps of the South, the story centers on Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark), the son of a convicted murderer who was hanged for his crimes while Danny was still an infant. The infamous history of his father haunts the boy his entire life, as he becomes the brunt of jokes and taunting of classmates and people throughout the town. He grows up believing that he has been tainted by the “bad blood” inherited from his father. When the taunts become too much to bear, Danny snaps and kills one of his tormentors (Lloyd Bridges). Fearing that he will suffer the same fate as his father, Danny goes on the run, roaming the swamps and mentally breaking down as tries to come to terms with his “bad blood.” As Danny tries to work out his paranoia, the story follows the two of the few meaningful relationships in his life – with his Grandma (Ethel Barrymore) and developing girlfriend Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell).
Right from the start you are reminded of Borzage’s chops as an accomplished silent film director, as he shows that he can paint an evocative picture with the camera. Opening with a hazy, dream-like montage, Borzage recounts the final moments leading up to the hanging of Danny’s father. It’s really not even anything overly fancy – something as simple as tracking the leaden footsteps of the condemned as he walks through the late-night rain toward the gallows has an unsettling effect. Then there is a slow pan up to display the shadow movements of the noose being placed around the man’s neck, the floor being dropped out from under him, and then a quick cut to the sounds of a crying baby. And to wrench out even more impact out of these brilliant edits, the crying child is laying under a hanging toy that casts a shadow similar to that of the man being executed at the gallows. In all of two or three minutes, Borzage has artistically introduced the lead character, his condemned father, and the impetus for the difficulty in Danny’s life. It is the single most important sequence in the entire film, and Borzage returns to these images repeatedly to powerful effect. It’s a master class in direction and editing.
While solid, none of the performances are momentous, Dane Clark included. The narrative plays out rather conventionally, with a predictable happy ending. For me it remains interesting because of the man behind the camera. The photograph from John Russell gives it the proper Southern gothic style, but it is the hand of Frank Borzage that makes this one notable. This was the last great film of Borzage’s career, and I don’t hesitate to claim it to be my personal favorite. This is a film that cries out for a proper DVD release.