Escaping the Sins of the Father in MOONRISE

Rediscovering this blend of classic noir and personal destiny

Moonrise is a curious entry in the film noir canon. It doesn’t carry with it many of the trappings, such as the femme fatale or the need to escape the big city before it swallows a person up. Yet the film does carry with it a stain which cannot help but signify so much about what made the genre so distinct. The dark drama is almost slightly more uncharacteristic as a Criterion pick. It doesn’t carry the cache of a director such as Martin Scorsese, nor does it feature a powerhouse performance from a formidable screen presence such as Daniel Day-Lewis or touch on some cultural milestone of society that’s brilliantly explored cinematically. Yet what it lacks in the sort of prestige or reputation of both the genre it belongs to or the company releasing it, Moonrise more than makes up for as a journey to one of more darker sides of the human psyche in quite a hypnotic style that’s the epitome of classic film.

As a young child, Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark) was instantly made an outcast because his father was hung for murder. As an adult, Danny is still seen as a bit of an outsider who appears to have followed in his father’s footsteps when he accidentally kills a fellow rival (Lloyd Bridges) with whom Danny is competing with for the affections of the lovely schoolteacher Gilly (Gail Russell). As the law begins to close in on him, Danny tries to flee both a punishment for a crime he had no intention of committing and the notion that he is his father’s son in more ways than one.

While Moonrise may be more of the uncharacteristic noir titles to exist in the whole of the genre, it nonetheless wears plenty of the undeniable tropes which continue to make it worthy of fascination and study. Director Frank Borzage knows how to use the specific stylings of noir to generate excitement and make the simplest of moments all the more powerful. Many of the angles and camera movements within the film echo some of noir’s top titles. The use of close-ups in Moonrise may be the film’s most intoxicating visual touch, oftentimes starting at a person’s waist, holding for a few moments before slowly moving up. Meanwhile, the use of sound in the film (which garnered Moonrise its sole Oscar nom) is used to drum up more suspense than the typically pensive story would otherwise generate. The movie’s theme of a father’s sins being revisited on his son and a struggle to escape a predestined fate are straight out of the kind of dark storytelling film noir thrived on, while the dialogue (which included such gems as : “Blood is red. It keeps you alive; it doesn’t tell you what you have to do,”) epitomized both the pulp and the poetry of what made noir so popular.

As much as the central theme of Moonrise helps to partly solidify its place in film noir, it also helps to set it apart from the genre. The film exists as one of the more thoughtful and philosophical exercises in noir with its various reflective themes. In many ways, Moonrise is an exercise in self-loathing, self-hatred and self-destruction where Danny is concerned, who has spent his life believing he never deserved any better than he’s gotten from the world. But Moonrise makes sure it shows the various dimensions which make up its central figure by looking at his capacity for humanity, such as coming to the aid of the local bullied mute and displaying genuine affection towards his aunt. In Danny, the film shows a man wanting love but who feels as if he’s not worthy of it. A scene between him and Gilly in a dark living room is lovely and playful between the two; a moment when the horrors of the situation at hand seem far away. Through the warmth, empathy and understanding he gets from Gilly, Danny at times feels at odds with his psyche with part of him fighting to believe that he might deserve something good for himself.

Moonrise concludes its story with a spectacular sequence at the town carnival in which both its noir elements and character ideology come together harmoniously. The presence of the local townspeople with their prying eyes and endless judgment in full force as suspicion closes in on Danny, makes for an incredibly claustrophobic set piece in which the tension is gloriously amped up. Aside from a brilliant stroke of noir suspense, Moonrise can also claim elements of a Greek tragedy, containing a dramatic heft that rings so incredibly true and profound. For all it’s style and suspense however, it’s the idea of a man’s struggle to escape the labels and fate both society and his own psyche have assigned to him. It’s the determination to exist as one’s own person which in the end sets the film apart, giving it a deeper quality than most would give it credit for.

Moonrise is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

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