A fascinating mixture of grim realism and disturbing fantasy, there is nothing quite like Frank Borzage’s Moonrise. Though generally known as a director of romance and melodrama, he helmed this low budget production for Republic Pictures. Based on a novel by Theodore Strauss, this blend of melodrama, film noir, and Southern Gothic wasn’t appreciated in its day, but has since come to be regarded as something of a forgotten classic. Charles F. Haas's moody screenplay has touches of a fairytale about it and, unlike most film noir, has a hopeful, redemptive conclusion.
Dane Clark (Destination Tokyo) gives his best performance here as the oddly innocent and childlike Danny. The film’s mythic, fairytale quality largely resolves around his adventure that takes him through revenge, guilt, and madness, and towards emotional growth and spiritual redemption. His relationship with Gilly is inherently childish, at least at the beginning. They both have juvenile sounding nicknames (Danny, Gilly). They spend their time playing make believe in an old mansion and attending a carnival, where they ride a Ferris wheel. Gilly is an elementary school teacher, but constantly complains about the children; it is later implied that she isn’t mature enough to handle the responsibility. With Danny in particular, there is the sense that he does not mature into adulthood until he learns his true family history, turns himself in, and walks back to town “like a man.”
The swamp is also a stand-in for the typical enchanted forest setting of fairytales and it is during several trips here that Danny transforms away from his violent, impulsive, and future-less origins. His guardian angel, of sorts, is played by Rex Ingram, in one of film noir’s new non-stereotypical African American roles. Mose is depicted as wise, intelligent, and widely read (one character claims that he’s read every single book that’s ever been written). He’s kind to his dogs and knows the lay of the swamp. Though he is clearly at peace here, he explains to Danny that it’s a great evil to willingly separate yourself from other men. Danny also eventually finds his grandmother deep in the swamp. Played majestically (as always) by Ethel Barrymore, her maternal wisdom sets him straight and allows him to cast aside what he thought was a predetermined future of misery, violence, and death. Even the sheriff (played by Allyn Joslyn) is a voice of quirky, yet rational advice and deep philosophy that steadies the film’s nightmarish visuals.
The swamp setting is eerie, oneiric, and highly stylized. This is mainly due to the fact that Borzage shot on two sound stages to save time. The opening is particularly gripping and unsettling; a man’s feet march towards the gallows and he is hanged in silhouette, a young boy pretends to strangle himself to death, a child is viciously mocked by his classmates. John L. Russell's black and white cinematography (he later worked on Psycho) is claustrophobic, heavily shadowed, and clearly influenced by German expressionism. The rural, small town atmosphere is rare for film noir (some exceptions include The Red House and Nightmare Alley). Enhanced by the gloomy swamp and old Southern mansions crumbling into decay, Moonrise is an odd blend of realism – the kind scene at that time in poverty-focused films like Grapes of Wrath – and the kind of magical realism found in Night of the Hunter and hinted at in The Lost Weekend and Nightmare Alley.
Last but not least, Gail Russell is particularly excellent as Gilly and evokes the otherworldly air that made her such a success in The Uninvited a few years earlier and that would work in Night Has a Thousand Eyes, also in 1948. Clark and Russell have excellent charisma and their love scenes are believable, particularly the scene where they hide out in an abandoned mansion and pretend to dance at a gala ball. It is here that Gilly really falls in love with Danny and the somewhat fantastic, idyllic element of their love is made obvious.
Moonrise comes highly recommended. Unfortunately it isn’t available on DVD – I’d love to see a Blu-ray – but you can find it streaming online. Hopefully someone will rescue it from obscurity and clean up the print, because even if you aren’t as gripped by the story as I was, the visuals are some of the most amazing in all of late ‘40s cinema.