Thursday, August 22, 2019

Moonrise (Frank Borzage, 1948)


The film starts out a fevered dream: warped feet walking across the screen, steps rippling outward like a malignancy; camera shifts and we realize we're looking at the water reflection of three men crossing a concrete floor. Your eyes focus on the leading man's hands: they hang limp from heavily resigned arms. Why?   

Things--as they do in noir--happen faster than our ability to comprehend them: the feet walk past others gathered in what looks to be a standing crowd, mount a wooden scaffold; the camera turns aside to gaze at the scaffold's shadow (catching a glimpse along the way of the viewers--it is a crowd, all holding up umbrellas, a single grim expression on every face) in time to see a man--the same man whose hands caught our attention--being fitted with hood and noose round his neck; another man pushes a lever and

Cut to the man's shadow swinging from its rope and a baby shrieking. The camera moves in on the baby's face, eyes averted, reflecting the camera's reluctance to watch the horror; the camera pulls back and we realize it's not the man but a doll, swinging over the baby's crib. 

The opening hits like a blow to the gut (A tug to the throat?) but what lingers is the mocking cruelty of that doll. Who does that to a child? What does that do to the child?

Frank Borzage's adaptation of Theodore Strauss' novel Moonrise sets out to answer the second question. The camera follows a man (condemned for murder) mounting steps to the gallows, would follow the man's son, Danny Hawkins, through the school playground into adulthood with the obsessiveness of a bully--incarnated here in Jerry Sykes, played with sneering infuriating arrogance by Lloyd Bridges. At one point Jerry's friends hold Danny while Jerry smears mud (at least we hope it's mud) all over Danny's face, and you're struck by the gesture: if you're familiar with Borzage's films you'd know he often gets his characters dirty (they're likely poor folk struggling to rise above their circumstances) but that this dirt is applied with a will and viciousness rarely found in his films. Something happened to Borzage over the years and you can't help but wonder just what. 

The film started as a $2 million prestige independent production with William Wellman directing and John Garfield as Danny; it ended up in Republic Pictures with less than half the budget ($849,452--still 'prestige,' only as defined by the habitually lowballing Republic) with Dane Clark as Danny and Borzage, his career waning, as director. 

One wonders what Garfield, perhaps the most charismatic underdog in Hollywood, might have made of the role; I've read the opinion that Clark doesn't measure up but I think it's that sense of having been assigned leftovers, of filling star-sized shoes, that drives Clark's performance--as Danny he's been told and believes that thanks to his father he has 'bad blood,' and that belief (in the form of Borzage's camera and Jerry Sykes) has hounded him all his life. When he's had his fill and finally strikes back he's horrified (and at some level, you sense, satisfied) to learn that he and everyone else was right all along. 

Borzage also had something to prove: he was a handsome man, and made an early career of acting; he was in his early twenties when he directed his first feature, in his early thirties when he did some of his best work (7th Heaven; Street Angel; A Farewell to Arms). You might say Borzage was born not long before silent cinema was born, and was appreciated most when his sensibility expressed silent cinema's (and early sound cinema's) idealistic romanticism.    

All that changed with World War 2, and the cinematic expression of that darkening was film noir--a genre obsessed with German Expressionist lighting, and a murkier vision of man's depravity. In noir's view the hero is a mere rat caught in a vast trap; the rest of the film is him struggling--vainly--to escape.  

Borzage resisted this pessimism the way he resisted encroaching Nazism in the '30s and '40s (Little Man, What Now?, The Mortal Storm); he fell out of step with then-current Hollywood and public sentiment, and his films struggled at the box office. Arguably Moonrise was his response to the sea-change, and grapples with the interpretation on its terms--Danny like any proper noir protagonist believes in man's flawed nature and inevitable fall, flees accordingly; through one extraordinary setpiece after another Borzage plunges Danny deeper and deeper into the genre's psychic quagmire. 

Hence the coon hunt, the men in boots the baying hounds, ending in Danny scaling up a tree to go after the trapped animal. In a series of giant closeups we see Danny and raccoon facing each other, Danny identifying with the animal's desperation, Danny looking yet not looking (the way the camera looks doesn't look in the film's opening) while he shakes the doomed creature's branch.

