Directed by Frank Borzage
Criterion Channel and Criterion DVD
THE FILM starts out as a fevered dream: oddly warped feet walking across the screen, their steps spreading outwards like a malignancy; the camera shifts and we realize we’re looking at water reflections of three men’s legs crossing a concrete floor. For some reason your eye focus on the leading man’s hands: they hang down from limp heavily resigned arms. Why?
Things — as they do in noir — happen faster than our ability to understand: the feet walk past others gathered in what appears to be a standing crowd, mount a wooden scaffold; the camera reluctantly turns aside to gaze at the scaffold’s shadow (catching a glimpse along the way of the viewers — it is a crowd, all holding up umbrellas, a single grim expression on every face) in time to see a man being fitted with mask and noose round his neck; another man pushing a lever and…
Cut to the man’s shadow swinging from its rope and a baby shrieking. The camera moves in on the baby’s face, eyes averted, reflecting the camera’s reluctance to watch the horror; the camera pulls back and we realize it’s not the man but a doll, swinging over the baby’s crib.
The opening hits like a blow to the gut (A tug to the throat?) but what lingers is the mocking cruelty of that doll. Who does that to a child? What does that do to the child?
Frank Borzage’s adaptation of Theodore Strauss’ novel Moonrise sets out to answer the second question: a man — Danny Hawkins — does wrong and is relentlessly hunted, most relentlessly by his own conscience. The camera followed his father’s footsteps (hung for killing a man), would follow him through the school playground into adulthood with the obsessiveness of a bully — in this case Jerry Sykes, played with smiling sneering infuriating arrogance by Lloyd Bridges. At one point as children Jerry’s friends hold Danny still while Jerry smears mud (at least we hope it’s mud) all over Danny’s face, and you’re struck by the emotional tone of the gesture: if you’re familiar with Borzage’s films you’d know he often gets his characters dirty (they’re likely poor folk struggling to rise above their circumstances) but this dirt is applied with a will and viciousness rarely found in his films. Something has happened over the years and you can’t help but wonder what.
The production started as a $2 million prestige independent production with William Wellman directing and John Garfield as Danny; it ended up in Republic Pictures with less than half the budget ($849,452 — still “prestige,” only as defined by the habitually lowballing Republic) with Dane Clark as Danny and Borzage, his career waning, as director.
One wonders what Garfield, perhaps the most charismatic underdog in Hollywood, might have made of the role; I’ve read the opinion that Clark doesn’t measure up but I think it’s that sense of having been assigned leftovers, of filling star-sized shoes, that drives Clark’s performance — as Danny he’s been told and believes that thanks to his father he has “bad blood,” and that belief (in the form of Borzage’s camera and Jerry Sykes) has hounded him all his life. When he’s had his fill and finally strikes back he’s horrified (and at some level, you sense, satisfied) to learn that he and everyone else was right all along.
Borzage also had something to prove: he was a handsome man, and made an early career of acting; he was in his early 20s when he directed his first feature, in his early 30s when he did some of his best work (7th Heaven, Street Angel, A Farewell to Arms). You might say Borzage was born not long before silent cinema was born, and was appreciated most when his sensibility expressed silent cinema’s (and early sound cinema’s) idealistic romanticism.
All that changed with World War 2, and the cinematic expression of that darker tone was film noir — a genre obsessed with German Expressionist lighting, and a darker vision of man’s depravity. In noir’s view the hero is a mere rat caught in a vast trap; the rest of the film is him struggling — vainly — to escape.
Borzage resisted this pessimism the way he resisted encroaching Nazism in the 1930s and ’40s (Little Man, What Now?, The Mortal Storm); he fell out of step with then-current Hollywood and public sentiment, and his films struggled at the box office. Arguably Moonrise was his response to the sea-change, and grapples with the interpretation on its terms — Danny, like any proper noir protagonist, believes in man’s flawed nature and inevitable fall, and flees accordingly; through one extraordinary setpiece after another, Borzage plunges Danny deeper and deeper into the genre’s psychic quagmire.
Hence the coon hunt, the men in boots the baying hounds, ending in Danny scaling up a tree to go after the trapped animal. In a series of giant closeups we see Danny and raccoon facing each other, Danny identifying with the animal’s desperation, Danny looking yet not looking (the way the camera looks/doesn’t look in the film’s opening) while he shakes the doomed creature’s branch.
Much later Danny enters the tiny shack of deaf-mute Billy Scripture (Harry Morgan) in search of a pocketknife he had dropped while fighting Jerry Sykes, his fear and paranoia touching such a crescendo that he reaches out in the frenzied light of a swinging lamp to wrap his hands round Billy’s throat.
But here’s the crazy thing — no one’s chasing him, at least not at first. Perhaps the only one with any idea Danny might be involved in Jerry’s disappearance is Sheriff Otis (Allyn Joslyn). The sheriff’s suspicions are first aroused when he sees Danny riding a Ferris Wheel with Jeffrey Syke’s fiancé Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell). Danny looks down at Otis’ upturned face — the threat seems ominous if distant. But a Ferris Wheel turns, and Danny finds himself under the gaze of Otis’ increasingly curious stare, finds himself above the sheriff, high and exposed, finds himself spinning over and over with no end in sight. It’s not so much the scrutiny as the uncertainty (Does the sheriff know or doesn’t he?); Danny’s agitation escalates to the point where he has to do something and — spectacularly — he does.
The key to Borzage’s view of Danny’s predicament lies, I think, in a scene midway through the film, when Danny meets Gilly in an abandoned plantation house. They feel free here in these darkened rooms, lost among the Gothic bric-a-brac; Gail address a full-sized portrait of a Southern belle and turns the occasion into a ball; she invites him to waltz. While the lovers move to unheard music, the camera rises up past the chandelier, swoops down onto the lovers as they move together in darkened profile for a kiss. It’s as if Gilly had sussed out Danny’s self-manufactured desperation and herself fabricated an alternative scenario, gently mocking his gloom; Danny gives in, and for a moment forgets that he’s being hunted — or at least forgets the idea that he’s being hunted.
Two figures flank Danny like warning signs on his self-made road to perdition: Sheriff Otis, who possesses more empathy and compassion than any law enforcer has any right to have (“Sometimes murder is like love. It takes two to commit it: The man who hates and the man who’s hated”) — if he pursues Danny it’s the pursuit of a man who fully understands what the fugitive is going through, a disturbing yet strangely comforting thought. Then there’s Danny’s best friend Mose Jackson, perhaps the first to uncover Danny’s secret; early in the film he responds to Danny’s “bad blood” theory thusly: “Blood is red. It doesn’t tell you what you have to do.” Earlier than that Mose sums up his situation and philosophy: “What I did was resign from the human race — and I guess that’s about the worst crime there is.” The two point out to Danny the right way to go, the right thing to do; it’s up to Danny however to realize it.