Combustible Celluloid
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With: Dane Clark, Gail Russell, Ethel Barrymore, Allyn Joslyn, Rex Ingram, Harry Morgan, David Street, Selena Royle, Harry Carey, Jr., Irving Bacon, Lloyd Bridges, Houseley Stevenson, Phil Brown, Harry V. Cheshire, Lila Leeds
Written by: Charles F. Haas, based on a novel by Theodore Strauss
Directed by: Frank Borzage
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 90
Date: 10/01/1948

Moonrise (1948)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Bad Blood

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris wrote of Frank Borzage: "Anglo-Saxon film historians have generally underrated Borzage on the assumption that the director's romanticism was a commercially motivated betrayal of realism. Yet the way of the romanticist is usually much harder than that of the realist." Even today, it's hard to defend Borzage (Seventh Heaven, Man's Castle, Three Comrades, The Mortal Storm) as one of the great studio-era directors, especially given that precious few of his movies have been available to see. Now the Criterion Collection gives us his final film, and by some counts, his masterpiece, Moonrise (1948).

Unlike anything else released in that great movie year of 1948, Moonrise is a truly great film, strange and sympathetic. It's haunting like the wide, hurting eyes of its hero, Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark), are haunting. The movie opens with a striking sequence, a man led to the gallows, shown only by hesitant feet and shadows on the wall, illuminated by a kind of otherworldly lighting. Later, the man's son, Danny, is immediately picked on and ostracized by other kids, especially one Jerry Sykes. Danny grows up an outsider, in the shadow of his father's crime, and Jerry grows up too (into Lloyd Bridges), never ceasing to bully him.

They live in a small, southern town, surrounded by swamps. One night, Jerry takes Danny behind the local dance hall to order him never to dance with his girl, schoolteacher Gilly (Gail Russell), whom Danny secretly loves. The men begin fighting. Jerry grabs a rock, but loses it. And, in a fit of rage and finality, Danny bashes Jerry in the head with the same rock. He drags the body into the murk and hides it, but he's immediately haunted by anguish and grief, fearing that he has inherited his father's "bad blood." He begins acting irrationally, speeding and crashing a car with Gilly and her friends in it, pitching out of a ferris wheel at the fair, and nearly strangling the town deaf-mute (Harry Morgan), who has found Danny's knife at the crime scene.

During his daze, he accompanies the black Mose (Rex Ingram) on a raccoon hunt, and sees how Mose treats all living things with kindness, but he also sees himself trapped and doomed, like the hunted 'coon. Borzage instinctively uses the characters' surroundings to visualize and externalize Danny's torment, ranging from the ingenious devices of the ferris wheel, the crashing car (complete with haunted images of Jerry coming at Danny with a rock appearing in the windshield), and the 'coon hunt, to simple shots of deep, black shadows and the mysterious swamps. While it could have easily been hokey or clumsy, Borzage gives it elegance and truth. It's a movie of great sorrow, but also a movie of great beauty.

Criterion's Blu-ray is one of those glittering jewels that truly shows off how gorgeous a black-and-white movie can be; it gets the contrast just right, with a rich, deep picture, and flawless sound (it features an uncompressed monaural soundtrack). Alas, it only features one extra, but it's a good one: a conversation between author Hervé Dumont (Frank Borzage: The Life and Films of a Hollywood Romantic) and film historian Peter Cowie. Film critic Philip Kemp provides the liner notes essay.

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