“Why should we bother with Frank Borzage?” asked Kent Jones, launching into a detailed consideration of the director’s work in Film Comment in 1997. It was a good question. At the time of Jones’s article, Borzage, once celebrated as one of Hollywood’s leading directors, had languished in obscurity for the best part of four decades, largely written off—when he was noticed at all—as a director of hopelessly dated, ultraromantic melodramas. Summing up this view, Jones described Borzage as “a Hollywood melodramatist with absolutely no interest in the workings of everyday life—the world around Borzage’s lovers and believers is a procession of interchangeable amorphous abstractions.” The director, he added, can offer us “precious little in the way of irony, no cynicism to speak of, never made a film noir.”
But, Jones continued, Borzage “had something rare in Hollywood: a philosophical formulation of life.” By contrast with the characters in films by Hitchcock, who are generally looking at something real, or John Ford’s, who look into the past, Jones observed, “When a character looks in a film by Borzage, it’s usually a matter of looking through objective reality into an ultimate reality of celestial harmony . . . For Borzage, love means certainty.” And this “superhuman idea of existence,” Jones wrote, “is one of the great glories of the cinema.”
Despite the eloquence of Jones’s advocacy, however, Borzage’s reputation has recovered very little in the two decades since that article was published—certainly nowhere approaching the level of acclaim he attained in the 1930s. A “melodramatist” he was, with very little cynicism in his makeup. What might be questioned, though, is whether he indeed “never made a film noir.” There are those—not least Yann Tobin in Positif—who have emphatically asserted otherwise: that he did make at least one, in many ways his least characteristic yet most potent film.
When a director’s basic instincts and the style in which he or she is working are at daggers drawn, the results can be disastrous—or paradoxically fruitful. Few films display this creative tension more effectively than Moonrise, the last—and some would say the best—major film directed by Borzage.
Even in 1948, with the noir cycle cruising at its darkest and most doom-laden—this was the year of, inter alia, Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil, John Farrow’s The Big Clock, and Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal—the opening sequence of Moonrise is hard to beat for sheer relentless, deep-dyed gloom. We open on a pool of murky water, spotted with rain (water, as we’ll see, symbolizes confusion and death throughout this film), reflecting moving feet, in a distorted image. Pan to those actual feet, belonging to three men, one escorted by two others, all framed from the waist down, trudging heavily through puddles. They start ascending steps as the camera tilts up over the heads of grim-faced spectators armed with umbrellas, and we’re shown a man being hanged, graphically projected in shadow. As the silhouetted executioner pulls the lever, cut to a howling infant, terrified by a doll hanging by the neck over its crib—again, shown as a shadow.
Pull back to reveal the suspended doll—a brief insert of the trudging feet, which will recur more than once—then cut again to an overhead shot of a small boy isolated on a school playground, walking fast with shoulders hunched and pursued by a mocking children’s chorus: “Danny Hawkins’s dad was hanged! Danny Hawkins’s dad was hanged!” Noir, in which protagonists are typically trapped by fate and/or predestination, scarcely comes more despairing than all this. And knowing Borzage’s attachment to the theme of redemption through love, it’s hard to imagine how the tussle of style and content will play out. All the more so since throughout most of the film its protagonist, Danny, seems stubbornly determined to reject love and any redemption it might bring him. Yet as we’ll see, Borzage does finally succeed in reconciling these competing forces, in this, his final masterpiece.
“Borzage’s characters seem to radiate from within a unique, spiritual energy that makes them appear luminescently unreal.”
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