Friday, September 26, 2014


Anthony Mann, 1949
Starring: Ricardo Montalban, George Murphy, Howard Da Silva, James Mitchell

Pablo Rodriguez, a Mexican agent, and Jack Bearnes, a U.S. officer, team up and go undercover to see if they can locate a ring of gangsters who are illegally transporting migrant workers from Mexico into California. These men are ruthlessly used as slave labor and mistreated at every turn, sometimes even killed. As Rodriguez and Bearnes get closer to the truth and hone in on a local businessman, things get infinitely more dangerous for the pair.

In many ways, Border Incident is a follow up to the previous noir efforts of director Anthony Mann, T-Men and He Walked By Night. All three are based on real events – actual crimes that occurred in the ‘40s – and are centered on different government agencies or police departments. The main characters are all law enforcement officers: Treasury agents in T-Men, police officers in He Walked By Night, and border patrol agents in Border Incident. Here, the barrier between Mexico and the U.S. is far more than just a geographical one and it is implied that unless the two governments work past language barriers, cultural differences, and racism, then this area will utterly sink into a bleak realm of exploitation and violence.

This nihilistic atmosphere is the antithesis of many classic western films and the mythic quality of the American western is utterly absent. There are plenty of daytime shots of desert, intense heat, human toil, and backbreaking labor, but most of the film is shot at night with John Alton’s incredible noir-flavored cinematography. Set in the Imperial Valley and Mexico, this bears more in common with Ride the Pink Horse, another Mexican-themed film noir, than it does with the westerns of John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Aldrich, or even Anthony Mann himself; he went on to a career as a successful western director, often accompanied by star James Stewart.

Like Ride the Pink Horse and Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker, this is a rare film noir that steps away from white American society and includes Mexican culture, even featuring a few Mexican actors. Though all of these films step away from high-speed urban life, the quiet desert atmosphere is transformed into a hellish wasteland, an underworld where men in search of freedom are destined to meet their doom. That is perhaps Mann and cinematographer John Alton’s biggest accomplishment with Border Incident. The innocuous title doesn’t betray the film’s desperation and hopelessness. Though some gruesome violence occurs in T-Men and He Walked By Night, nothing compares to scenes of men thrashing around as they asphyxiate to death in muddy quicksand, or the death of one agent, who is wounded, partially buried in the ground, and then slowly run over with a tractor.

Script by John C. Higgins, who also wrote He Walked By Night, Mann’s undercover Federale, Pablo Rodriguez, is one of his most memorable film noir characters. Excellently played by a then up-and-coming Ricardo Montalban (Wrath of Khan), it’s refreshing to see Montalban actually cast as a Mexican for once, rather than a character of nebulous European ancestry. It’s also refreshing to finally see a Mexican person cast in a Mexican role – Hollywood in the ‘20s and ‘30s was particularly guilty of casting white Americans and Europeans in every role, regardless of whether it made sense. Border Incident largely shies away from inherent racism, presents its villains – the excellent Howard da Silva and Charles McGraw – as inherently racist. Like capitalist greed, manipulation, backstabbing, and underhanded violence, it is presented as another vile aspect of their personalities.

Perhaps distastefully to modern audiences, the film concludes with a voice over praising the collaboration of the U.S. and Mexican governments for clearing up the numerous border incidents. It claims they were able to achieve this sheerly through collaboration alone.  This, obviously, is laughable in regards to the history of the past 50+ years, but it’s a jarring note that is easily ignored and, thankfully, it’s the film’s only glaring flaw. Available on DVD, Border Patrol comes highly recommended. Those of you who find film noir too predictable or western not up your alley should definitely give Border Patrol a chance. This is also a must-see for anyone interested in painting or cinematography, as Alton’s work is – as always – incredibly beautiful.

I just wanted everyone to know how difficult it was for me to write this review without making any “Khan” references.