Much later Danny enters the tiny shack of deaf-mute Billy Scripture (Harry Morgan) in search of a pocketknife he had dropped while fighting Jerry Sykes, his fear and paranoia touching such a crescendo that he reaches out in the frenzied light of a swinging lamp to wrap his hands round Billy's throat. Can he choke off this sense of pursuit dogging his every step? He can try.

But here's the crazy thing--no one's chasing him, at least not at first. Perhaps the only one with any idea Danny might be involved in Jerry's disappearance is Sheriff Otis (Allyn Joslyn). The sheriff's suspicions are first aroused when he sees Danny riding a Ferris Wheel with Jeffrey Syke's fiance Gilly Johnson (Gail Russell, achingly beautiful here). Danny looks down at Otis' upturned face--the threat seems ominous if distant. But a Ferris Wheel turns, and Danny finds himself under the gaze of Otis' increasingly curious stare, finds himself above the sheriff, high and exposed, finds himself spinning over and over with no end in sight. It's not so much the scrutiny as the uncertainty (Does the sheriff know or doesn't he?); Danny's agitation escalates to the point where he has to do something and--spectacularly--he does. 

The key to Borzage's view of Danny's predicament lies I think in a scene midway through the film, when Danny meets Gilly in an abandoned plantation house. They feel free here in these darkened rooms, lost among the Gothic bric-a-brac; Gail address a fullsized portrait of a Southern belle and turns the occasion into a dance ball; she invites him to waltz. While the lovers move to unheard music, the camera rises up past the chandelier, swoops down onto the lovers as they move together in darkened profile for a kiss. It's as if Gilly had sussed out Danny's self-manufactured desperation and herself fabricated an alternative scenario, gently mocking his gloom; Danny gives in, and for a moment forgets that he's being hunted--or at least forgets the idea that he's being hunted.   

Two figures flank Danny like warning signs on his selfmade road to perdition: Sheriff Otis, who possesses more empathy and compassion than any law enforcer has any right to have ("Sometimes murder is like love. It takes two to commit it: The man who hates and the man who's hated")--if he pursues Danny it's the pursuit of a man who fully understands what the fugitive is going through, a disturbing yet strangely comforting thought. Then there's Danny's best friend Mose Jackson, perhaps the first to uncover Danny's secret; early in the film he responds to Danny's 'bad blood' theory thusly: "Blood is red. It doesn't tell you what you have to do." Earlier than that Mose sums up his situation and philosophy: "What I did was resign from the human race – and I guess that’s about the worst crime there is." The two point out to Danny the right way to go the right thing to do; it's up to Danny to realize it. 

Watching this and his other films one wants to ask: where does Borzage stand in the order of things? His romanticism is breathtakingly anachronistic his style electrifying in its intense subjectivity; Murnau is the obvious influence but I submit Lang helped shaped this film in particular, especially the sense of relentless pursuit (M, Fury, Ministry of Fear). 

Borzage in turn may have influenced others, though the lineage is more difficult to trace (that damned reputation for sentiment)--well Damien Chazelle (but does he count?). Bresson's preoccupation with oblique storytelling, particularly with hands and feet (in particular Martin LaSalle's fingers dipping into overcoats in Pickpocket, or Martine Lemaire's shoes approaching Claude Leydau's shoes in Diary of a Country Priest), can arguably be traced back to Charles Farrell inspecting Janet Gaynor's grubby palms in Lucky Star, or Gary Cooper shoeing Helen Hayes' foot in A Farewell to Arms (one also remembers Moonrise' opening with all those feet and that fateful pair of hands)--a little detail but cinema is made up of such telling details. More interestingly Bresson like Borzage is interested in transcendence, and while their tone is a hundred and eighty degrees apart the approach may not be: to suggest the spiritual both dive into the earthly and carnal--mud dirt floor walls skin hands feet eyes, both filmmakers deconstruct the world and isolate bits and pieces with their camera frame, the better to point out the realm hidden behind.  

First published in Businessworld 8.16.19

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