Frank Borzage was one of the most acclaimed Hollywood directors of the late silent and early sound ear. He shares the distinction of winning the first Academy Award for Best Director, for his 1927 film 7th Heaven; in that first year of the awards Borzage won for dramatic film while Lewis Milestone won for comedy. He won again a few years later for 1931’s Bad Girl. After that, though, his reputation began to slide. It seems only a few of his later films have garnered much critical acclaim at the time and critical attention in the years since. But the one that stands up and takes notice, one that many critics claim is a late Borzagian masterpiece, is his 1948 poetic noir Moonrise. The Criterion Collection has just released the film on home video in a sharp edition that really showcases the film’s strengths.
As mentioned, Borzage came to prominence late in the silent era working at Fox. At the time, Fox employed one of the world’s greatest directors of the silent era (or any era), F.W. Murnau, who had emigrated from Germany in 1926 after helping bring the visual poetry of German Expressionism to prominence. In 1927, Murnau made one of my personal favorite films, Sunrise. Though Moonrise has the tone and story of a 1940s film noir, Borzage tells the story with a nice combination of noir and the visual lyricism reminiscent of the time when Borzage came to prominence.
This visual lyricism is used perfectly in the film’s first few minutes, a masterful montage that tells a clear and complicated story and sets the audience on the edge of their seat. First, through the water and darkness we see legs walking with grim purpose.
Borzage keeps us tantalized before finally revealing what’s going on with a few quick shots at the witnesses. This is a hanging. Borzage continues to tell the story more with shadow and impression rather than giving us a straight shot.
This already disturbing image of man being hanged carries over into the next shot, a horrific image of a doll hanging by the neck over a baby’s crib:
As the montage continues, we see this child grow up, tormented by young children (often shown with hanging shadows behind them) who make fun of this child because his father was executed for murder. It’s cruel, and the entire montage is disturbing as its images insinuate themselves into our consciousness. Though we don’t have a full picture of exactly what has happened, we can feel it keenly.
Soon we learn more. The child who grows up fatherless and amidst such cruelty is Danny Hawkins (played by Dane Clark). When Danny was a baby, his mother died due, perhaps, to a negligent doctor. Danny’s father, furious, confronts the doctor and kills him. Three weeks later, Danny’s father was executed, as we saw at the beginning of the film, leaving Danny an orphan.
The film poses the question: How can Danny escape this heritage? Can he find a place in a world that took his mother and father and then mocked him for it? Can he overcome his anger and avoid his father’s fate? And after the opening montage, we might expect the film to continue haunting Danny by tantalizing him to lash out as well and commit murder.
Since it happens just after the montage closes I won’t hesitate to say that the film wastes no time here. In a complicated act of rage and self-defense, Danny kills Jerry Sykes, a young man who has always been his primary tormentor (played by a young Lloyd Bridges).
Instead of a film that makes us wonder if Danny can control his anger and avoid becoming a killer, we are instead left to watch a painful story in which Danny is already a killer, already just about where his father was at the end of his short life, already hunted by the law, already forced to confront his “bad blood.”
While we know that Danny killed Jerry, and we see plenty of scenes where Danny agonizes over not just what he’s done but over the idea that he was always somehow fated to do this and lose anything that mattered to him, Borzage also presents a soft side to Danny. For example, he is tender to the hounds raised by his true friend, Mose (played by Rex Ingram). Danny is also attentive to Billy Scripture (played by Harry Morgan), a disabled man who cannot speak.
Lastly, Danny’s in love with Gilly Johnson (played by Gail Russell) and wants to be the right kind of man for her:
This is where the film really gets problematic for me, though, and some of its weaknesses shine through. We first meet Gilly just after Danny has killed Jerry Sykes. She’s waiting for Jerry at the dance hall because, well, they are engaged! Danny, however, shows up and violently tears Gilly from the scene. While I don’t believe it’s necessary that Gilly ever love Jerry (I completely buy that their relationship was formed by social expectations rather than true love), I had a hard time accepting that Gilly would care for, let alone fall for, Danny Hawkins.
Danny is volatile and cruel to her. It’s quickly washed over, but he almost gets her killed in a car wreck shortly after he removes her from the dance hall. He shows her no tenderness that we witness until he’s forced her into an embrace, which she eventually accepts and turns into a kiss. It’s hard to watch, honestly, but not just because Danny’s behavior is unacceptable and a film that shows an otherwise intelligent woman sacrificing herself to tend to a cruel, broken man is indicative of a major cultural problem. It’s hard to watch because Dane Clark cannot perform any nuance that would allow us to see in Danny what we’re supposed to believe Gilly sees in Danny. Clark earnestly plays the tormented man about to burst (perhaps too earnestly), and his best scenes are when he smiles and seems to see some genuine joy peaking through the clouds in his life, but Clark does not do well in the middle ground. His love for Gilly is lust and possession, even when it’s clear she’s risking a lot to support him.
That combination of character development and poor acting is my biggest concern with Moonrise. Well, that and Gilly’s amnesia about 1) Danny’s reckless cruelty that would have them both dead in the real world and 2) her fiance Jerry Sykes. I think the film’s opening montage is beautifully done. I like that our protagonist becomes the killer in the opening minutes so we deal with a truly problematic character. I like that the film attempts to wrestle with redemption even when the character seems to be passing, if he didn’t already, the point of no return.
And even more than any of that themes, I enjoyed Borzage’s beautiful combination of lyricism and noir. Borzage frequently figures out quick ways to help us feel things that, well, Dane Clark’s acting cannot.
I was interested to learn that part of the lyricism may have been unintentional, a result more of budgetary constraints. To save money, Borzage used only two sound stages that are beautifully designed in each scene in this claustrophobic small town in the South. This is a perfect melding of constraints and an artist well equipped to use them to his advantage, giving us a noir that feels like a fable.
Despite my misgivings, Moonrise is still worth grappling with. And my perspective is, it seems, in the minority. I’ve seen several reviews posted that call it a neglected masterpiece. I can agree in part, and, in turn, recommend it fully.