Frank Borzage’s Moonrise doesn’t revel in individual actualization for its own sake, which distinguishes it from much of modern American cinema. Instead, Borzage is concerned with the intricate symbiotic relationships between individuals and society at large, refuting the self-absorption that typically governs a modern hero’s quest. Moonrise is less a violent film than a film about violence—one that’s occupied, in particular, with the lingering aftereffects of capital punishment. The film’s violent acts are intricately linked, each perpetuating the next in an expansive chain reaction.
An outsider in a small Virginia town, Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark) is haunted by his father’s execution by hanging. Growing up, children mocked him for this legacy, particularly Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges), whom Danny beats to death in the film’s first act after weathering decades of abuse and torment. The murder is ambiguous—to an extent an act of self-defense, as Jerry corners Danny in the woods by the local lake, attacking him with a stone that Danny seizes and utilizes in an explosion of dormant rage. Danny hides Jerry’s body in a swamp and spends the rest of the narrative wrestling with this loss of control.
The film has a primordial sense of cause and effect that’s reminiscent of parables. The hanging of Danny’s father indirectly triggers the bludgeoning of Jerry years later, as the execution is the pretense for Danny and Jerry’s rivalry, serving as a representation of their class divide. One imagines that Jerry’s prominent banker father, J.B. (Harry Cheshire), would never be publically hung, no matter what crime he committed. This ritual tends to plague those of the working or nomadic classes, such as mountain people like Danny and his kin.
In turn, Jerry’s murder drives Danny to attack Billy Scripture (Harry Morgan), a defenseless mute who has a knife that places Danny at the scene of Jerry’s disappearance. Borzage intimately regards Danny as rage, panic, and remorse battle within him for supremacy over a matter of seconds, offering a study of a man’s struggle to transcend his demons for the sake of honoring a basic social contract. Danny manages to restrain himself, straightening Billy out on the latter’s cot, smoothing over Billy’s hair while the would-be victim looks at Danny with an uncomprehending gratitude that’s heartbreaking. Danny finds the knife and returns it to Billy, symbolically breaking the chain of violence.
Plenty of films concern the importance of empathy and the necessity of atonement; Frank Capra built a cottage industry out of redemption that continues to influence cinema. An unjustly obscure master, Borzage evaded the speechifying and sentimentality that mar the work of Capra and many others, examining at length the physical and emotional tolls of extending empathy. Moonrise dramatizes the challenges of honoring a delicate arrangement between not only humans but animals (whom Borzage also films with clear-eyed rapture), which is bound by law and common sense that can easily be perverted by entitled hucksters like Jerry.
Moonrise is a crushingly lonely film, poetic in ways that suggest a kind of Steinbeckian expressionism. Danny and Billy are outcasts who spend their time in swamps and abandoned mansions, dreaming of the respectability of the other side. The film was shot entirely on sets, which is evocatively obvious, plunging the audience into a subjective realm. We’re aware of the insularity of this town, of the stifling lack of fresh air. Every setting appears to exist onto itself, physicalizing Danny’s struggles to join human society. The sticky humid swamp conjures a sense of suffocation, just as a pond embodies the submerging of generational secrets. Later, Danny and the woman he loves, Gilly (Gail Russell), hide out in a dilapidated Confederate mansion, play-acting a scene that might be a half-remembered moment from Gone with the Wind.
Fantasies and associations comingle, as Danny’s murder merges with suggestions of the wars, genocides, and enslavements that forged a country that has yet to face its own legacy. Prismatic images bleed into one another, as evinced by a brilliant juxtaposition—between the hanging of Danny’s father and a silhouette of a doll that appears to be floating in baby Danny’s room—that boils a social imprinting down to a few hard, tangible totems. An elderly African-American man, Mose (Rex Ingram), lives in the swamp and councils Danny, and while nothing is explicitly made of Mose’s race, the tension surrounding his racial identity charges their scenes together, as this is a man who knows of estrangement and rejection. Speaking in rich, biblical cadences, Mose says that he gave up on humans, confessing that this might be the worst thing a man can do that isn’t punishable by law.
Moonrise has a fragile, wandering intensity. The film is obsessed by Danny’s isolation, which is understood to be partially illusory—more of a mental than a physical state. Borzage’s devotion to his protagonist’s alienation anticipates Paul Thomas Anderson’s similar kinship with his own wayward characters in The Master. Tarnished by a painful childhood, Danny can’t recognize the support system he’s found, and his guilt is a metaphor for his feelings of inferiority. If Danny is to confess to his murder of Jerry, he is to face his legacy and atone for his guilt as well as his self-loathing.
Danny’s awakening isn’t undertaken in isolation, as Borzage understands that we cannot be divorced from our surroundings; such a belief, even if reflective of doubt, is rooted in the sort of egotism that’s often gratified by films, TV, and politicians. By contrast, Danny is surrounded by confidantes who have the imagination to rise above their own prescribed roles in a small town. Sheriff Clem Otis (Allyn Joslyn) isn’t the usual noir bloodhound, but a surrogate priest who empathizes with Danny and recognizes the class strictures that have marginalized him. Gilly, a beautiful woman who represents mainstream acceptance to Danny, is also a kind of priest—and in one of the film’s most powerful scenes, a Ferris wheel car is likened to a confession booth.
Contemplative and transcendent, Moonrise underscores how genre formulas casually satisfy our prejudices to proffer an easy sense of catharsis and comfort. In many even ostensibly liberal films, killers are killers who need to be killed, while law enforcers are superficially flawed yet unshakable knights of security. Borzage offers a portrait of social maintenance that’s strained by the baggage of heartbreak, fantasy, inequality, and matters of miscommunication—by intrinsic humanity in other words.
The image has a lush vibrancy that’s remarkable for any transfer, let alone of a film that turns 70 this year. Compositional clarity is healthy, emphasizing how backgrounds enclose characters, stifling and comforting them in unquantifiable ratios, and textures are vivid and subtle, which is important to a film that abounds in so many tactile symbols. Blacks are rich to the point of achieving viscosity, while whites are as sharp and precise as a pin needle. The monaural soundtrack is lush and multi-planed, paying especial heed to the intricate layering of wildlife sounds, which subliminally assert the film’s concern with a vast and primordial social balance.
A new conversation between author Hervé Dumont and film historian Peter Cowie offers a bit of context for viewers new to Borzage’s work. The men discuss the filmmaker’s style, history, and how he came to shoot Moonrise for Republic Pictures and inventively use a low budget to his advantage. It’s a good, if disappointingly short, talk, though Philip Kemp’s essay elaborates on Borzage’s legacy. Kemp parses Moonrise’s symbolism while offering a shrewd analysis of Borzage’s career and reputation at large, which suffered as Hollywood lost interest in his brand of nuanced romanticism.
As Hollywood films grow blunter and duller, Borzage’s delicate humanism feels more alive and urgent than ever, as evinced by the Criterion Collection’s superb restoration of Moonrise.