There’s a magic in Frank Borzage’s “Moonrise”

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Sometimes we don’t expect or even deserve a happy ending, and get one anyway. Frank Borzage was one of the most talented filmmakers working in Hollywood’s silent and early sound period, churning out an astonishing number of movies in the ‘20s and ‘30s.

But by 1948, when he made “Moonrise,” he was all but forgotten, dutifully churning out pictures for studios like B-movie house Republic Pictures for little acclaim. But “Moonrise,” now out in a new Blu-ray edition from the Criterion Collection, was an unexpected masterpiece, melding the romantic expressionism of Borzage’s silent films while setting film noir tropes on their head. Instead of following an innocent man trapped in a web of intrigue, we follow a guilty man, redeemed when he least expects it.

“Moonrise” has a bravura opening scene, as we watch the legs of men walking in the rain cast long shadows in the night. The men are marching a condemned man to the gallows, the hanging we only see in silhouette. Borzage then cuts to a baby crying, and the shadow of the hanged man has become a baby doll dangling over the crib.

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The baby is Danny, who will be bullied his entire life for the sins of his criminal father by those in the narrow-minded small town in which he leaves. As an adult, Danny (Dane Clark) is an outcast, bitter about his father’s dark legacy. While Danny crouches in the shadows, he hears the other young men and women of the town laughing harshly at a lakeside party. Using sound design and shadows, Borzage puts us in the mind of Danny, seeing the town as a harsh and ugly place.

Danny’s main tormentor Jerry (a young Lloyd Bridges) finds him in the woods. A fight breaks out, and in a fit of rage Danny bludgeons Jerry to death.

“Moonrise” effectively conjures the claustrophobic dread Danny feels, as the local police and an investigator hired by the Jerry’s father investigate the murder. Danny is sure he will follow in his father’s path to the gallows, and on some level feels he deserves it. The film’s other unforgettable scene is set on a Ferris wheel, where Danny sees the local sheriff (Allyn Joslyn) in another car and, in a crazed panic, leaps from his car while in midair.

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But “Moonrise” finds salvation for Danny, in the form of the dead man’s fiancée, a kind schoolteacher named Gilly (Gail Russell), as the two fall in love against the odds. The mood of the film is somber, almost meditative, as her love prods Danny to own up to his crimes and save his soul.  That sheriff turns out to be a kind and philosophical man, who says in the film’s most quotable line. “Sometimes murder is like love. It takes two to commit it. The man who hates and the man who is hated.”

That gentleness, and the possibility of redemption, turn “Moonrise” into a much different film that we expect. A film that starts with dark shadows ends with a meadow in sunshine, and Danny learns to take ownership of his life.

“Moonrise” wasn’t Borzage’s final picture. But it is his final and definitive statement, an ode to idealism and faith that glows again thanks to Criterion’s loving new 4K transfer.

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