Moonrise (1948)

Moonrise (1948) is a rural redemption murder and forgiveness film noir crime film directed by Frank Borzage starring Dane Clark, Gail Russell and Ethel Barrymore.

Atypical in the classic film noir canon, Moonrise is a small-town story of bullying and fate — of how the sins of one man reflect upon his son, and ruin and determine his son's life. 

What is remarkable about Moonrise is how true it is to some regular film nor themes —  most surely of all those of fate and paranoia, and the haunting effect of the past — combined with a story that presses hard into notions of redemption and transcendence.

In its compact and low budget manner, Moonrise is able to effectively show the results of a life of bullying, brought to its worse state by a small-town environment from where escape is not possible.

Expressionistic opening tableaux in film noir Moonrise (1948)

For economy of powerful storytelling and fearful shadows of the past the opening of Moonrise is hard to beat. In the first few moments we see the shadow of the execution of a father by hanging, effecting the life of that executed man's infant son. This leads to extreme bullying at school and a life effectively destroyed — it's made worse when we discover later on that the father who committed the murder, had a good reason for committing the crime he did — he killed the doctor who botched his wife's treatment and caused her death.

Mortal combat — Dane Clark and Lloyd Bridges in Moonrise (1948)

These expressionistically shot opening scenes are pure film noir, and matters get better still when it comes to dealing with troubled teen that results. He's a bruised character, and the damage done to him makes him credible as a potential killer with a wild temper, as well as suicidal small town kid. 

Harry Morgan as Billy Scripture in film noir Moonrise (1948)

Moonrise does start as every self-respecting noir must, with a murder. One night at a dance out in the woods, Danny and his tormenter since childhood get into a fight. Jerry Sykes (played by Lloyd Bridges) is the tormenter who has been bullying him all his life —  and when the fight turns bad, Sykes picks up a rock. Danny manages to get the rock away from him and then does to Sykes what Sykes was going to do to him —  bashes his head in repeatedly, with a lifetime of psychotic anger released in a sudden rush. 

This act of course fulfils Danny's worst notions of fate, as he now sees himself as his father — and he throws Sykes' body into the swamp and goes back to the dance to try and figure out what next.

Gail Russell in Moonrise (1948)

Danny is a backwater orphan who is ready to crack at all times in Moonrise, right up until his powerful redemptive close. He is terrified that he'll be caught and that everything the bullies have been saying about him may come true, and as Danny hides the body of the man he murdered (played by Lloyd Bridges) he finds that somehow too he is liberated by the crime. 

A guilty vision in film noir Moonrise (1948)

Gail Russell as Gilly Johnson, a local school teacher, emphasises this aspect of the scenario in every scene, and before every decision she makes. She precedes her speech with a comment along the lines of the fact that as the local schoolteacher she really needs to watch what she says and does. Dane Clark's uber-bullied young lead character Danny Hawkins is the same, and although he can't leave the set of Moonrise and the small town of VV that it depicts, he can't even try — the small, closed and low budget set seems to suggest an entire microcosm, for which there really is no outside world.

Moments of love and understanding in Moonrise (1948)

Gilly turns out to be a complex character also, and in one sequence which seems to prefigure Rebel Without a Cause, Danny takes her to a broken down old mansion and is freaked out, but also quite pleased when she starts roleplaying a Southern belle accent and asking him to dance. In another sequence Danny takes Gilly to a county fair in an attempt to blow away his troubles, but becomes more and more nervous over the course of the evening, until he becomes so paranoid that he is being followed that he jumps off the Ferris wheel in an antic moment of pure madness and delusion.

Rex Ingram as Mose in film noir Moonrise (1948)

The love interest is hard to read at times, but has dark and unwritten elements that are hard to read at times, and at odds with love itself at other times. The first and strangest aspect is that Gilly Johnson, local schoolteacher played by Gail Russell, is the love interest of the man that Danny the anti-hero of Moonrise impulsively kills in self-defence. 

Harry Morgan and Dane Clark as outcasts in the swamp in Moonrise (1948)

Secondly the love affair does not happen by accident. As gauche and as violent as everything else he does, Danny brutishly cuts-in to a dance to begin courting with Gilly. This is a great film noir anti-hero in action — a man perhaps who is socially unable to ask a woman to dance, but can find the rudeness and force to 'cut-in' when the compulsion hits him.

And compulsion it is, and there is a mot of it in Moonrise. After the dance, Danny nearly kills himself and the others — including Gilly — in a suicidal car crash — a collision he brings about by speeding and driving dangerously in the rain. In fact — dangerous driving does not cover it, for Danny deliberately takes the vehicle to an unmanageable speed and heads right into a corner that everyone else in the vehicle knows they cannot make.

