Directed by Frank Borzage
Moonrise opens in brutal fashion, with the shadow of a man being hanged (without a chance at his final words, no less). From there we cut to the shadow of a hanging doll teasing a crying baby, the son of the hanged man. We next see that boy, Danny, a little older and tormented by kids who seem to consistently remind him that his father was murdered by the state. Even as an adult Danny (Dane Clark) is tormented by these same figures, and within the opening minutes of the film he has snapped and killed one of them.
So to recap, there’s a hanging, a cruel schoolyard bullying, a murder, and then later that night Danny crashes a car inside which is the love of his life, Gilly (Gail Russell).
Danny loathes his father and the fact that he shares his same name. Having never known the man he only thinks of him in regards to the pain inflicted from beyond the grave. Living in small town America he can’t escape his father’s ghost, and rather than offer the boy some kind of sympathy it seems the town looks at him with concern, their minds never far from the thought that he has inherited whatever it was that turned his father into a murderer.
Danny himself shares these feelings, and after the murder of the man mocking him early in the film, he rarely has an opportunity to escape his own doom, both actual and perceived. He fears that he is turning into the monster others were so certain he would become, and this being a late 40s Hollywood film (subject to the Motion Picture Production Code), it is inevitable that Danny will have to pay for his sins.
He spends most of the film looking over his shoulder as law enforcement closes in. To make matters worse, in a bit of a melodramatic fashion, the people who will have to lock him up are the same ones he has developed relationships with over the years. It’s as if those who mock, torment or fear him are only there from afar. The ones who will have to intervene when sh*t hits the fan are the only ones who showed him any sympathy at all.
Danny becomes almost feral within this paranoia. It’s what causes him to recklessly drive a car down a rain-slicked road the night of the murder, the painful event flashing before his eyes. When he crashes his car Gilly will hug him and tell him it’s okay, which is a real head scratcher considering we’ve seen nothing to suggest she is capable of such forgiveness, that they even have a special bond or that he deserves this forgiveness.
Rather than any subtle, slow character development all of this is thrown at us within a few minutes. Gilly will be his saving grace, though her affection for Danny feels as far-fetched as anything in an underdeveloped science-fiction film. We first see them together after the murder, and he does little beyond harassing Gilly on a dance floor. Then he forces her into the car he drives too quickly, ignore hers and another passenger’s pleas for him to be more careful.
Later he goes about as far as someone can without forcing himself on her, and yet she relents. It’s a bit disturbing, mostly I suppose because it so clearly is meant to come off as romantic. She reflects how the audience is meant to feel about Danny, though it takes her longer to get to the point where we are supposed to be throughout the film.
Yes that opening scene, of the hanging and the crying baby, is brutal, but we don’t spend much time seeing Danny in a light that would ignite our sympathy for his character. He is instead more monstrous than the story wants us to believe, less so because of the sudden murder (a lawyer would argue it’s self-defense) and rather because of his behavior with Gilly.
Because of his frail state of mind it’s understandable to some extent where he comes from, but the fact that she ever reciprocates is beyond belief. It’s the movie trying a little too hard to make him uniquely good and bad, at the same time. He’s a killer who puts others in harm way, and because of the strict production codes at the time he will definitely feel the full force of the law. And yet he’s also meant to be a romantic, tragic figure who can’t help but react to the burden of being the son of a hanged man.
When he is finally arrested, in fact, the sheriff will prevent another man from slapping the cuffs on him as if it’s a humiliation. He gives Danny a type of respect no other murder suspect, I imagine, would receive, sensing instead the anguish which we have been forced to observe for ninety minutes.
So the doom certainly lingers over the entirety of this film, very much putting us in Danny’s shoes, but it asks too much of the characters around him to go out of their way to empathize with him. The film argues over nature versus nurture and otherwise takes time to wax poetic about our place in the world and the impulses we share. It feels quite earnest, playing with themes the storytellers care about, but I’d say it feels too much for its main character, treating him with kid gloves. Because of the quick sort of prologue we are meant to forgive everything else he does until everyone else does too.
Up Next: The Party (2017), Permanent Green Light (2018), Vanishing Point (1971)