By 1948, Frank Borzage, early Hollywood’s supreme romanticist, had fallen by the wayside. The man who’d won the very first Academy Award for Directing in 1927 and a second in 1932 was now struggling to survive on the backlots of Poverty Row. His brand of earnest melodrama had soured in the mouths of a generation whose war-time idealism had melted into post-war cynicism. The American public no longer had patience for a filmmaker who told simple, unironic stories of transcendent love and passions triumphing in the face of adversity and poverty. Here was a man, after all, who’d dared to conclude an adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s heart-breaking A Farewell to Arms with images of doves and the sound of church bells. And yet, as his career crumbled, Borzage managed one last film that could truly be considered a masterpiece, an actual film noir that reconciled his faith in the salvific nature of love with the nightmarish anxieties consuming America as it moved into an age of Cold War. That film was Moonrise.
Financed by Republic Pictures—purveyors of cheap Western serials and even cheaper B-movies—the film was a “Hail Mary” attempt to reinvigorate Borzage’s career. Tragically, it flopped with audiences and critics, dooming him to decades of obscurity; he would make only three more movies before dying of cancer in 1962. Thankfully the film, much like Borzage himself, has received considerable critical reappraisal in the past few years, so much so that the Criterion Collection has recently released it on Blu-ray. The release is an essential tribute to one of the greatest works by one of Hollywood’s most unfairly treated masters.
The opening few minutes of Moonrise set the tone for the rest of the film, establishing it as one that exists less in reality than in a dream world ruled by emotional truths. It opens with a man being hanged for murder, the proceedings being shown via oblique camera angles directed towards feet instead of faces and harsh shadows seemingly chiseled onto walls. As the hangmen pulls the lever, the film smash cuts to the crib of the condemned’s newborn son Danny Hawkins. As the infant wails, the camera reveals the grim outline of a toy doll literally hanging by a noose above his crib. In the work of any other director, the audience would immediately demand to know what kind of sick, twisted mother would torment their children by “executing” their toys, especially in mimicry of how their fathers were killed. But this is Borzage. We see this scene and understand the deeper, richer symbolism: Danny will spend his life marked by his father’s sins.
And so he does. Jump cut to Danny as a schoolboy forced to endure the taunts of his classmates. “Danny Hawkins dad was hanged! Danny Hawkins dad was hanged,” they chant as their ringleader Jerry Sykes wraps his hands around his throat and pretends to choke himself to death. Another cut, another passing of years; Danny is now an adult, and his suffering continues. Jerry (Lloyd Bridges) torments him one night in the swamp out back of their small Southern town. Again, with a different director issues of logic would arise: why would two childhood enemies encounter each other at night, alone, in the middle of a secluded swamp? But again, this is Borzage: the reasons hardly matter. What does matter is the cyclical torture itself and the years of agony accumulating in poor Danny’s mind which finally explode in a flash of violence. The two attack each other and in a moment of panic Danny (Dane Clark) grabs a rock and smashes Jerry’s skull in.
Those who know Borzage purely by reputation as a romanticist may be shocked by the jagged, almost Neo-expressionist visual grammar used in these scenes: extreme shadows, stilted frame compositions, high-contrast chiaroscuro lighting. But Borzage had used such techniques for decades, having first picked them up from his contemporary F.W. Murnau while they were both working at Fox in the 1920s. Though Borzage’s films were rich in sentimentality, they demonstrated an acute stylistic acumen. As Moonrise continues, Borzage reveals bold stylistic flourishes, such as the consistent use of crossfades between charged images: a young woman wringing her hands in church dissolves into an old woman’s hands knitting; a paranoid man’s face into a raccoon. Here is a film that must be watched actively, not merely observed.
From Danny’s desperate act of murder, the film charts his mental decimation, emotional reconstruction, and psychological reconciliation with his actions. A few kind souls help in his rehabilitation. The first is Mose, a retired brakeman living in self-imposed isolation in the woods with his hounds and guitar. Played with great dignity by Rex Ingram, he provides the paternal guidance Danny so craves. The other is sweet Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell), a schoolteacher who quickly forms the other half of Borzage’s romantic universe. It is here that we find a major difference between Moonrise and many of his other films: the forces seeking to tear the lovers apart. Often these forces are external ones such as World War One in A Farewell to Arms (1932), the sinking of a lavish ocean liner in History Is Made at Night (1937), or the rise of Nazism in The Mortal Storm (1940). But in Moonrise the adversity springs from Danny’s mind. It occasionally manifests itself physically, such as an early scene where traumatic flashbacks cause Danny to crash a car while Gilly was in the passenger seat. But his torments are primarily of his own making as he becomes convinced that he’s destined to follow in his father’s footsteps as a killer, due to “bad blood.”
Danny’s internal dilemma of coming to terms with a forced act of violence takes on new meaning when evaluated in the context of post-World War Two American society. One of the cornerstones of film noir was damaged protagonists, either physically or mentally, by their time in the military. If we consider Danny’s psychoses as allegorical, then Moonrise becomes more than just a dark melodrama, it enters the realm of bona-fide noir. Consider Danny as America: haunted by the specter of violent tragedy (Danny’s father’s hanging/Pearl Harbor), the protagonist is goaded into violence himself (murder/World War Two) by an incessant attacker (Jerry Sykes/the Axis) that leaves him broken, beaten, and bruised.
Of course, this is merely one possible reading. While it isn’t absurd to believe that Borzage may have deliberately made such comparisons, there is no doubt that his primary concern in Moonrise was Danny Hawkins, Gilly Johnson, and their love. Said love is no panacea, but it offers hope that Danny can rebuild his life. And therein lies Borzage’s secret: the belief that despite everything the world may throw at you, love can be a force for goodness. His romanticism does not deny the world, it burns in spite of it.