Thursday, September 25, 2014


Alfred L. Werker, Anthony Mann, 1948
Starring: Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts, Jack Webb

One night in L.A., a man named Roy Morgan acts suspiciously around a store. He is stopped by a friendly police officer, who he shoots in order to escape. Though he leaves almost no clues behind, the L.A.P.D. is hot on his trail, particularly detectives Brennan and Jones. Roy, meanwhile, is revealed to be a loner, hiding out with no one but his dog for company and selling stolen electronic equipment to make a living. Paul Reeves, his buyer, alerts the police that Roy might be their man, resulting in a stakeout and more violence. A forensics specialist helps track him down based on shell casings, but Roy is determined not to be captured alive, leading the entire police force on a dangerous chase through the city’s sewer system.

Allegedly inspired by the crimes of Erwin Walker, a returned soldier who went on a rampage in 1946 Los Angeles, He Walked By Night effectively mines one of the basic noir character types: the disturbed soldier lost in post-war life. Richard Basehart (La strada, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) is memorable as the ice-cold cop killer Roy, an obviously troubled and yet still fascinating man. Like the main characters of director Anthony Mann’s previous two noir efforts — T-Men and Raw Deal — something about Basehart is so nondescript that he easily blends in to a crowd. Basehart fulfills the role of the average, American guy next door, which is why his crimes, including killing a policeman, wounding another, and committing armed robbery, are so jarring.

Mann took over directing duties from Alfred L. Werker (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), though this looks and feels like a Mann film every step of the way. It doesn’t hurt that his regular collaborator, cinematographer John Alton, returned for yet another bout of spell bounding cinematography that helps transform a run of the mill film noir into something eerie and suggestive, symbolic and nightmarish. The noir aspects are more fascinating than the police procedural elements (though I do love that sub-genre), but it’s easy to see how influential this film has become. Roy’s violence is stark, particularly in comparison to that scenes that cushion it: quiet moments of life in late ‘40s Los Angeles, and some dull, dialogue-heavy moments that focus on the more mind-numbing aspects of police work. Thanks to Basehart’s performance and Alton’s camera work, even the scenes of Roy sitting in his dark apartment, listening to the police scanner, and waiting are rife with nervous tension and help build the film’s steadily increasing sense of danger and physical violence. The film’s conclusion — an anxiety-inducing chase scene set in LA’s storm drain system — is unforgettable and really must be seen.

Another worthwhile mention is the presence of actor Jack Webb. He was so inspired by the film’s documentary look, its subject matter, and his role as Lee, the evidence technician, that he created Dragnet, the famous police procedural TV series with docu-noir stylings. On the set of He Walked By Night, Webb also met the police technical advisor and began a friendship that is largely the basis for Dragnet. I’m a huge fan of Webb, as Dragnet was always on Nick at Night when I inevitably couldn’t fall asleep, and he’s perhaps more memorable here than Scott Brady (Gremlins) or James Cardwell (The Fighting Sullivans, A Walk in the Sun) as Brennan and Jones.

He Walked By Night comes highly recommended. If you’re going to watch any film noir that crosses over into police procedural territory, this should be it. Though Anthony Mann obviously deserves credit for his consistently excellent noir and western direction skills, John Alton’s cinematography is the real star. His frugal use of light is the closest to the German expressionist directors and cinematographers that anyone would really get during this period and watching He Walked By Night is akin to a learning exercise of how to the lens as a paintbrush and make an art out of light and shadow. It would be easy to say that his work rises above the subject matter, but I think he compliments it perfectly. Though the film is available in an embarrassingly fuzzy version through public domain, I recommend watching it on DVD, if only for the full, glorious effect of the cinematography.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

RAW DEAL (1948)

Anthony Mann, 1948
Starring: Dennis O’Keefe, Claire Trevor, Marsha Hunt, John Ireland, Raymond Burr

Joe Sullivan has been imprisoned in place of an old crime buddy, Raymond Coyle, but breaks out with the help of his girlfriend Pat. Coyle has secretly assisted in the break out, in order to have Joe killed to avoid risking a confrontation – or having to pay out $50,000 of Joe’s rightful share. Joe and Pat hide from the police in the apartment of Ann, a beautiful, na├»ve social worker who has been trying to help Joe by visiting him in prison. They take her hostage as they travel through the woods towards San Francisco and Joe’s final confrontation with Raymond. But a reluctant, improbable love begins to develop between Ann and Joe, to Pat’s dismay, and it promises to spell doom for them all.

