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Drama, Noir, Favorite

1948 | 4:3 | BLACK & WHITE | Quality: Excellent

Gail Russel

Dane Clark

Ethel Barrymore


A man is hanged for murder, and his son is tormented and bullied throughout his childhood because of his "shameful" parentage. Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark) grows into a tortured adult, lonely and gentle, but also prey to uncontrollable rage and the fear that his "bad blood" destines him to repeat his father's crime. The first scene, set at an outdoor dance held near the swamps, introduces a nasty Southern small town community in which young people laughingly taunt a retarded deaf-mute. Danny gets in a fight in the woods with his lifelong nemesis, and in an ambiguous combination of self-defense and revenge, crushes his skull with a rock. The remainder of the film follows the gradual unraveling of this crime, and Danny's growing relationship with Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell), a beautiful and civilized schoolteacher who is initially put off by, then irresistibly drawn to, this rough and troubled man.

Widely considered a Noir classic, Moonrise is made with such stunning care from director Frank Borzage that one can watch it a thousand times and still catch some new clever little allegory or callback. A hand pursues a fly across a tablecloth as a sheriff questions a suspect; a knife whittles a stick almost to the breaking point; goldfish swim in a bowl behind the head of a man who feels trapped in a conversation. Such obvious symbolism may sound hokey, but Borzage knows how to use it to create a heightened, evocative film that makes us feel we are inside the characters' heads. Dane Clark never quite made it out of the B-list, but in Moonrise he got the role of a lifetime and no one could have played it better. He lurches through the film like a wounded animal using a deep, husky, sorrowful voice. Though we identify with him completely, Danny often behaves irrationally and badly; in one wrenching scene, he nearly strangles the deaf man he has always protected, and is horrified at himself. Gail Russell, an actress famously crippled by stage-fright and dependent on alcohol, makes the loveliest of Noir's "good angels," her natural dark features mesh perfectly with the visual tone of the film. In the latter part of the picture she morphs into a heavenly messenger of mercy in her white trench coat, but she is also a believable and fully-rounded character, especially charming in the exquisite scene where the lovers meet in a derelict plantation mansion. With a support cast containing Ethel Barrymore, Allyn Joslyn {excellent}, Henry Morgan, Harry Carey Jr and a brief Lloyd Bridges, this is a recommended film of course. When exploring old movies, some will be good, some will be bad, and then some rare few will be true gems. Moonrise is such a gem. A gritty realistic tale, brilliantly directed, populated with memorable characters superbly brought to life by a superb cast.

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