Review by Gordon Justesen
Clark, Gail Russell, Ethel Barrymore, Allyn Joslyn, Rex Ingram, Harry Morgan,
Director: Frank Borzage
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Aspect Ratio 1.37:1
Features: See Review
Length: 90 Minutes
Release Date: May 8, 2018
“Sure is remarkable how dying can make a saint of a man.”
You may not often hear his name mentioned much among the list of legendary directors, but Frank Borzage (also a prolific actor), was one certainly worthy of being part of said list. He directed well over 100 films in his career, and won the first Best Director Oscar ever given for his film 7th Heaven in 1929, and again in 1931 for Bad Girl. He also managed to attract such major talent in his early features like Clark Gable, James Stewart and Joan Crawford.
His 1948 piece, Moonrise, was his response to the overflow of gangster films that he felt were dominating film noir in the post WWII era of movies. Borzage aimed to tell a different type of noir tale with a different type of narrative. Rather than showing a character’s descent into madness, this one is told in the complete opposite way.
Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark) has long been haunted by the notion that his father was a convicted murder. Having been bullied all his life because of this, he retaliates against a lifelong tormentor (Lloyd Bridges). This results in an unexpected murder and Danny on the run from the law.
But what makes Moonrise so incredibly distinctive from your typical criminal chase picture is the mere fact that Danny isn’t being pursued right away. It actually takes a while for this to happen. Until that point, he’s hiding his actions from those who know him and carrying the guilt around as if it were the noose that hung his father when Danny was an infant.
Another different touch are the relationships he has with numerous characters, most notably Gilly (Gail Johnson), the fiancee of the man he’s murdered but who has also taken a liking to Danny. The same can also be said of the man pursuing the fugitive, Sheriff Clem Otis (Allyn Joslyn), who’s been a lifelong friend of Danny’s and doesn’t want to see any harm come to the man. And the one person who is able to see right through him is a friendly soul named Mose (Rex Ingram), who feels Danny should be the one to own up to his actions.
All of this is accompanied by some truly astonishing filmmaking by Borzage. The film was shot by cinematographer John L. Russell, who would go on to be nominated for his remarkable work in Psycho. Two scenes, in particular, stand out in terms of camera work; an opening sequence briefly detailing Danny’s father’s fate (along with his tormented early years) and a mind blowing sequence at a fair grounds where, on a ferris wheel, Danny can feel the walls closing in on him.
Largely forgotten when originally released, Moonrise is an exceptional piece of noir filmmaking that has held up remarkably well. Frank Borzage would direct only a few more films following this before his death in 1962. If anything, this film perfectly illustrates a director’s heart and soul working to create a most powerful narrative.
This film has reportedly never been available in the states (even on DVD) until now, and Criterion has once again applied their grand treatment to ensure it gets the best possible presentation on this Blu-ray release. The restored 4K transfer boasts a most glorious Black and White picture, with John L. Russell’s cinematography soaring every step of the way. Those two aforementioned standout sequences are made even more astonishing here. Image details, textures black levels and shadows are as absolutely rich, crisp and solid as anyone could hope for from the best Blu-ray studio around.
The PCM mono mix is most effective, given the age of the film. The balance between the terrific dialogue delivery and numerous music cues is exuberantly well handled. It’s a sound mix that has its limits, but what gets delivered is truly crisp and clear all the way!
Though I do wish more features could have been dug up for this release, we do get a fantastic conversation piece featuring film historian Peter Cowie and author Herve Dumont about the career of director Frank Borzage and the importance of this film in that regard, which runs for about 17 minutes. There’s also an insert booklet featuring an essay by critic Philip Kent.
Moonrise is a most distinctive noir piece about crime told through a remarkable, singular vision. The new Blu-ray release from Criterion is a grand opportunity for people to discover this forgotten but largely cherished piece!