February 2, 2010

This Week's Classic Cinema Obsession: MOONRISE (Frank Borzage, 1948)

This week's obsession is a movie I haven't seen. Yet.

It's MOONRISE (Frank Borzage, 1948) and it's playing Wednesday night at 10:00 PM EST on TCM and I cannot wait.

It's one of those movies that cinephiles and in-the-know types are hep to but it's not available on DVD and it wasn't a big hit at the time of its initial release in 1948. In other words, we're talking cult status, forgotten masterpiece stuff. I've never seen it and I'm dying to catch a glimpse.

MOONRISE falls into a sub-genre of noir that I think is best described as "Romance Noir" (NORA PRENTISS is another example of the type, which I briefly reviewed here).

Lyrical romance with a side dish of psychological melodrama is the order of the day in the rundown diner of Romance Noir. Sure, there's murder and violence in these types of films, but the real pulse of Romance Noir is found, of course, in the love story. That's one of the reason's I'm excited to watch MOONRISE -- I want to get lost in the love story, a love story with a dark noir-ish sensibility, all shadows, forbidden love, a little masochism, the kind that hurts so good, etc. etc., all that angsty wounded-hearts film noir suffering....

"But remember," the Romance Noir seems to be saying, "love never fails, love might even save, there might be a light at the end of that long, dark, black-hearted tunnel, there might be redemption in the arms of someone you love...." I have a feeling this is where MOONRISE is coming from and if I'm right, it's gonna be good. Count me in.

MOONRISE was directed by Frank Borzage, one of the kings of silent cinema -- perhaps the undisputed king of the silent romance. His silent classics -- SEVENTH HEAVEN (1927), STREET ANGEL (1928), THE RIVER (1929) -- were all highly romantic love stories filled with powerful, poetic imagery. While cynics and sneering types might scoff at the sentiment in Borzage's films, I tend to like earnest, sincere storytelling. Romances, especially, are the kinds of films where I can handle the whole "love conquers all" idealism of a director like Borzage and if a director can achieve sentiment without getting sentimental, then that's even better. MOONRISE is also a "Southern Noir," with a setting in the rural South instead of in the big, harsh city we usually see in films noir. Shot entirely on soundstages, Borzage uses the highly stylized sets to create a look that film noir guru Eddie Muller calls "magic unrealism."

What most intrigues me about MOONRISE is that it's the marriage of Borzage's romantic sensibilities with a typical film noir, crime drama story -- the darkness mixing with the light. From everything I've read about the movie, it's a noir that avoids nihilism and its "happy ending" feels earned and emotionally satisfying, unlike the tacked-on happy endings imposed by studios on other films noir of the era.

I have to admit, I like a happy ending, even in a film noir -- and especially when the noir is a Romance Noir. I always want it to work out for the two crazy kids in love. For instance, I'm not bothered by Coleen Gray's saving presence at the end of NIGHTMARE ALLEY. And I actually kinda have a sick wish that Jeff Bailey would reconsider and run away with Kathy Moffat at the end of OUT OF THE PAST. I told you it was a sick wish, what with Kathy being just about the ultimate in evil, but "The Further Romantic Adventures of Wicked Kathy and her Hapless Jeff" just sounds too delicious and messed up to pass up! So yeah, I'm excited for MOONRISE -- by all accounts, it's got a romantic, positive ending that feels earned. A rarity in film noir.

Also piquing my interest is the presence of Dane Clark in the lead role. I love him. He seems to be the perennial sidekick in a lot of Delmer Daves movies, but I thought his lead turn in DEEP VALLEY (Jean Negulesco, 1947) was quite good. Often called the Poor Man's John Garfield, Clark had a great smoldering masculinity that was masked by his easy-going nature and genuine sensitivity. He's got great sad eyes.

A very in-depth blog post at Shooting Down Pictures has several critics' appraisals of the film, and TCM's "31 Days of Oscars" website has a nice article on the film with some interesting background information on the film's production and its journey from highly touted literary property to possible A-picture (possibly starring James Stewart, John Garfield, or Alan Ladd) to eventual B-status at poverty row studio Republic.

Also starring the tragic Gail Russell, as well as Ethel Barrymore, Allyn Joslyn, Lloyd Bridges, and Rex Ingram, MOONRISE is my classic cinema obsession of the week.

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