Moonrise (1949): Oscar Winner Frank Borzage’s Rural Film Noir, Starring Dane Clark

Palm Springs Film Fest, January 7, 2006: A showing of a new version of Moonrise, restored by the UCLA Film Archives, funded in part by Scorsese’s Preservation Foundation.

Frank Borzage’s Moonrise was initially planned as a Marshall Grant production, to be helmed by he-man director William Wellman. It was also meant to be a star vehicle for John Garfield, but when Charles Feldman bought the rights to the book from Grant, the only actor he could get to play the lead was second banana Dane Clark.

Though the film completed principal photography in February 1948, it was released by Republic a whole year later, in March 1949.

At first glance, Frank Borzage, the first Oscar-winning director (for “Seventh Heaven” in 1927), who’s mostly associated with romantic and sentimental melodramas (“Street Angel,” the first Hemingway adaptation, “A Farewell to Arms”), is the wrong choice for this rural noir. That is, until you see the film and realize that at its center is an obsessively romantic love, with both bright and dark overtones.

Witnessing his father’s being hanged continues to haunt Danny (Clark) for all his life; he’s constantly tortured and ridiculed by the children. Despite efforts to integrate into his Southern community, he’s rejected, harassed, and ostracized.

Things go bad, when Danny engages kills in self-defense Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges at his most handsome) one of his foremost tormentors. From then on, he becomes a “haunted man.” Danny is obsessed with having “bad blood,” a notion that was popular in Hollywood movies of the era. Danny’s fears of becoming a criminal like his dad spoils his relationship with Gilly (Gail Russell), his sympathetic girlfriend, who was dating Sykes.

In the end, Danny decides to visit and hear the truth from his Grandma, after which he surrenders to the authorities, determined to begin a new chapter with Gilly. In the last, bright shot, the two lovers reconcile and embrace.

Visually, the opening sequence, which depicts Danny’s father being led to the gallows and its impact on his young son, is stunning. It’s also the central image if the film, to which Borzage returns in the course of the narrative to highlight the inevitable impact of the past on the present. True to the noir form, there’s an aura of doom over the whole picture. Danny is constantly trapped, threatened, and walled in.

At the end, Danny’s escape through the swamp up the hill to the cabin of his grandmother and his parents’ graves is depicted in lighter colors signifying the hero’s gradual liberation from his haunting past. Brozage treats it as an allegorical journey, with Danny escaping from his personal hell, marked by guilt and pain, into a more hopeful future.

Redemption and happy ending are not characteristic elements of film noir, but are necessary here to indicate Danny’s return to civilization, both literally and figuratively. Hence the noir purists have problems with “Moonrise,” describing it as incoherent or not totally noir.

For acting, no doubt, the film would have been better with a stronger leading man than Clarke, who wears the same expression throughout the film. Gail Russell brings some light to the proceedings as Danny’s love interest, and the formidable Ethel Barrymore appears at the end as Danny’s Grandma. It’s also good to see Rex Ingram as Mose, the savvy mansort of a philosopherwho sees through Danny and provides the film’s humanistic messages.

Charles Haas’s screenplay, based on Theodore Strauss’ book, is one of his few best texts. “Moonrise” was nominated for the Sound Recording Oscar (Daniel J. Bloomberg), but lost to “The Snake Pit.”

Considering its low-budget, the film is nicely produced, particularly the stylized black-and-white lensing by John L. Russell, who a decade later would shoot Hitchcock’s masterpiece, “Psycho.”

As for Brozage, despite illustrious career and two directorial Oscars, his later films were not as interesting, and after “Moonrise” he made only two more pictures: “China Doll” in 1958 and “The Big Fisherman” in 1959.

He died in 1962 at the age of 69.

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