Review: Moonrise (1948)

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It’s like being in a long dark tunnel…the way you look and act and talk. ~ Gail Russel as Gilly

From its very foreboding outset, there’s no question that Frank Borzage’s Moonrise could be characterized as film-noir. Everything suggests as much from the scoring to the stylized imagery and even the subject matter. We have hangings, brawls, fistfights, and murder all under 5 minutes of celluloid. But equally important, the film delves into the psychological depths of despair and more than any of Borzage’s films it seems invested in the mental well-being of its characters.

Dan’s personal narrative is brought to us early on. His father was hung for some inexplicable reason. The kids in school brutally tease him about the ignominious shame of his family which he has no control over and all throughout his life thereafter he carries a chip on his shoulder. We don’t quite understand him but at least we begin to empathize. We meet Dan (Dane Clark) again as an adult at a local dance.

That’s where the next chapter in his story begins as he tries to bridle his anger and keep the reins firmly in check. It doesn’t always work so well for him. After all, he is the man with a constant death wish driving cars on wet roads like it’s the Indy 500. He is the man who is prone to strong-arm tactics. He is the man who trusts no one to be his friend and expects very little from others. But he does have one thing going for him.

Her name is Gilly (Gail Russell), she’s the local schoolteacher, and if nothing else her very presence humanizes him. She formerly ran with the local hotshot (Lloyd Bridges) but she has found some quiet decency in Dan and if she sees it, maybe we can see more in him as well. In some ways, he’s still a little boy and she reads him like one of her students with thinly veiled observations. His frumpy Aunt Jessie pins him as a good boy but that doesn’t make up for the absence of his parents or the anger that he still harbors from boyhood.

But a small town setting and a purported crime prove to be an ever-intriguing synthesis of Americana and the ugly underbelly which if it doesn’t rear its head through gossip alone, then murder certainly fits the bill in a pinch. It’s summed up by dances, carnivals, and coon hunts with an undeniable undercurrent of darkness.

As far as I can tell Charles F. Haas had few other feature scripts to his name but his work in Moonrise offers up some interesting figures full of witticism and unique voices that help to differentiate each from the diverse pack.

The bullied mute Henry Morgan is at one time befriended and also berated by Dan. Rex Ingram proves to be a landmark African-American actor for the era, full of a quiet strength and wisdom. As local keeper of the bloodhounds, he addresses his canines as Mr. Dog surmising that everyone is entitled to a certain amount of dignity. Just as importantly, he rightfully asserts that man is a communal being (Man oughta have a woman. Man oughta live with other folks).

The Local Soda Jerk has the jive talk down pat and Lloyd Bridges and Harry Carey Jr. fill in for a couple relatively minor spots. Of course, Ethel Barrymore is in the coveted keynote cameo as Daniel’s  sagely Grandma. But aside from Ingram’s significant turn, Alyn Joslyn is one of the more entertaining characters as the sheriff who waxes philosophical. One of townsfolk even notes as much that he should have been a preacher man instead of a lawman.

Cinematically speaking, Moonrise proves that the finest places to meet your best gal seem to be darkened interiors and if nothing else it’s a feast for the eyes and a treat for the audience. And it’s true that with its quaint country backwoods and swamps, Borzage’s picture shares some of its world with Joseph L. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950). But for Borzage, in particular, this feels very much like a departure which is by no means a bad thing. Here the love story is still present but it seems to ultimately have a different functionality altogether from many of the director’s most remembered entries.

3.5/5 Stars

The Farmer’s Daughter (1947)

The_Farmer's_Daughter_(1947_film).jpgWhatever our criticisms of the previous generations, there’s still something within me that sees something uniquely compelling about films of old. Hollywood in the 30s and 40s could sugar coat, they could oversell the drama, but there was also a general decency that pervaded many of those films.

The cynical edge of dirty politics and corruption was given credence but more often than not, all that was good would win out in the end. Is it realism? Certainly not. Is is dated? Probably so. But there’s something overwhelmingly pleasant about a film like The Farmer’s Daughter for the very reasons mentioned above.

Our heroine is intelligent, plucky, and sincere. She’s from good Scandinavian stock which not only explains her vitality but informs a bit of her work ethic and her constant handle on what is right and true. That’s something we could always use more of today. A bit more of those core values sprinkled into our upbringings. It’s not informed by pride, or entitlement, selfishness or greed. It cares about what is good for all people and looks to be honest in all circumstances. To her credit, Loretta Young embodies all those qualities with a profound earnestness.