Anthony Mann’s second film noir after T-Men marks a reunion between Mann, cinematographer John Alton, and star Dennis O’Keefe. As with T-Men, this is an incredibly dark film, both in terms of thematic and visual content and plays with certain noir conventions, but forges fresh territory of its own. For example, there is no femme fatale to speak of despite the presence of Pat (Claire Trevor) and Ann (Marsha Hunt). While Claire Trevor was one of film noir’s reining queens thanks to femme fatale roles in noir classics like Born to Kill, Key Largo, and Murder, My Sweet. Here she brilliantly plays against type as Joe’s faithful but neglected girlfriend. It would have been easy to play Pat as much more hardboiled and sexually aggressive, but instead Trevor depicts a woman weighed down and unsatisfied by love. She devotedly follows Joe into a life of crime, always waiting for kisses and caresses or promises of love that never come.

Unusually, Pat is the main character of Raw Deal and – relatively unique to film noir – it is her voice over narration that guides the film to its tragic conclusion. There is a deep sense of romantic tragedy that progresses throughout the film as she discusses her relationship with Joe and his developing feelings for Ann, which she painfully watches develop. Her voice over is oddly accompanied by a Theremin, which gives the film an eerie, nightmarish feeling of doom and foreboding. This is intensified by John Alton’s incredible cinematography, which captures a sense of dream or hallucination thanks to ever-present fog and shadow. Though Joe, Ann, and Pat travel from the prison, through the woods, to a beach, and finally the city, the same dismal air haunts their steps.

Dennis O’Keefe is perhaps more memorable here than he was in T-Men. His presence is thoroughly masculine, but somehow nondescript. He’s also at the center of the film’s strong undercurrent of sexual desire that begins as a faint echo, but makes its way to the forefront by Raw Deal’s conclusion. Though Pat and Joe seem to be partners, and it’s clear she loves him, she states in her voice over that he has never told her that he loves her. Pat’s desire is cruelly repressed again and again when she hopes for Joe to kiss or hold her. Instead, the source of his affection becomes the equally repressed do-gooder, Ann. Prettier and more innocent than Pat, Ann is a source of tension throughout the film and represents Joe’s struggles between his lawless and socialized sides.

Their attraction to one another suggests a degree of sadomasochism. Ann’s fascination with Joe begins when he is behind bars, and she admits to later romanticizing him. Their first physical encounter occurs when he breaks into her room and surprises her in bed. After Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, this is the second film where a violent man running from his crimes breaks into a woman’s room to escape capture and she falls for him. She becomes yet more enamored with him when he forces a kiss on her and love is solidified when she later witnesses him beating two men and shoots one to protect him.

The tense, sadomasochistic sexuality is also present in Raymond Burr’s silkily menacing, yet somehow effeminate Rick Coyle. Rick is a direct contrast with Joe: he refuses to leave his lushly decorated home other than to travel to a fancy restaurant, and is often seen in a satin robe. He fears hard work and confrontation, though has a wide sadistic streak and likely a sexual fixation for fire. Joe explains that he was a pyromaniac earlier in life and he is often pictured with fire, such as lit candles or an expensive lighter. He later burns a woman’s face with a bowl of flaming brandy and threatens to torture Ann with fire so extensively that she won’t be recognizable.

Burr is perfect as Coyle and looks absolutely massive in every frame. In addition to the torture and fire, there is something perverse about his gang of criminals, all of whom are animalistically named. Rick Coyle (coil) is the head of Corkscrew Alley, and his main henchmen are Fantail (a darkly handsome John Ireland) and Spider. Coyle has homosexual or at least bisexual connotations, and there’s a scene where Fantail jokes that Joe mistook a large, stuff bear for Coyle. The first major fight scene – which is between Joe and Fantail, because Coyle is hiding at home -- takes place in a taxidermy shop.

