Moonrise (Borzage, 1948) and Cast A Dark Shadow (Gilbert, 1955)

Frank Borzage’s Moonrise is a really beautifully executed melodramatic noir. It’s got that small-town evil that so many films are after and not many nail. Sure, it feels a bit hokey and aged in 2021, but that’s only for fleeting beats.

Dane Clark plays Danny Hawkins. His dad was hanged as we learn right at the outset and the town bully Jerry Sykes (Lloyd Bridges) won’t let him forget it even as adults.

The beginning of Borzage’s film is so moody. We start on a reflective surface (is that a projection on a wall?) and pan over to find the father in question, guarded by men in trench coats:

They continue their walk, and we tilt and boom up to onlookers, and then beyond them to the shadow of the gallows:

The camera keeps pushing to the hangman. He pushes the lever and we match cut to what looks like a baby, hanging. The camera operates over to Danny – as a baby – and then pulls out to reveal the room and the freakiest child’s toy setup you’ll see:

It’s so atmospheric with the rain and shadows, and it really intentionally avoids Danny’s father’s face: he’s a memory, a ghost, not a character. That match cut is not only stylish, it’s also a way to keep the reminder of Danny’s father’s death as prominent through time. Death quite literally hovers over Danny at all times.

The opening continues as Jerry, now a teenager, taunts teenage-Danny. The first image below of course recalls the first image of the film, and the perspective is made to look more like father and son than like two young boys.

The overhead is graphically beautiful – the mud, puddles, and yawning shadow – but there’s also something deathlike about it. Either a heavenly perspective, or perhaps more likely, a view from a fictitious gallows above.

The opening sequence continues to haunt the frame, now through dissolves:

By the time we reach the present (the last image just above), we’re introduced to an adult Danny in the same way that we met his father. The dissolves elongate that march to the gallows, making it perpetual and endless, even though it in fact has a definite, impactful end.

Borzage uses graphic matches in other parts of the film, like here, where Danny is matched to a hunted raccoon:

The metaphor is plain – he’s prey and scared.

There’s some real bravado stuff in here. Man, this shot on a ferris wheel with Danny and Gilly (Gail Russell) feels like some Touch of Evil-level camerawork.

The ride starts. They move up and we crane up with them. Borzage cuts into the tighter 2-shot, and then allows the ride to take them up and out of frame-

-while the camera tracks back, anticipating their arrival:

It’s beautifully timed and choreographed, a bit showy, a smart way to shoot a ferris wheel, and also has something of the pace and mood of doom with their disappearance and reappearance.

Gail Russell is great in this. She steals the show. She has a performance beat outside with Danny in the first act that feels so natural. It’s one of those moments that’s so simple on the surface. Her line is just, “Goodnight,” said a second time. And it’s so spot-on and feels like someone performing long after the mannered 40s. (For anyone tracking at home, it’s around 20:30).

Cast A Dark Shadow

SPOILERS below.

I watched Cast A Dark Shadow mostly for Dirk Bogarde and he didn’t disappoint. He never does. He’s Edward “Teddy” Bare. He’s married to Monica Bare (Mona Washbourne), several decades his senior. Edward has something sinister boiling underneath, and we’re introduced to this from the beginning-

If that CU doesn’t tell you that Edward is trouble then I don’t know what will.

My favorite scene of the film is the inciting incident. It’s shot and played so well. Monica sleeps on her chair. We cut to a profile on a wide lens and Edward enters. Love that patterned light and her eyes opening in the foreground. The alcohol bottle, which figures prominently into the plot, also therefore figures prominently into the frame:

We cut into these moody images. Extreme low – again, the patterned light just adding that little extra texture, and his CU as he walks in and out of darkness:

To his POV, which nears Monica and then swings to the gas stove-

-and then to this 2-shot, which pushes in as he continues his crime:

I’ll skip a few beats here and just go to the end, largely because it reminded me of a great frame from Unbreakable:

There’s so much atmosphere in here – the production design, the soft breeze blowing the curtain, that same curtain that obscures him, that same curtain that casts patterns everywhere, the light cutting across his face, his confident POV that functions something like a montage-edit…it’s just well-designed. I often like efficiency in a scene, and it’s worth noting that Lewis Gilbert doesn’t make that his top priority. Case-in-point: the low angle of Edward. You could lose that and still have a scene, but the super-inflected angle is exactly at the right moment and it plays perfectly.

If I have any beef with this film it’s with Kay Walsh’s physical performance as Charlotte. She’s great at her introduction, and plays what she’s hiding well. But then there’s a climactic scene between she and Edward and her movements and posture are so histrionic that they’re laughable. They just feel too rehearsed and big.

There’s a great close to the movie. I won’t give the plot away, which is rather well-designed, but the ending image is worth noting here. As Freda (Margaret Lockwood) walks away, the camera pulls back, revealing Monica’s chair still rocking, and then further away through the curtains:

It’s lonely and empty, and the perspective through the window reminds of the murder. That the chair is still rocking makes it seem like Monica is still there, even when Edward very much isn’t. She’s won, in a way.

That chair is a gag. Edward constantly rocks it, and it’s always moving. It reminds me of the kind of gag that Alexander Mackendrick liked.

About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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