Katrin (Young) makes her way into the spotlight after acquiring a position as a maid for a local political dynasty after losing her hard-won funds for nursing school to a local swindler.  Still, in the home of Agatha Morley (Ethel Barrymore) and her son the promising young senator Glenn Morley (Joseph Cotten), Katrin soon makes a strong first impression.

She proves to be a gifted woman not only in doing housework but also in ice skating, with Swedish massages, making glogg, and much more. She’s also politically astute and though she lacks education her practical upbringing allows her to see every individual in practical terms. She bases none of her opinions on hearsay, ad campaigns, or newspaper spreads. Her thoughts come from what she’s heard first hand and what officials have done in the past. She’s also an impeccable judge of character.

The most obvious tension running through the film is the fact that Glenn is slowly growing attached to Katrin for the very reasons mentioned previously. Although he already has a bit of a fling with a local reporter who is smitten with him. But the real problems come into being when a seat opens up in the house and the incumbent’s choose to back an unscrupulous career politician.

Katrin sees right through him and openly grills him at a town hall meeting. Now the opposition is calling on this young woman to be their candidate and she agrees to run against her employers. She’s crossing political lines because she constantly exercises her freedom to do as she sees fit. That is her prerogative after all. Glenn in one sense is incensed by her decision but he’s also madly in love with her and he has to make a choice.

A raucous screwball finale turns out to be surprisingly gratifying given the sentimentality and political drama that provide most of the film’s makeup. The comedy is also bolstered by the generally open-minded and wryly amused Ethel Barrymore who looks at all the unfoldings in front of her with a bit of a glint in her eye. Meanwhile, Charles Bickford’s gruff charm as the valet Mr. Clancy serves as the perfect foil for Katrin’s affability. Because he’s really a good man as well.

The Farmer’s Daughter might turn some modern viewers off for a purported simplistic view–a film of overt goodness where the woman ends up with the man who in turn allows her to succeed. But what is wrong with a good Joseph Cotten and an effervescent Loretta Young? A dose now and then can hardly be considered harmful.

What struck me was a timeless statement that Mrs. Morley teases out of the crooked Mr. Finley. He’s opposed to things that don’t meet his definition of “100% Americanism” and it’s a very narrow view. Namely whites, no foreign-born, and the right kind of religion. Ironically, 70 years later we are still guarding against such poisoned intentions. Because if anything, Katrin represents in a small way a great deal of what makes America great. Let us not forget that.

3.5/5 Stars


Portrait of Jennie (1948)

portrait-of-jennie-3The strands of our lives are woven together and neither time nor the world can break them.

From the outset, you get a sense from the grand philosophical dialogue and imagery that we are being treated to a classical Hollywood precursor to Terence Malick’s Tree of Life. Quotes from Euripides and Keats flash over the screen. Profound questions are brought to the fore. What is time? What is space? What is life? What is death?

And it is somehow a spiritual film and not because of convents or biblical references. It’s a different type of spirituality — more elusive than a simple description. It’s summarized by the early supposition that each person must find their own faith. You must learn how to care deeply about something. And these initial suggestions give a hint to the film’s intention although the rest rolls out in more typical Hollywood fashion courtesy of David O. Selznick.

Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten) is one of those starving artists types who gets very little monetary value out of his creative vocation as a painter. Although initially brusque, he does receive some encouragement from a pair of veteran art dealers (Ethel Barrymore and Cecil Kellaway) and for the majority of the film, they remain buttresses to his career.

They see a spark of talent in this man — though not fully realized — there’s something there that can develop into something beautiful. Perhaps they see the landscapes like he does, where the images of the world are literally on canvass (Director William Dieterle denotes this phenomenon well).

portrait-of-jennie-2But it’s a chance encounter with a young girl named Jennie (Jennifer Jones) that gives Eben the type of inspiration that every artist dreams of because it’s precisely this spontaneous spark of joyous energy he needs to add something vibrant to his own life. In her constantly evolving role, Jennifer Jones exudes an effervescence, a certain radiance in body and spirit that lights up the screen in embodying this apparition of a girl.