Raw Deal comes highly recommended. It is available from Amazon, but deserves to be restored and released on Blu-ray. It’s considered to be more of a minor effort, but has a hypnotic, hallucinatory quality thanks to John Alton’s cinematography that must be seen to be believed.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014


Anthony Mann, 1947
Starring: Dennis O’Keefe, Mary Meade, Alfred Ryder

These are the six fingers of the Treasury Department fist. And that fist hits fair, but hard. 

Dennis O’Brien and Tony Genaro agree to become undercover agents while the U.S. Treasury Department is investigating a major counterfeiting ring that has a network across of much of the western U.S. In Detroit, they penetrate a branch of the Italian mob and make reputations from themselves. They meet “The Schemer,” a nervous man crucial to the flow of operations, though unfortunately he catches on that Genaro is not all that he seems to be. As the mob begins to close in on the pair, O’Brien gets close to the top of the organization when he pretends to be a fellow counterfeiter.

Director Anthony Mann kicked off his career with this gritty, docu-noir that rises far above the average police procedural. Mann would go on to direct Raw Deal (1948), Border Incident (1949), Side Street (1950), and a number of westerns with James Stewart, including Winchester ’73 (1950), The Man from Laramie (1955), and The Furies (1950), as well as period epics El Cid (1961), The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), and spy-thriller A Dandy in Aspic (1968). This early effort is a collaboration with his regular cinematographer John Alton, responsible for the dark, foreboding, and documentary-style visuals.

Alton captures numerous Detroit and California locations, oppressive urban landscapes with plenty of grit and grime. Much of the film is set in sleazy hotel rooms, forbidding docks, and half-lit offices, as O’Brien and Genaro’s descent into the underworld becomes both a visual and moral journey. This is far more brutal than a run of the mill police procedural and I suspect it is one of the first films to openly blur the lines between gangsters and officers of the law (though Kiss of Death, also from 1947, treads on similar ground). Genaro and O’Brien are responsible for a number of unsavory actions. Though they have difficulty remaining undercover for so long, it is disturbingly easy for them to think and act like criminals. Both the two agents and their supervisors lose sight of the line between justice and criminality in their desperate pursuit to catch the counterfeiters.

Dennis O’Keefe (The Leopard Man, Raw Force) stars as the confusingly named Dennis O’Brien. He has a somewhat nondescript, easy to forget face, which was perfect for this role and he gave a solid performance.  Alfred Ryder (True Grit, Escape to Witch Mountain) is equal to O’Keefe as his partner, Tony Genaro. Genaro is a bit more rounded out and humanized, because of an encounter with this wife (played by June Lockhart of Lassie). The two meet by accident in a crowded market and his wife’s friend insists that Genaro is her husband, though he is desperately trying to hide his identity. His wife catches on and – though her eyes fill with tears – she coldly pretends not to known him. This is the last the two will ever meet as Mann boldly has Genaro killed.

Another incredible scene – one that I’m convinced was lifted right into David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises – involves the use of a disturbingly dark Turkish bath. Moxie (played with menace by Charles McGraw of The Birds) stalks his prey by waiting half-naked in the baths, ready to kill with only his bare hands. He eventually finds his prey and murders him in a terrifying scene where his victim’s death throes can only be seen through the port hole of the steam room door. In addition to McGraw, the film has a number of memorable villains and toughies. Wallace Ford (Harvey, Freaks, and Shadow of a Doubt) is excellent as a character known only as “The Schemer.” He leads Genaro to his doom, but is in turn targeted by Moxie. The leader of the counterfeiting ring surprisingly turns out to be a woman, singer Mary Meade, who is powerful and ruthless.

