In Moonrise, Frank Borzage sheds his ethereal aesthetic to foreground man as a product of circumstances
In Moonrise, director Frank Borzage accentuates his protagonist Danny’s shadowed existence by holding him at a distance from the viewer.
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The story of Moonrise (1948), in many ways, is antithetical to the way Hollywood tells it. One of the ideological pillars of the classical Hollywood narrative is individualism, the idea that a person is what he chooses to be. In this view of things, factors outside one’s control, such as social milieu, upbringing or race, have little bearing on what one might make of their life. Moonrise, in contrast, foregrounds man as a product of circumstances. The protagonist Danny’s father is hanged for murder, and Danny (Dane Clark) spends his whole life struggling with the question of whether violence runs in his blood. In the film’s first scene, an overt bit of directorial messaging cuts from Danny’s father being hanged to the shadow of a suspended doll looming over baby Danny in the cradle.
As he grows up, Danny is bullied by peers, especially Jerry (Lloyd Bridges), the son of a wealthy banker. He is called by his second name, Hawkins, to remind him of his father’s sin. Danny lives in a constant state of fear and distress. As he puts it in an outburst late in the film, no one gives him a job, and girls stay away from him “like he was poison”. He carries a dead man on his back all his life, and he might be one himself. Danny keeps away those around him, with a few exceptions. He looks out for Billy the deaf-mute (Harry Morgan), the only one in town more unfortunate than him. He longs for the romantic attention of Gilly (Gain Russell), whom Jerry also courts.
In a tussle in the woods on a dance night, Danny ends up killing Jerry in a mix of pent-up rage and self-defence, and hides his body in a cave. As word starts getting around about Jerry’s disappearance, Danny grows desperate, meeting Gilly only secretly and frequenting his friend Mose (Rex Ingram) who lives in the woods with his hunting dogs. Mose is depicted a wise, well-read man who recognises the dignity of every living being. He has no back story, but regretfully claims to have resigned from the human race. As a black man in the American south, he surely knows a thing or two about being judged for your involuntary inheritances.
When the noose starts tightening around Danny, another large-hearted figure comes into the picture. In contrast to the judgmental eyes of the small town, sheriff Otis (Allyn Joslyn) views Danny’s action in light of his difficult childhood. Like Mose, he recognises crime as a product of social factors. In a powerful conversation with the town coroner, he says, “If you went into all the reasons why that rock struck Jerry’s head, you might end up writing the history of the world.” The Sheriff cuts Danny some slack, urging him to come surrender so that his sentence may be commuted. Gilly, too, sticks by Danny when she learns the truth.
These humane gestures are amplified by the film’s vision of small-town America. The story is set in Virginia and the place seems frozen in an unspecified time in early 20th century. People are referred to by their origin: hillbillies, Yankees. Prejudices run deep, especially against those way down the social ladder as Danny and Mose are. Soon after the murder, rumours float around about the killer’s identity. “A small town's like a stomach—always digesting”, remarks the sheriff, referring to public incrimination by way of rumour-mongering. In the nuanced view of Moonrise, the familiarity enforced by small-town life is the source both of bigotry and saving grace.
This complexity is also extended to the anti-heroic protagonist, who is repulsive and sympathetic in equal measure. He is the result of his difficult circumstances, but he is also a difficult personality. While he fends for the hapless Billy, Danny practically forces himself on Gilly, who turns down his advances several times. When she gently criticises him for his childishness, he pushes the pedal on the car he’s driving and crashes it. Emerging out of the crash, the first thing he does is to kiss a half-conscious Gilly. He tails her after the event, imposing himself despite her protests until she gives in.
Director Frank Borzage accentuates Danny’s shadowed existence by holding him at a distance from the viewer. We generally see the character under a blanket darkness or as a silhouette. At times, his face is blocked or covered by something on the foreground. Even in closer shots, he is filmed in profile and often with shadows creeping up on his face. This strategy also helps the filmmaker minimise his dependence on the capabilities of the lead actor, Dane Clark, a relatively new leading man in town. Clark plays Danny with an unflattering nervousness, a low voice and with no charm whatsoever. As a result, the viewer’s identification with the lead actor is weakened, if not thwarted.
Moonrise, moreover, progresses on a disharmonious scale from the start. After the execution of his father in the opening scene, we see young Danny being roughed up by his schoolmates. The murder takes place in the very next scene, as though a foreordained event. Danny courts Gilly in immediately afterwards, this segue into romance right after a murder producing an unnerving overtone. Save for a scene with Gilly at the town fair, Danny is never happy or at peace. This succession of one anxious scene after the other creates a sense of instability, a lingering feeling that it is not going to end well for the protagonist.
And yet, Moonrise makes an appeal for Danny. There’s a Christian charity at work in the film, no doubt part of Borzage’s temperament. Borzage, the most affirmatively Catholic of filmmakers in Hollywood along with John Ford and Frank Capra, shares the perspectives of Mose, Gilly and the sheriff. The church is present only at the margins of the story, but its fundamental spirit of forbearance suffuses the film. There’s a relentless seriousness about Moonrise that Borzage, unlike Ford and Capra, refuses to dilute with comic relief. There’s no irony or scepticism to be found in Borzage’s work, which embodies a sincerity almost pre-modern.
On the other hand, Moonrise signals a shift away from the director’s established style of soft, top lighting and diffusion filters. Working with fledgling cinematographer John Russell, freshly off Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948), Borzage goes for an expressionistic style of high chiaroscuro. The framing is deep, the edges sharp and the shadows dark. The fisticuff between Danny and Jerry is as rough as anything in Fritz Lang, as is the manic frenzy of a key scene involving a Ferris wheel. The focus on hands, as in the extended shot that opens a conversation between Danny and Gilly or the shot where the sheriff tries to trap an insect on a table, brings in a materialist, hard-boiled texture to the images, far from the ethereal aesthetic characteristic of Borzage, where human beings often vanish into pure concepts.
It isn’t wholly unlikely that this change in style was influenced by the production company, Republic Pictures, one of the smaller Hollywood studios. Modesty of means often calls for invention, as is evident in a sequence at a railway station. The whole scene consists of shots of five people waiting on a platform bench. We never get a reverse shot of the approaching train or its passengers. This displaces the scene’s focus from the new stranger entering town to the reaction of Danny and the townsfolk to his arrival.
Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic and translator from Bengaluru. He tweets at @J_A_F_B
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