‘If you went into all the reasons why that rock struck Jerry’s head, you might end up writing the history of the world.’
This atypical 1948 film noir spins off from a rural chase cycle which includes, among others, They Live By Night, On Dangerous Ground and The Night of the Hunter. Directed by veteran Frank Borzage, known for romantic early talkie melodramas, and scripted by Charles F. Haas (from a novel by Theodore Strauss), Moonrise stresses redemption, transcendence, religion and the poetic along with the usual paranoid, violent, haunted world of noir. The protagonist is gradually tracked by the authorities and his own conscience after an impulsive murder but has a strange shot at happiness with a sweet, unconventional love interest. It even manages that rarest thing in noir – a semi-uplifting ending which doesn’t feel like a cop-out and still got past the Hays Code.
The subject would seem tailored for one of the 1950s/60s run of feminised male neurotic beauties (Clift, Dean, Brando, Anthony Perkins, Warren Beatty) – and there’s even a scene in which the alienated youth hero puts his foot down on the accelerator in a semi-suicidal thrill ride that prefigures hot-rodders and chicken runs to come. However, casting bruised-looking pug Dane Clark makes more sense credibility-wise and gives a minor player a shot at the big-time. Clark is unusually convincing as a backwater type (do we really believe Clift as a working class no-good in A Place in the Sun?) and shows a firecracker temperament that makes him credible as a possible psycho-killer. In an expressionist opening, we learn that Danny Hawkins (Clark) suffered extreme bullying as an orphan child because his father was hanged for murder (as it turns out, he killed the doctor who botched his wife’s treatment and caused her death).
The young man has his eye on schoolteacher Gilly (Gail Russell) but is still needled by the local in-crowd, one of whom (Lloyd Bridges) he batters to death with a rock and dumps in the woods during an argument. Terrified he’ll be caught, and – worse – that this will confirm what folks have been saying about his bad blood, Danny is also liberated by his crime. With nothing to lose, he makes a play for Gilly, who turns out to be an equally complex, hard-to-define character. In a marvellously-played sequence, Danny takes Gilly to a decayed old mansion for a romantic moment (prefiguring Rebel Without a Cause) and is at once delighted and disturbed when she starts roleplay, adopting a Southern belle accent and asking him to dance. By going off into her own fantasy, she has broken his idea of her, but also shown she might be emotionally attainable The canny Sheriff (Allyn Joslyn) gently asks Danny questions that seem to set him up to manufacture a case against another suspect (which he can’t quite bring himself to do). Billy Scripture (Henry Morgan), a childlike deaf mute Danny has always protected, finds and keeps a knife that could link Danny with the crime. In another set-piece, Danny takes Gilly to a county fair in an attempt to forget his troubles, but becomes more and more jittery over the course of the evening – to the extent that he thinks the Sheriff is following him by sitting in the next car on the ferris wheel and hysterically tries to get off the contraption while it’s in motion.
The protagonist reaches the point where most noir characters would become unredeemable, throttling the innocent fool in his shack, but is horrifed by his own actions and stops in time. In a wonderful, heart-tugging moment, Billy (Morgan doesn’t plead for extra sympathy the way most character actors cast as Lennie types do) is appeased by a gentle pat and smiles weakly at the man who has nearly murdered him. Rex Ingram is one of the occasional dignified, saintly black father figures who crop up in ‘40s films – he’s a trapper (inevitably named ‘Mose’) who calls his dogs ‘mister’ because ‘there isn’t enough respect in the world’ and realises Danny’s guilt early but has faith that the boy will eventually turn himself in. Ethel Barrymore is at the end of a run through the swamp as Danny’s grandmother in a key scene which brings out the backstory and leads to an understated, affecting finish. Beautifully filmed, with as many misty fantastical stretches as harshly-lit noir shadows, and played with exceptional sensitivity by the non-star cast, this hugely underrated minor classic rewards close study.