Studio: Criterion

May 14, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

If you were to glance at any list of great directors from the Golden Age of Hollywood, it’s unlikely you find Frank Borzage’s name. This might seem odd given at his resume. His career began in 1913 during the silent era and stretched all the way to the early 1960s. He directed films starring such greats as Spencer Tracy, Jean Arthur and Jimmy Stewart. He even won the very first Academy Award for Best Director - well, one of them; back then they gave out two per year for comedy and drama. Moonrise was a cheap thriller made by B-movie factory Republic Pictures. It features no major stars and won no awards. But its eerie photographic effects, off-beat narrative and stylish direction set it apart from its contemporaries and mark it as the work of an auteur with a clear, specific vision.

On paper, Moonrise fits comfortably alongside the many other film noirs that rose to prominence in the late 1940s, reflecting an America still shaken and angered by the horrors of World War II. It stars Dane Clark as Danny, a young man who’s lived his entire small town existence in the shadow of his father, who was hanged for his crimes when Danny was just a baby. Bullied and mocked his entire life, Danny’s resentment finally boils over and leads to the death of his chief tormenter, the son of a prominent banker. As his attempts to cover up the murder only raise further suspicions, Danny finds himself drawn to Gilly, a local schoolteacher and his victim’s fiancee. It’s a fairly standard noir set up, although Borzage reveals his disinterest in the genre’s conventions from the opening frames. The opening credits play out over an undulating, amorphous title card that looks like a cross between an out-of-focus close-up of a rain-streaked window and an ancient Windows screen saver. A pull out reveals it to be a muddy puddle as the camera tracks the feet and legs of two men as they lead a third man up a set of stairs. The camera pulls out further to a silhouette revealing that the stairs lead up to a gallows where the man is noosed and dropped without ceremony. Match cut to a doll hanging over a screaming baby followed by a montage of a young Danny being tormented by his peers that leads directly into the fatal confrontation that will drive the rest of the film. In less than five nearly wordless minutes, Borzage gives us what would constitute an entire first act in a more conventional thriller.

Borzage puts this gained time to good use. At a brisk ninety minutes, Moonrise nonetheless feels measured and patient, eschewing the complex plot machinations of traditional film noirs in favor of breathing room for its characters and tone. That breathing room does little to help Danny, who spends most of the film trapped in a hell of his own guilt and anger, as Borzage fills his frames with Clark’s sweating, pained face. For a guy with motive, opportunity and a remarkable lack of chill, Danny seems to get the benefit of the doubt from most of the townspeople regarding the murder. Everyone seems to sympathize him while also admitting that his victim was a bit of a prick. Despite this helpful reversal from the standard noir formula, Danny is just as fevered and desperate as you’d expect, his guilt eating him away from the inside out. Borzage brings this to life in a series of electrifying sequences including a brutal car crash and a dizzying leap from a Ferris wheel, both of which send the camera bouncing and spinning in a way that feels distinctly modern for a film from 1948. Likewise, his long still takes create an intense uncomfortable intimacy, with characters and objects moving in and out of frame as though they’ve grown too aware of its gaze.

Criterion’s new Blu-ray release of Moonrise is surprisingly light by their always exemplary standards, but the sole special feature - a conversation between film historian Peter Cowie and Borzage biographer Herve Dumont - is engaging and insightful. Any film noir fans looking to wander a bit off the beaten path would do well to check it out.


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