Dane Clark (Across the Pacific [review]) stars as Danny Hawkins, a boy cursed at a young age. His father was hanged for murdering the doctor whom he believed let Danny’s mother die while giving birth, and Danny was sent to live with his grandmother (Ethel Barrymore, None But the Lonely Heart [review]). Word quickly spreads in their small town, though, and all the kids at school know Danny’s dark origin. In a surreal montage, shot in extreme, expressionistic angles to heighten the feeling of alienation and cruelty--all shadows and abstraction--we see Danny harassed over the years, taunted over his father’s death. The lead bully is Jerry Sykes, a rich man’s son, and time after time, even when Danny stands up for himself, Jerry beats him down. This pattern lasts into adulthood. Cut to a party where the grown-up Danny and the grown-up Jerry (Lloyd Bridges, High Noon [review]) drunkenly brawl in the woods. Things go too far, and Danny beats his tormentor to death with a rock. Panicked, he hides Jerry’s body and returns to the dance.
Newly invigorated by this visceral experience, Danny starts to act the bully himself, coming on strong to Jerry’s girlfriend, Gilly (Gail Russell, The Uninvited [review]), a schoolteacher. As Danny’s guilt propels him to make more and more rash decisions, Gilly will end up being the one that stands by him--but also a potential cause of suspicion. Just when did Danny’s feelings for her start?
Borzage is working here from a script by Charles Haas, adapting a novel by Theodore Strauss. The director takes full advantage of the small town setting to create an almost Poe-like dramatic tension. Danny is in a fevered state of alarm throughout Moonrise, while all those around him remain calm, including the laidback sheriff (Allyn Joslyn, Only Angels Have Wings [review]), who quietly watches events unfold. As town gossip speculates on why Jerry might skip out on gambling debts, or who might otherwise wish him dead, Sheriff Clem starts to pick up on Danny’s nervousness. He’s part of a long tradition of southern lawmen in movies who keep their cool while all else falls down around them. (Think Tommy Lee Jones in No Country for Old Men [review]).
There are other movie tropes that Borzage plays with that could have come off terribly, but age surprisingly well. The wise philosopher Mose (Rex Ingram, The Thief of Bagdad [review]), a friend of Danny’s, veers dangerously close to being a “magical negro,” and the mentally challenged mute Billy Scripture (Harry Morgan, Cimarron [review]; TV’s M*A*S*H), whom Danny defends from being ridiculed early in the movie, earning the boy’s trust, is your typical silent witness. Luckily, both performances are excellent and don’t lean into caricature, and like the sheriff, their constant, calm observation only proves to make Danny more hysterical. In a way, they are Danny’s allies because, like him, they are outsiders who are subject to the whims of the prevailing powers, and Danny’s transgression is a betrayal to them. If he could, Danny would draw them into his secret and corrupt them, the way he nearly does with Gilly.
The romantic melodrama of Danny and Gilly’s odd relationship provides a kind of balance to Moonrise. Their secret rendezvous are a respite for Danny. It’s the only time no one is watching--making the error of eventually going on a public date at the local fair all the more fatal, especially since Danny doesn’t realize that he’s causing more scrutiny to be thrown at Gilly’s reputation. The wagging tongues think she has moved on too fast. They are looking at her, not him! (All but the Sheriff, of course.) Once again Borzage takes advantage of the setting, stranding Danny and Gilly on a Ferris wheel, an endless circle they can neither control nor exit. The director isolates them in their cars, dropping all pretense of reality, removing the background, containing his fugitive in an obvious studio stting. And when the Sheriff climbs aboard, the chase is on!
Because this really is a chase picture. From the carnival, the film increasingly morphs into a man-on-the-run scenario. Symbolically, Danny descends into the forest only to emerge out in the open a transformed man. Hence the moon being on the rise, rather than a sun setting. It’s an impressive metamorphosis of both narrative and charatcter, despite Dane Clark being the movie’s weak link. His performance lacks nuance or soul, which in its own way sets him further apart from everyone around them--though the effect is likely unintentional. Even so, as Borzage ends the race and lets his protagonist settle at last, Moonrise becomes redemptive, the conclusion a release rather than a comeuppance.