Friday, July 26, 2019

Classic Movie Review: Moonrise (1948)

Moonrise (1948)
Directed by: Frank Borzage.
Written by: Charles F. Haas based on the novel by Theodore Strauss).
Starring: Dane Clark (Danny Hawkins), Gail Russell (Gilly Johnson), Ethel Barrymore (Grandma), Allyn Joslyn (Sheriff 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).
One of the last films by the great Frank Borzage – who worked consistently from the early 1910s right up until the 1940s, winning two directing Oscars in the process – Moonrise is a cross between a film noir and a Hollywood melodrama. In terms of the plotting of the film, there is nothing here you haven’t seen before – and the lead performance by Dane Clark isn’t quite up to par here (apparently John Garfield was Borzage’s first choice – and would have been perfect). And yet, while Moonrise isn’t a perfect film by any means – it’s one of those where the direction really elevates the rest of the movie. The film looks amazing – with Borzage drawing on his silent movie background to come up with some stellar image after another, one stellar sequence after another. The direction elevates what could have been a rather run of the mill and forgettable film into something quite bold.
Clark stars as Danny Hawkins – who has been an outcast in his town since shortly after birth. His father got mad at the doctor who delivered Danny – blaming him for the death of Danny’s mother – and murdered him shortly after, getting the death penalty as a result. Danny is raised by his grandma (Ethel Barrymore) – who probably would have been smart to leave town, but doesn’t. Danny is tormented and bullied throughout his childhood – mostly led by Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges). The montage that shows this progression of bullying in the first of many great sequences in the film. It finally leads to yet another fight between these two men as they step outside from a dance – but this time, Danny gets the best of Jerry, and ends up killing his longtime tormenter. He hides the body, and goes back to the dance.
Of course, killing a man is easy, but getting away with it – and living with yourself – is much harder. Jerry has a rich daddy, who doesn’t take his sons disappearance lying down – and hires a detective to look for him. Meanwhile, Danny moves in on Jerry’s girl – Gilly (Gail Russell) – an innocent school teacher, and the two fall in love. But the Sheriff (Allyn Joslyn) isn’t stupid – and starts noticing Danny’s increasingly odd behavior – as Danny spirals out of control into guilt and remorse.
Moonrise is an odd film – in that, you could see the way you make this into a guilt ridden film noir – with Danny not unlike say Edward G. Robinson in Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window. But that’s not really how this film proceeds. It is the most sympathetic film from that time I can think of in terms of a portrait of someone who could (rightly) be called a murderer. The film probably lays it on a little thick – making the dead Jerry into more and more of a villain as the film progressed, and having everyone be a little more understanding of Danny that they probably should be. The film even has a “happy” ending – at least as much as a film like this could have. Here’s where Clark’s performance disappoints – because it doesn’t have any of the shading it really needs. An actor like the aforementioned Garfield could have made this a complex character – someone who you both like and fear. But Clark is more of blank slate than anything. He isn’t aided much by Russell as the blandest of bland film noir “good girls” imaginable. Throw in a few more characters that border on offensive clich├ęs – the mute eyewitness who sees everything, and the sympathetic “magical negro” Danny has as a friend, and Moonrise could have been downright maudlin in other hands.
And here is where Borzage’s direction really does the heavy lifting – he plays it somehow right down the middle from the maudlin melodrama or the film noir it could have been. It’s somehow both and neither at the same time. And in terms of how the film looks, it is remarkable. Borzage has over 100 directing credits listed on IMDB stretching from 1913 (when he would have been 19) until the year before his death in 1962 at only 68. He brings that wealth of experience here. The film works best when Borzage is directing it almost as if it were a silent film – that opening montage for instance, or other set pieces throughout. The film never looks less than amazing.
The direction makes up for the rest of the flaws in the film. This isn’t a masterpiece like some other Borzage films (I admit, I need to see more of his work, but my favorite is perhaps the pre-code Man’s Castle from 1933). But it does show just how good a director he was – right up until late into his career. He would only go on to be credited with directing two other films after Moonrise – and both of those came 10 years later. But Moonrise shows that in 1948, he was still at the height of his powers.

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