Anyone can make a mistake.
Danny Hawkins (Dane Clark) kills a man. This is indisputable. Was it self-defense? Maybe. While his victim (Lloyd Bridges‘ Jerry Sykes) picked up the rock that would be his own demise first, it’s Danny who restarts what was a fair fight after already being soundly defeated. So while Jerry raised the stakes, Danny clearly instigated the need for escalation. Where things get even grayer, however, is the fact that Jerry has been picking on Danny for years—leading chants around the schoolyard about how the new kid’s murderer father was hanged so the entire town could join in the ridicule and ultimately catalyze his uncontrollable temper. And it’s that temper that leads to this fateful bout calling into question whether Danny’s father cursed him with a killer’s blood.
The journey director Frank Borzage‘s Moonrise takes (as adapted by Charles F. Haas from Theodore Strauss‘ novel) is one where this young man must come to terms with his identity. It’s a conundrum, though, since he’d be marked a murderer whether admitting what he did or covering it up to be discovered later. The difference is therefore the possibility of a manslaughter charge by explaining himself or a homicide charge by forcing the police to put him in handcuffs. You’d assume the former is only viable by coming clean straight away, but the film gives him a grace period until after the body is found. Unrealistic or not, the opportunity Sheriff Clem Otis (Allyn Joslyn) presents is crucial to the film’s moral center and the whole’s best part.
That moral center, however, is where this ride goes so far off the rails that using Moonrise‘s release year to explain away its highly problematic content doesn’t hold water. Just because there’s a (blatantly explained) message at the back of what’s going on that touches upon society’s complicity in making monsters before they have the opportunity to prove themselves good doesn’t excuse its evidence. There’s talk of a rape wherein a character says the true crime was the man’s loneliness for driving him to assault and by the end the script actually flips the table to take blame off Danny’s father (who murdered with purpose) and place it on his grandmother (Ethel Barrymore) for refusing to change the boy’s last name before shipping him off to his aunt.
Suddenly everything is a woman’s fault straight down to a shoe-horned love story between Danny and the woman he’s pined over for who knows how long (Gail Russell‘s Gilly Johnson). The film tries so hard to make their relationship a reason why people would suspect him in Jerry’s death that it becomes almost laughable. Why? Because removing her character completely from the plot still leaves you with the exact same result. The camera itself foreshadows the leaving of a knife (which Harry Morgan‘s simpleton Billy finds) as the smoking gun on Danny and the stunningly composed opening fight scene takes pains to reveal it’s his anger at Jerry’s unrelenting ridicule that drives him to take things too far—not his victim’s recent (public) engagement to Gilly.
That she commences a relationship with Danny at all is weird since she wants nothing to do with him at the start. He forces himself into her night after killing her fiancé, emotionally blackmails her to drive home with him, and consequently helps to ruin her reputation by crashing their friend’s car (she being a school teacher—and surely a woman—putting the onus on her inability to make her irresponsible male companion be responsible). She has every reason to despise him and yet he uses their shared trauma to kiss her in the aftermath and stalk her the next day. Maybe they have a past relationship that would explain her “reluctance” as the product of Danny being a pariah despite loving him, but Borzage doesn’t include it.
So not only does this romance lean into the notion that a woman’s “No” equals “playing hard to get” while loving men who show physical dominance, but it very conveniently provides the filmmakers extra drama as far as Danny’s presumed motivations. Their union allows the old mansion under his friend Mose’s (Rex Ingram) care to become his likely hideout later. Their union gives Sheriff Clem pause about whether or not to blindly exonerate Danny for being the nice boy he believes he is at heart. And their union lets us give Danny the benefit of the doubt when he wrestles with the temper that says, “burn everything down” and the sensitivity that says, “I just wanted a normal life.” Gilly is therefore a prop in the worst way.
She’s not some femme fatale, but a victim of Stockholm syndrome used so we empathize with Danny’s aggressively murderous plight. Borzage would rather us feel sorry for him after almost killing a second man than the man whose neck was in his hands. It’s a shame because there’s a way to tell this story where we should. There’s credence to this nature versus nurture argument because too many people never gave Danny a chance to exist outside from under his father’s shadow (itself conveniently shrouded with a lack of contextual information that might have changed a lot of minds). Besides the Sheriff who understands Danny must be punished either way, the film seems to take a position wherein he shouldn’t at all—that Jerry in effect killed himself.
What’s worse is that Moonrise looks amazing. From the brilliant opening collage moving from Mr. Hawkins at the gallows to baby Danny in his crib straight through adolescence, you know exactly what the filmmakers are going for without a single line of dialogue needed. Move to the punishing fight between Danny and Jerry and you know you’re in for a visual treat only confirmed by a glorious, stationary chase scene on a Ferris wheel. Add the complexity of Mose accusing his friend via a blues song and there’s a lot of heart to combat archaic gender tropes and manipulative plotting if the latter two weren’t so crucial to the work. To blindly ignore their inexcusable malice for those pretty aesthetics, however, would simply render me complicit to it.
Watched in conjunction with Season Four of Buffalo, NY-based film-noir series Noir Essentials, hosted by Alex Weinstein at Dipson Theatres Eastern Hills. Series art by Cloe Ashton.