Moonrise (1948)

“What I did was resign from the human race.”

Moonrise is a surprisingly good, atmospheric film that examines the questions: Is there such a thing as ‘bad blood?’ Do genes map out someone’s destiny or do societal pressures and expectations affect behaviour? Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark) is orphaned after his father is executed for murder. Raised by a maiden aunt in a small Southern swamp town, the other children cruelly taunt him, and as he grows up, he can’t escape the taint of his father’s crime. Years pass, and even though Danny is now an adult, tormenting him is still a local pastime. Left permanently damaged by his father’s death, he’s unemployed and in love with schoolteacher, Gilly (Gail Russell). Gilly, however, seems more interested in Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges) the son of a local banker.

Moonrise from director Frank Borzage makes the most of its setting. Flash thunderstorms rage, and the swamp acts both as a refuge, and a place to hide crime. Several scenes take place in the swamp at the remote cabin home of Mose (Rex Ingram), just one of several interesting characters in this film. He maintains a pack of hounds, but objects to them being used to hunt men. This echoes back to the days of slavery, and Mose, who is an outsider like Hawkins, offers sage advice and is a father figure to Danny. The local sheriff is another great character–a man whose slow pace hides his wisdom and desire to solve crime. Regarding the drive to gossip and judge its residents, he says a small town is “just like a stomach. Always digesting.”

The film begins with a hanging conducted in the rain. This is all seen indirectly through the shadows of the gallows, and the film continues to make good use of shadow, replaying the gallows scene throughout the film. A few plot elements lead nowhere (the bank investigation, for example), and Gilly’s shift in attitude remains inexplicable. That said, many of the camera shots intrigue me. There are several scenes of characters from the chest down. The heads and faces are missing, but we still get the dialogue. This creates a disembodied effect that is underscored by another scene of just voices–no characters. There’s one great sequence with unusual camera shots that takes place on the ferris wheel. Animal lovers, be warned: there’s one very unpleasant scene involving raccoon hunting.

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Filed under Film Noir

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