Friday, May 12, 2006

Moonrise (1948)

The last time I saw Girish, we discussed our admiration for Frank Borzage. The director brought poetry to every genre he tackled. Girish kindly lent the Siren his videotape of Moonrise (1948), a late high spot in the director's career, and she was wowed.

It has a remarkable, pitch-dark opening, depicting a man's hanging for murder and the subsequent effect on his son. One cut moves from the trap door opening underneath the prisoner's feet, to an infant crying in his crib, seemingly at the sight of a rag doll that dangles over the cradle with a string around its neck. The shot gave the Siren a jolt of shock and terror like she seldom experiences.

Danny (Dane Clark), the baby in the opening sequence, continues haunted by his father's fate. Early in the film Danny kills a rich tormenter (Lloyd Bridges), essentially in self-defense. But with the doom-laden illogic of a typical film noir protagonist Danny drags the body off into the swamp and goes back to a waterside dance club to continue his courtship of the winsome Gilly (Gail Russell).

Moonrise is set in a small swamp town, apparently in the South although you'd never know it from the characters' accents. Cinematographer John L. Russell uses tightly framed shots that give a sense of Danny's world closing in on him, but also have an unusual, vivid beauty. The swamp waters glitter, a ruined house where Gilly and Danny meet has a fairy-castle quality.

The plot spins out from that initial moment of violence, but this isn't a typical film noir, as this excellent Senses of Cinema post points out. Despite its dark themes and brooding look, the Siren thinks maybe Moonrise doesn't qualify at all. The film is too warmly sympathetic to Danny's plight. Real noir starts from the premise that people are no damn good, and proceeds to reaffirm that, step by step. Borzage probably couldn't have taken that viewpoint on a bet. Moonrise instead makes the classically humanist point that criminals are not born, they're made--and can be un-made with sufficient compassion.

Danny isn't really a criminal in any sense. Not only does he lack the requisite animal cunning, he lacks even a simple sense of self-preservation. The town's gentle deaf-and-dumb orphan (Harry Morgan) tries to give Danny a knife he left at the crime scene, but Danny is too wild with worry to even notice. The sheriff (Allyn Joslyn)--no Javert, but instead a goodhearted homespun philosopher--shows up at a fair Danny is attending, and instead of trying to brazen it out like a crook Danny goes haywire in spectacular fashion. In the end Borzage and screenwriter Charles Haas have the audience rooting for Danny to get caught, to end the poor guy's suffering.

All in all, a beautiful movie that makes you wish Borzage had been able to do more after his 1920s-30s heyday. The least this American master deserves is more of his films on DVD, since not all of us have a Girish Tape-Lending service in our lives. The Siren is glad she does.


girish said...

"Moonrise instead makes the classically humanist point that criminals are not born, they're made--and can be un-made with sufficient compassion."

Beautifully put--and spot-on.
It warms my heart that the Siren enjoyed this.

Campaspe said...

Mr. Campaspe loved it too. :)

Peter Nellhaus said...

I have a very faint memory of Moonrise which I saw around thirty years ago in a 16mm print, probably courtesy of William K. Everson.