Of all the directors who made both silent and sound films, Frank Borzage may have been the most successful at carrying over the silent style: he never abandoned his sublime romanticism, and he continued to tell stories visually. Moonrise is not just beautifully filmed, not just atmospheric, it actually uses imagery with the expressive and communicative power I associate with late silent movies. 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. Other Borzage talkies that I've seen have been flawed, and I thought his style didn't translate very well from the silent era, but despite several over-the-top moments, everything in Moonrise works. The love story is as touching and convincing as those in his great silents, and even the comedy relief from a jive-talking soda jerk and an ancient Civil War vet succeeds.
The movie opens with an expressionistic sequence, using only shadows and striking visual details, that lays out the story's premise: 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.
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 has a fist-clenched fighter's stance and dark wounded-animal eyes, a rugged face softened by long, thick eyelashes, and 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 dark beauty lit by an intense, melancholy stillness. In the latter part of the film she looks like 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. Gilly pretends they are attending an old Southern soiree, and they waltz without music in the dark, cobwebbed parlor.
Danny's only friend is Mose, one of those saintly African American characters who often turn up in films of the forties. Rex Ingram's strong performance transcends stereotype; though all-wise, he is also a lonely, somewhat embittered character, who says he has "resigned from the human race," and who addresses his hunting dogs as "Mister," because, "There's not enough dignity in the world." Harry Morgan is flawless in the mute role of another outcast, the retarded man who looks up to Danny. And Lloyd Bridges, though he is only on screen for about five minutes, makes an indelible addition to his collection of loathsome, cowardly bullies.
Did Borzage ever make a film that wasn't about the redemptive power of love? If so, I haven't seen it. But Moonrise is also about the persistence of hate and the way people can be robbed of their humanity by degrading treatment. It demonstrates as well as any film Borzage's two great gifts: his expressive and dynamic visual sense, and his ability to draw intensely heartfelt performances from his actors. In a love scene shot in silhouette against lace-curtained windows, Borzage proves that the transcendent romanticism of the silent screen isn't incompatible with sound. And with help from Dane Clark, he creates a portrait of a mind haunted by the past and at war with itself, the essential Noir predicament.