Republic Pictures, 90m 39s
Over the past several years, The Criterion Collection has amassed quite a stable of film noirs, including such renowned genre entries as THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), GILDA (1946), MILDRED PIERCE (1945) and IN A LONELY PLACE (1950). Now comes a much more obscure offering, unknown to me until I read about it in one of Criterion's monthly new release announcements. MOONRISE might be described as country noir, and another convincing reminder that noir concerns need not be based in the big city. It is also one of the finest examples of a consistent noir boilerplate: the dramatic impact of the past on the present.
MOONRISE opens typically enough for a film noir: in the pouring rain. The action gets more downbeat quickly when a man is hanged, which is associated closely with a crying baby, the son of the man sent to the gallows. That attention-getting sequence is followed with a montage of the fatherless boy's formative years, which are presented as one lamentable situation after the other. "Danny Hawkins's dad was hanged," sing cruel grade-schoolers who mercilessly taunt Danny. In later life, middle-school punks rough up the hapless mountain boy. As a young adult, it appears nothing has changed for Danny (now played by Dane Clark), since the major architect of his childhood trauma remains directly in front of him.
At a dance, Danny gets into an unproductive conversation with Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges), the longtime stone in his shoe. After a prolonged confrontation over pretty schoolteacher Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell), the score is settled between the young adult men when Danny kills Jerry with blunt force. Soon thereafter, Danny shows his sensitive side when he comes to the aid of Billy Scripture (Harry Morgan), a deaf and dumb man who is being badgered by a pack of jerks. Danny then focuses on Gilly, the romantic interest of his now deceased foe Jerry. They leave the dance with another couple, and Danny drives at a high rate of speed that upsets his passengers. Now tortured by the memory of Jerry, the bullied man Danny experiences hallucinations that lead to a serious crash. All survive, but it seems Danny will battle his personal demons for a significant time to come. That Danny is prone to aggressive behavior is not lost on Gilly, who lets her psychologically troubled suitor know of his obvious issues. "Like you had nothing but hate in you," she observes after the night of the dance. A case study in noir alienation, Danny is trapped in a "dark tunnel" as Gilly sees it.
After he finally shuts up his primary tormentor for good, ironically Danny may be in worse condition than he was as a bullied youth. Now he is a paranoid killer, although an argument could be made he acted in self defense. And even if he were not acting out of self-preservation, it is difficult to imagine many tears being shed over the death of Jerry, who was a thoughtless bully as a little kid, and the identical bully as an adult. Jerry even stole from his banker father, J.B. Sykes (Harry Cheshire). Thus MOONRISE is also a study in class differences at work in a small Virginia town, where the "hillbilly" Danny is in combat his whole life with Jerry, the son of a wealthy man. In fact, class differences are the root cause of Danny's childhood trauma. The town doctor did not want to make a trip to the country home of the boy's ailing mother, which led to her demise, as well as her husband's hanging after he exacted revenge against the doctor.
Most important, MOONRISE is a sociological drama about the long-term effects of bullying. Haunted by his family's blighted past and persistently tortured over the years, Danny has found basic human endeavors such as peer acceptance, finding jobs and meeting girls frustratingly difficult. His courtship of Gilly is overly forceful, to the point one would not blame her for giving up on him quickly. Essentially the two behave like a couple on the run, without Gilly fully understanding why. It is not until his scuffle with the simpleton Billy over some incriminating evidence that Danny begins to face his potential to become a bully himself. At that noir point of recognition, Danny finally finds a path to redemption.
Working from a screenplay by Charles F. Haas, who adapted the novel of the same title by Theodore Strauss, director Frank Borzage imbued the perfectly paced photoplay with an unusual emotional resonance for a B-studio picture, his last for Republic. The film's showpiece takes place at a carnival, a common noir backdrop for anxiousness and confusion. Danny succumbs to paranoia and makes a suicidal leap from a Ferris wheel, only to experience a dazed awakening. There are many other inventively cinematic moments, and MOONRISE is absolutely loaded with carefully balanced compositions in the noir style, as the screen captures within this review confirm. Cinematographer John L. Russell shows particular proficiency for the swamp-based action. Russell is credited with the documentary realism approach of CITY THAT NEVER SLEEPS (1953), an exceptional film noir. He also captured the monochromatic photography of perhaps the greatest horror film ever: Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960). A number of meaningful juxtapositions are the work of editor Harry Keller (TOO LATE FOR TEARS , BORDERLINE ). Strong supporting work is offered by Rex Ingram as Mose, Ethel Barrymore as Danny's grandmother and especially Allyn Joslyn as Sheriff Clem Otis, the man who recognizes both Danny and Jerry for what each really is. Joslyn probably has the best line of the film when he comments that death can convert anybody into a saint. The bombastic score was composed by William Lava.
The Criterion Collection presents a newly restored 4K digital transfer of MOONRISE with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition. This overlooked minor classic looks and sounds astonishingly good, framed at the correct theatrical scope of 1.37:1. The disc's only supplement is a conversation between film historian Peter Cowie and author Hervé Dumont (FRANK BORZAGE: THE LIFE AND FILMS OF A HOLLYWOOD ROMANTIC, 2006), recorded in January of 2018 in Lausanne, Switzerland (17m 20s). Dumont makes the interesting assertion that Danny's sense of isolation is largely self-imposed. Unlike other alienated film noir protagonists, a great number of characters attempt to connect with Danny in a positive way. The Mose character, who understands Danny best, clearly makes Dumont's point when he says the worst crime a person can commit is to withdraw from the human race.
The informative analytical essay "MOONRISE: Dark of the Moon" by critic Philip Kemp is included as a foldout insert, and also can be found here: Dark of the Moon