T-Men comes recommended. It is available on DVD and has much about it to enjoy. The voice over can be a bit much (or provide a lot of laughs), but this is a great introduction to Anthony Mann’s career as a noir stylist. I would have figured I was the last person on Earth who would be excited about a movie that follows around two Treasury Agents, but it’s impossible not to be enthralled by scenes such as the Turkish bath murder – or by a film willing, if not enthusiastic about killing off one of its two protagonists.

Friday, September 19, 2014

THE SET-UP (1949)

Robert Wise, 1949
Starring: Robert Ryan, Audrey Totter, George Tobias

A washed up boxer past his prime, Stoker Thompson, is determined that one night he will win and change his fortunes. His wife, who can’t bear to see him beaten again, walks off her anxiety around the city. His manager, Tiny, has taken money from a local gangster, Little Boy, to guarantee that Stoker will lose the evening’s fight. Tiny is so confident that Stoker won’t win, that he’s neglected to mention the bet and the set-up, spelling doom.

Based on Joseph Moncure March’s epic poem about boxing and the sports underworld, The Set-Up is a rare boxing-noir film and is one of the finest boxing films ever made. Though it lacks some of the key noir tropes – the isolated antihero and the femme fatale – it has a pervasive atmosphere of gloom and defeat. Stoker is introduced as a defeated man. Even his loving wife doesn’t believe he will win and has obviously been hiding this from him for such a long time that she has reached a breaking point and – it is implied that this is for the first time in their marriage – she can’t bring herself to attend one of his fights. Noir regular Audrey Totter (The Unsuspected) is at her best here as Stoker’s genuinely concerned wife. The film occasionally cuts to her walking through the city (giving the action a break from the locker room, on occasion) and her sense of anxiety is a palpable undercurrent throughout The Set-Up.

Robert Ryan gives one of his best performances (which is saying a lot) as Stoker, a unique chance for him to play a good guy. The film adaptation strips away the poem’s racial issues (the boxer is black and deals with a variety of prejudice) and also removes the character’s moral ambiguities. Stoker is a decent guy, happily married, and hardworking, while the poem’s hero is a murkier fellow. It is perhaps Stoker’s good-hearted, honest nature and hard-working determination that makes the film so bitter sweet. It is obvious that he probably will win the fight with Tiger, a much younger boxer, but even if he wins, it’s a shallow victory.

Alan Baxter (Saboteur, Judgment at Nuremberg) is memorable as Little Boy, the film’s token bad guy. Little Boy is notable for not giving into the fit-throwing, scenery-chewing, or snappy dialogue of other movie mobsters from the period – thing James Cagney or Richard Widmark – but he’s quiet, with an icy resolve. Organized crime does not play a major role in the proceedings, and is little more than a useful plot element to insure that no matter what Stoker does, he will fail in some way.

One of the first films to make use of a “real time” structure, The Set-Up is incredibly tightly paced and not a moment of its running time (short at 70-some minutes) is wasted. Though much of the film takes place in the locker room, director Robert Wise turns it into a dynamic set where the grime and grittiness of the underworld boxing scene comes through, as do the personalities of the numerous hopeless, helpless boxers, men trying to make a name for themselves in a hostile world. Though I’m generally not a fan of boxing and find films about the sport particularly dull, the fight scene is gripping, despite the fact that it is shot close to the real duration of a boxing match, with excellent pacing and suspense. The film was also shot at the Hollywood Legion Stadium, incredibly famous for its boxers and star-studded audience.

The Set-Up comes highly recommended. It’s available on single-disc DVD or in the excellent Film Noir Classic Collection Volume 1 along with The Asphalt JungleGun Crazy, Murder My Sweet, and Out of the Past. Director Robert Wise had a long, varied career that includes everything from The Body Snatcher and The Haunting to West-Side Story and The Sound of Music. His work on The Set-Up is undeniably excellent and if you find most film noir too predictable, this moving, pensive work might just change your mind. It’s a true classic, thanks to Wise and what is maybe the best performance of Robert Ryan’s career, where he channels the spirit of post-war rage and violence into a character full of pathos and humanity.