Loss of stability on a Ferris wheel in film noir Moonrise (1948)

The courting gets worse however, as Danny continues to press himself upon Gilly — up until he moment that he literally forces her into a kiss — something that the Hays Code never did mind. A man and a woman could not sit on a bed together unless his feet were on the floor — but it was OK for a man to force a girl into a kiss and hold her there while she squirmed —  because the Golden Age rule of such embraces is that deep down she wants it — as in Moonrise, in fact.

Rex Ingram plays Mose, a dignified and quite saintly black father figure, who works as a trapper who calls his dogs ‘mister’ because "there isn’t enough respect in the world". Mose can sense Danny’s guilt almost immediately, offering up the exact stream of redemption and faith that is absent from most of the film noir world. Mose knows that Danny will eventually turn himself in and also stresses that aspect of Danny's personality that draws him of course to the town's outsiders. 

Also appearing is Ethel Barrymore who turns up as Danny's grandmother. At the end of a long run through the swamp she plays in a key scene which brings out the backstory and leads to a beautiful and affecting finish. 

The ending of Moonrise is also fairly unusual for the film noir playbook, in that it is more uplifting than anything, while still meeting hays Code requirements in terms of meting out punishments for those that have committed crimes. 

Much of Moonrise is overtly romantic, as was the style of director Frank Borzage. The film noir aspect is more than developed in the almost poetic realism of the opening shots which depict poor Danny's back story, as the orphaned boy of a murderer. The opening shots of the gallows seem to return throughout the film, as a central image. 

Like a good film noir hero, and weakened male lead, Danny is often trapped by the scenery, or walled in by it. His escape through the swamp becomes a kind of liberation as he makes his way up to his grandmother's old cabin and his parents' graves. The idea of redemption carries strong currency in the realms of film noir, and this story is one of the more redemptive and is powerful because of it.

That Danny is able to return to civilisation gives Moonrise an almost mystical aspect, considering his journey from the bullied bottom of the barrel, through love and murder, and through his hard escape into the wilderness. 

Plagued by his father's crime and bullied and ridiculed all his life, Danny Hawkins must emerge from the weakened male state and somehow emerge from existence as  an outcast in a small southern town.

Danny Hawkins of course is drawn to another outcast in the figure of Mose, his only friend. Their scenes together are excellent and sensitive and the subjecta of "bad blood" and free will come up in a variety of roundabout by sensitive manner. Danny is haunted by his father's crime and fears that this will be his own destiny. This is high noir territory, because Danny fears that he is fated by the blood he's inherited. 

Cycle of violence and remorse in film noir Moonrise (1948)

But Mose knows something about the racial side of "bad blood" and argues that blood is nothing more than "red" and that blood doesn't tell you "what you have to do". 

This means Danny must overcome the entire subject of genetic determinism by becoming his own person and taking responsibility for his actions. It's only then, by acknowledging a sense of free will, that Danny can escape the burden of inherited guilt. True noir.

Mose in fact is able to offer one of these rare moments of civil rights expression in noir. If it was anywhere in 1948, it was in film noir. Old Mose has a habit of addressing the dog as Mr. Dog and the guitar as Mr. Guitar, and perhaps within these monikers there is a suppressed desire for human dignity and respect. 

If this black man Mose (played by Rex Ingram) can't get this from the community which he lives separate from, at least he can perhaps his own little world where all worthy things get respect. He too expresses a desire to re-join society. Further, when he says that dogs should not be used to hunt humans, there's a huge reference to Jim Crow, slapped straight in the middle of this Hollywood picture.

Rex Ingram in film noir Moonrise (1948)

As with all good Golden Age productions, it's through the unconditional love of a woman (Gail Russell) that Danny finds the redemption he seeks. The story of the film is how through a series of tense and unpleasant episodes, he releases himself to that relationship and feels an emotion strong enough to overcome the overbearing sense of his inherited fate.

Gail Russell in Moonrise (1948)

At the same time, he can only overcome the guilt and torture he feels for the crime he has committed by owning up to the crime, and here finds that there's a heavy price to pay for re-joining good society

The character of Billy Scripture (played by Harry Morgan) is a mysterious and profound presence, even so bound within the character of the small town simpleton. Billy Scripture, who has a name that can be no accident, is another outcast and figure of ridicule, but unlike Danny, he remains sweet-natured and forgiving. 

Pastoral and poetic — redemption in film noir Moonrise (1948)

Even when Billy Scripture is nearly strangled by a desperate Danny, he responds with a forgiving smile, and in his own way, he appears to understand the ancient and underlying theme that emphasises the morality of this film noir — that anger and alienation are symptoms and not causes. 

Hypnotic at times and pastoral at others, with excitement and film noir photography in between, the enclosed sets of this film noir are the perfect fantastical backdrop to what winds up being a spiritual tale of one young man's emergence from the darkness.

Moonrise at Wikipedia (1948)

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