She meets Adams first near a park bench, then doing whirly-birds on the ice rink. They continue to have these little moments together made up of chance encounters and pieces of fate. Although the film hardly gets to explore the idea, Portrait of Jennie plays with time for the sake of love. And it conveniently allows its two characters to meet each other at very different reference points in life. For him, it’s only a few days. For her she’s no longer a young girl, now blossoming into a mature young woman. And that is part of the tantalizing charm. Their chemistry flourishes. It becomes evident that much of romance is made up out of memories, these little fleeting moments of joy in being together.

It’s fantasy aspects make it a fine companion piece to the Ghost and Mrs. Muir as well. Light, passionate, moving, all those things. Yes, its conclusions on love are more than soppy, but a little soppiness does wonders in this cynical world we find ourselves in presently.

Out of context, it sounds ludicrous that Adams pilots a boat out into a New England gale for no reason except that it is the last place Jennie was seen. But interestingly enough, this conclusion hardly feels out of the ordinary since we intuitively know that Eben is going where he needs to, or at least where the film suggests he needs to go. And it’s not terrifying in all its technicolor glory because those apprehensive feelings easily give way to the raw majesty of it all — the pure awesomeness of the crashing waves — the churning forces of natures.

In these moments the film reaches its crescendo of love while also coming full circle to its opening prologue. But there’s something inside of me that feels unfulfilled with this ending. There’s a hollowness. Eben and Jennie had something together but what is it exactly, is difficult to comprehend completely. Eternal, no. Immortal, no. It’s only a moment. That is all.

portrait-of-jennie-1I find that despite his pedigree Joseph Cotten still comes off as an underrated actor and with each film I see him, I enjoy him immensely. Maybe for those very qualities. He’s not altogether handsome but he has a pleasant face. His voice isn’t the most formidable or debonair but it does have character. The supporting players lend some Irish flair to the cast and it’s striking that everyone from Ethel Barrymore to Lilian Gish glows with a certain hope. There is no obvious antagonistic force in this film. Eben Adams found his inspiration — the muse of a lifetime — and that passion is enough to lay the foundations of a film.

In some ways, I am discontent with the actual portrait of Jennie. The film acts as a better portrait of who she was as we continually get small swatches of her personality and glimpses into her character. In comparison, that painting seems little more than an austere shell. It lacks the same joyous vibrancy of the woman it was hoping to capture. That is to Jones’ own credit but to the detriment of the story. The painting lacks the same aura of the film.

3.5/5 Stars

The Spiral Staircase (1945)

spiral5The Spiral Staircase plays out like an Agatha Christie murder mystery with a moody, old mansion acting as the backdrop and numerous individuals filling out the cast. It seems to be some type of gothic-noir hybrid, with its ghostly interiors, torrential thunderstorms, and creaky shutters. However, with director Robert Siodmak at the helm, I am inclined to call it noir, not just because of his pedigree, but it certainly has the atmosphere and dim interiors that are expected of the genre.

The action opens at a movie hall after a woman is murdered by an unseen killer. But most of the actual drama takes place in the before mentioned mansion of the sickly Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). She resides with her son Steven and step-son Professor Albert Warren (George Brent) who never see eye to eye. Nearly on her deathbed, Mrs. Warren distrusts her nurse and only allows the mute girl Helen (Dorothy McGuire) to even help her. The rest of the cast is rounded out by servants, a secretary named Blanche (Rhonda Fleming) who Steven loves, and the constable and a young doctor who cares about Helen. It’s a wide array of figures and we quickly begin to analyze them for any hint of killer tendencies.

spiral3In fact, Helen is our main character and we experience much of the film from her perspective. The truth of the matter is that all the girls who were killed had some sort of defect, so the line of reasoning is that Helen might be next in line. It seems all too possible with a pair of mysterious eyes constantly watching from the shadows, but Helen does not heed Mrs. Warren’s advice to flee.

The film ultimately spirals into darkness as the killer takes one victim and looks for another. Helen must protect herself, while also confronting her past where the source of her muteness lies. Although simple in conception, The Spiral Staircase is no less an engaging mystery. It is not the best from Siodmak either, but Dorothy McGuire gives an expressive performance that deliverers so much heart and feeling without the use of words.

However, the film does ultimately allow her to find her inner voice in the midst of all the silence. She finally conquers the fear in the moment when it is most harrowing. Although her role is rather minor, Rhonda Fleming is as strikingly beautiful as ever. It’s a rather expected resolution, but there are enough quirks and twists to makes things enjoyable to the end. It goes without saying that gothic noir most definitely should be a thing if it isn’t already.

4/5 Stars