Thursday, September 18, 2014


Raoul Walsh, 1949
Starring: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien

Cody Jarrett is the leader of a group of gangsters and suffers from intense headaches and psychotic episodes. He relies on his mother, “Ma,” and mostly ignores his spoiled, unfaithful wife, Verna. After Cody’s gang botches a train robbery, Cody cleverly turns himself in for a much more minor crime, which serves as his alibi and insures him far less jail time. While in prison, an undercover agent, Hank aka “Vic,” is put on Cody’s tail, because the D.A. is determined to catch him for the train robbery or another, new caper, and put him away for life. Cody and Vic bond, but the escape they have planned takes a new turn when Cody learns that Ma has been killed and he slips into a psychotic rage.

Based on a story by Virginia Kellogg, who also wrote the women-in-prison film Caged (1950), White Heat is rightly considered a crime film classic. James Cagney was towards the end of his career here, though he delivered one of his greatest performances as Cody, the maniacal, mother-loving psychopath. Cody was based loosely on the Barker family, two gangster brothers from the ‘30s with a famously domineering “Ma,” and on Francis Crowley. He had a shoot-out with the police and apparently said “Send my love to my mother,” just before his execution. But it is Cagney’s spirited, almost frighteningly intense portrayal that makes Cody three-dimensional, a cut above the generic toughies and gangsters flooding the market thanks to the run of film noir in the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Cagney effectively crafted the charming, power hungry, unstable gangster character in The Public Enemy (1931) and Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and in The Roaring Twenties (1939), which he made with director Raoul Walsh. If any two men were suited to producing the last hurrah of the gangster film, it was certainly Cagney and Walsh. In addition to The Roaring Twenties and White Heat, he helmed another gangster-noir classic, High Sierra (1941), which starred Humphrey Bogart as a good-hearted gangster forced to go on the run.

White Heat is like a ‘30s gangster film bred with the post-war psychosis and nihilism of film noir. It contains many noir tropes, including the documentary-style cinematography influenced by German expressionism, location shooting in California, and the use of a femme fatale through Cody’s homicidal, two-timing wife Verna. But, thanks to Cagney and Walsh, Cody’s character is so unlike the standard noir anti-hero or villain. Cody is disturbingly psychotic – so much so that his performance and the constraints of the Production Code barely date the film – and his devotion to his mother is almost openly incestual. He sits on his mother’s lap and nurses from a glass of whiskey, while she lets him nibble some toast. She coddles him, but also takes part in his crimes. He goes on a rampage in the prison after learning of her death in what is surely one of the most physical and demanding performances of the ‘40s. He is responsible for the film’s few genuinely frightening moments, all of which remain a testament to his power as an actor.

There are some strong supporting performances. Obviously Margaret Wycherly (Sergeant York) is excellent as Ma and casts quite an impression over the film, even though she only has a few scenes. Virginia Mayo (The Best Years of Our Lives) is memorably sassy as Cody’s wife Verna, a woman who cares only for her own creature comforts. Edmond O’Brien (The Wild Bunch, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) nearly steals the film as Hank aka Vic, the brave undercover agent who is clearly a blueprint for later characters of a similar nature.

White Heat is available on DVD and comes highly recommended. If you’re going to see any ‘30s or ‘40s gangster film, this is at the top of the list. It was also hugely influence and it’s easy to pick out characters and scenes that would be borrowed for later films. For example, after White Heat, heist films would play a larger role in film noir with The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and others. The finale is downright apocalyptic and there isn’t much else like from the time period, with Cagney alone, at the top of the world, laughing maniacally as flames surround him.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Frank Borzage, 1948
Starring: Dane Clark, Gail Russell, Ethel Barrymore

The young Danny Hawkins is haunted by his family history: when he was just a baby, his father was hanged for murder. The locals have not let him forget this and he was ostracized and bullied for most of his life. One night, during a dance, he accidentally kills his long-time nemesis and, in a panic, hides the body in the swamp. He also happens to fall in love with the dead man’s girlfriend, Gilly. As their relationship develops, the body is found and Danny descends into a nightmarish world of guilt and paranoia, which culminates in him running from Ginny to hide in the swamps.

