Saturday, May 26, 2018


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 [1949], BORDERLINE [1950]). 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

Saturday, May 12, 2018


RKO Radio Pictures, 81m 55s

A profoundly moving noir story of redemption, ON DANGEROUS GROUND is a title textured with multiple meanings. On a surface level, it alludes to the various settings that form the backdrop for the drama. But on a more crucial level, it references the precarious position of Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), a temperamental cop who is in an uncertain place mentally. Wilson's police work is characterized by the same type of tough-guy tactics that would be utilized famously by Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) in the DIRTY HARRY film series, and any number of similar rough-around-the-edges movie cops who bend the rules. All such policemen justify their methods with results, to the chagrin of their more progressive superiors, who must be concerned about the general public's perception of the police force. Even Wilson's colleagues Pete Santos (Anthony Ross) and Pop Daly (Charles Kemper) agree Wilson needs to tone down his behavior. The pivotal scene of on-the-job violence has a sexual charge to it; Wilson appears to get a perverse thrill from beating information out of suspect Bernie Tucker (Richard Irving). "Alright Bernie, we're alone now," Wilson says with a peculiar sense of satisfaction.

Another key sequence reveals the kinder side of Wilson, when he allows time for a brief street football game with the local paperboy (Leslie Bennett). A former star high school football player, Wilson lives by himself in a small studio apartment, the kind where cooking utensils are not far from the bed. His living arrangement puts him in complete contrast with both Santos and Daly, whose families clearly enrich their private lives. The deeply embittered loner Wilson has been on the force eleven years and has grown to resent the day-to-day grind, surrounded by people who do not like cops. He is not a bad man as much as he is the product of a poor environment. After a sustained working-over from Wilson leaves the thug Tucker with a ruptured bladder (according to the suspect's attorney, anyway), Wilson finds himself in hot water with Captain Brawley (Ed Begley). With Wilson's easily-lit fuse perhaps leading to "another civil suit," Brawley sends his problematic charge on a rural case upstate. Though the opening credits roll over rain-drenched city streets where cop killers remain on the loose, ON DANGEROUS GROUND closes somewhere completely different, in terms of both setting and the lead protagonist's frame of mind.

At first anyway, the change of scenery does not permit Wilson any time for reassessment. Walter Brent (Ward Bond) is on the trail of the disturbed young man (Sumner Williams) who killed his daughter. Now it is Wilson who must act as the controlled voice of reason, since Brent is prepared to avenge his daughter's death with however many shotgun blasts he deems necessary. The irate father Brent is similar to Wilson in that he trusts no one. While the impetuous men are in pursuit of the suspect, a disorienting car crash leads to a light that signifies the narrative's critical turning point. The light is inside the home of Mary Malden (Ida Lupino), an angelic figure positioned as Wilson's potential savior. The Malden/Wilson encounter in a remote country home recalls a strikingly similar sequence in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), where the monster (Boris Karloff) stumbles upon a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie). Like the monstrous creation, Wilson is inclined to distrust others, and like the blind man, Malden must "trust everybody." Malden speaks in a calm tone that immediately seems the antithesis of Wilson, or perhaps his antidote.

The second act of ON DANGEROUS GROUND allows both Robert Ryan and Ida Lupino to deliver emotionally gripping performances. In respect to film noir conventions, it comes as little wonder that Malden resides in a rural location, far removed from the tawdriness of big city living on full display in the first act. The degradation of urban life is reinforced by the city’s peripheral female characters, all of whom contribute to Wilson's sense of alienation in some fashion. An underage barfly (Nita Talbot) challenges Wilson's authority, the bruised Myrna Bowers (Cleo Moore) brings out his dark side and the nice girl Hazel (Joan Taylor) has no interest in dating a cop. In contrast to her quite durable urban counterparts, Mary Malden embodies the (admittedly clichéd) fragility of woman, always vulnerable without strong male protection. This trait is best exemplified when the outraged father Brent comes disconcertingly close to striking the completely defenseless Malden.

Like the prior year's WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS (1950), another notable noir to feature an overly tough cop, ON DANGEROUS GROUND advocates conservative values with redemption through the union of man and woman, each half empty without the other. On a traditional family level, the father Brent, the matriarchal figure Malden and her "just a kid" brother Danny combine to redeem Wilson. As for Wilson's checkered past as a disillusioned lawman, it might be argued that no great injustice had been done to those he punished, given the playground around which Wilson had to romp. To a great extent, ON DANGEROUS GROUND blames the city’s criminals and common lowlifes for the manifestation of Wilson's dark side. Ultimately devoted to Malden, his self-removal from the urban milieu effectively exonerates him from any past transgressions. The conclusion also dovetails nicely with the opening segments that establish the importance of the traditional family.

British novelist Gerald Butler wrote the source novel MAD WITH MUCH HEART, first published in 1945. A.I. Bezzerides adapted the novel for the screen, with help from the film's acclaimed director Nicholas Ray. Bezzerides also wrote the source material that inspired THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940), both the novel and screen adaptation for THIEVES' HIGHWAY (1949) and the screenplay for the great KISS ME DEADLY (1955), based on a novel by Mickey Spillane. The character Jim Wilson stands alongside other male protagonists in Ray films who seem cut off from society, i.e. Bowie (Farley Granger) in THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948), Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) from IN A LONELY PLACE (1950), Jim Stark (James Dean) in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955). Cinematographer George E. Diskant also lensed the Ray-directed film noirs THEY LIVE BY NIGHT and A WOMAN'S SECRET (1949). Whether the background is a studio set or location footage in Colorado, Diskant handles the situation effectively, particularly when disorienting hand-held camerawork is involved.

Among the most venerated film noirs for good reason, ON DANGEROUS GROUND is well presented by the dual-layered Blu-ray edition available via Warner Archive. Based on a 2016 remaster, the transfer observes the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, and the thunderous score by Bernard Herrmann sounds terrific. The audio commentary by Glenn Erickson, first made available on the Warner DVD released in 2006, provides a rundown of the numerous alterations that were applied to ON DANGEROUS GROUND during its almost two-year stretch on the shelf at RKO, which was not unusual under the leadership of Howard Hughes. Good or bad, Hughes’s tinkering proved to be of little help to the film’s delayed release; ON DANGEROUS GROUND lost $450K at the box office and was received coldly by critics. Erickson builds a solid case that the most similar film to ON DANGEROUS GROUND is director Martin Scorsese's TAXI DRIVER (1976), probably the finest of revisionist noir films that emerged in the 1970s. A theatrical trailer (2m 10s) is the only other supplement.