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Life in a small town can be brutal…
In an effort that was ahead of its time, Moonrise is a cold and calculating thriller that could easily be updated for today and slapped with a presented by the Coen Brothers label. It’s arguably a forgotten forerunner in the annals of film noir from a man that history has forgotten as a truly epic filmmaker.
Stigmatized from infancy by the fate of his criminal father, young Danny (Dane Clark) is bruised and bullied until one night, in a fit of rage he kills his most persistent tormentor. As the police close in around him, Danny makes a desperate bid for the love of the dead man’s fiancée (Gail Russell), a school teacher who sees the wounded soul behind his aggression.
It’s a fantastic little film as director Frank Borzage who made his name as a silent film director came through with this flourish of a film that ramps up the melodrama of a good old fashioned romance wrapped up in the psychological trappings of a film noir. It’s a murder mystery type story that isn’t afraid to wear a little raw emotion on its sleeve.
In one the final films of his career, Frank Borzage takes a story from Theodore Strauss who wrote the book of the same name and makes Moonrise into a talkie that still has a certain degree of dramatic charm inside its macabre narrative that it is trying to unfold. We have a tormented soul who can’t help but crumble under the pressure of a life that is closing in on him; he’s haunted to the point that it impacts his every effort on an attempt at general happiness. Borzage makes Danny (played by Dane Clark) feel darn near operatic in his tragic nature; he’s a sad sack but such a magnetic one that you can’t help but get sucked into his predicament as it unfurls. Borzage allows the subtle beats in the story to play out as our hero gets setup and torn down at the same time. The noir elements are subtle but clearly there, through the simple framing that Borzage uses and the words in the script from screenwriter Charles Haas who uses some very clear framing between the issues of good and bad and the inability to resign from the human race, even though we may want to.
Star Dane Clark had a full working, yet unspectacular career and this very possibly could have been his highlight. He gives us a character turn that is sympathetic, but tortured and broken all at the same time and that kind of nuance wasn’t always seen in films of the era and it’s a testament to both Clark and Borzage who you could feel were on the same page with the material. It’s the story of a good man, trapped in small town existence knowing that he’d never be able to break free from the personal torment of his very own life.
Picture looks great with a new restored 4K digital transfer and the special features include a new conversation between author Herve Dumont who wrote Frank Borzage: The Life of a Hollywood Romantic and film historian Peter Cowie, there’s also an essay from in the booklet from critic Philip Kemp.
Moonrise is ultimately a beautifully shot affair of a young man trying to break free from a personal torment of murder most foul that has haunted him his entirely life and a reminder that even good people can be pushed too far and finds the sweeping melodrama of romance inside it all. It’s a story of love down to its very core, which isn’t always pretty.