A fascinating mixture of grim realism and disturbing fantasy, there is nothing quite like Frank Borzage’s Moonrise. Though generally known as a director of romance and melodrama, he helmed this low budget production for Republic Pictures. Based on a novel by Theodore Strauss, this blend of melodrama, film noir, and Southern Gothic wasn’t appreciated in its day, but has since come to be regarded as something of a forgotten classic. Charles F. Haas's moody screenplay has touches of a fairytale about it and, unlike most film noir, has a hopeful, redemptive conclusion.

Dane Clark (Destination Tokyo) gives his best performance here as the oddly innocent and childlike Danny. The film’s mythic, fairytale quality largely resolves around his adventure that takes him through revenge, guilt, and madness, and towards emotional growth and spiritual redemption. His relationship with Gilly is inherently childish, at least at the beginning. They both have juvenile sounding nicknames (Danny, Gilly). They spend their time playing make believe in an old mansion and attending a carnival, where they ride a Ferris wheel. Gilly is an elementary school teacher, but constantly complains about the children; it is later implied that she isn’t mature enough to handle the responsibility. With Danny in particular, there is the sense that he does not mature into adulthood until he learns his true family history, turns himself in, and walks back to town “like a man.”

The swamp is also a stand-in for the typical enchanted forest setting of fairytales and it is during several trips here that Danny transforms away from his violent, impulsive, and future-less origins. His guardian angel, of sorts, is played by Rex Ingram, in one of film noir’s new non-stereotypical African American roles. Mose is depicted as wise, intelligent, and widely read (one character claims that he’s read every single book that’s ever been written). He’s kind to his dogs and knows the lay of the swamp. Though he is clearly at peace here, he explains to Danny that it’s a great evil to willingly separate yourself from other men. Danny also eventually finds his grandmother deep in the swamp. Played majestically (as always) by Ethel Barrymore, her maternal wisdom sets him straight and allows him to cast aside what he thought was a predetermined future of misery, violence, and death. Even the sheriff (played by Allyn Joslyn) is a voice of quirky, yet rational advice and deep philosophy that steadies the film’s nightmarish visuals.

The swamp setting is eerie, oneiric, and highly stylized. This is mainly due to the fact that Borzage shot on two sound stages to save time. The opening is particularly gripping and unsettling; a man’s feet march towards the gallows and he is hanged in silhouette, a young boy pretends to strangle himself to death, a child is viciously mocked by his classmates. John L. Russell's black and white cinematography (he later worked on Psycho) is claustrophobic, heavily shadowed, and clearly influenced by German expressionism. The rural, small town atmosphere is rare for film noir (some exceptions include The Red House and Nightmare Alley). Enhanced by the gloomy swamp and old Southern mansions crumbling into decay, Moonrise is an odd blend of realism – the kind scene at that time in poverty-focused films like Grapes of Wrath – and the kind of magical realism found in Night of the Hunter and hinted at in The Lost Weekend and Nightmare Alley.

Last but not least, Gail Russell is particularly excellent as Gilly and evokes the otherworldly air that made her such a success in The Uninvited a few years earlier and that would work in Night Has a Thousand Eyes, also in 1948. Clark and Russell have excellent charisma and their love scenes are believable, particularly the scene where they hide out in an abandoned mansion and pretend to dance at a gala ball. It is here that Gilly really falls in love with Danny and the somewhat fantastic, idyllic element of their love is made obvious.

Moonrise comes highly recommended. Unfortunately it isn’t available on DVD – I’d love to see a Blu-ray – but you can find it streaming online. Hopefully someone will rescue it from obscurity and clean up the print, because even if you aren’t as gripped by the story as I was, the visuals are some of the most amazing in all of late ‘40s cinema.