The DVD Report #568

Moonrise has one of the most deservedly famous opening sequences in film history. Three men are seen walking from the waist down. As they approach a stair it becomes clear that two of the men are accompanying the third to a hanging. The executioner is seen pulling the lever in silhouette and we see the hanged man swinging, also in silhouette. Cut to the same silhouette hanging over the crib of a crying baby in which the camera pans over the baby and back to the hanging man which we see is no longer a silhouette but a rag doll cruelly hanging from its neck. In the next scene, kids are tormenting the now growing boy in a schoolyard because his father was hanged for a murder he committed. Then the scene shifts to the now grown man (Dane Clark) being tormented by one of the other kids now also fully grown (Lloyd Bridges). The two men fight, and Clark accidentally kills Bridges.

Although classified as a film noir, Moonrise is really an anti-noir in which the protagonist finds redemption through the help of a good man, the love of a good woman, and the encouragement of his grandmother. It was directed by that most romantic of film directors, the violence-hating Frank Borzage in his first critically acclaimed film in eight years.

Borzage began directing films in 1915 and by 1920 was one of the most famous directors in Hollywood. Extremely prolific in the 1920s, he won the first Academy Award for Direction for 1927’s 7th Heaven and would go on to win another for 1931’s Bad Girl. He continued to win acclaim for such romantic films as 1932’s A Farewell to Arms, 1933’s Man’s Castle, 1934’s Little Man, What Now, 1937’s History Is Made at Night, 1938’s Three Comrades, and 1940’s The Moral Storm, but then directed a string of only moderately successful films, followed by the poorly received Magnificent Doll and I’ve Always Loved You, both in 1946. Moonrise, two years later, should have heralded a major comeback for him and may have if it hadn’t flopped at the box office. As a result, he didn’t direct another movie for ten years and then only made one more after that.

Moonrise, finally given a long-overdue Blu-ray and DVD release by Criterion, brings Borzage back to form. The bidding war for Theodore Strauss’s 1946 novel was won by Republic Pictures. The poverty row studio was looking to enhance its image, intending to make the film with John Garfield, but couldn’t meet his asking price. Instead, at Garfield’s suggestion, they cast his friend Dane Clark in the lead. While Clark is good in the role, he lacks the charisma of a Garfield, James Stewart, Burt Lancaster, or Alan Ladd, all of whom were considered for the role. Nevertheless, the film is an acting triumph for many in the cast including Gail Russell as the schoolteacher who loves him unconditionally, Rex Ingram as the friend who guides him, and Ethel Barrymore as his no-nonsense grandmother. Barrymore is given equal star billing with Clark and Russell even though she doesn’t appear until ten minutes before the film ends, but this magnificent actress all but steals the film as she did so many others. She sends it spiraling toward its conclusion with her riveting six-minute cameo.

Also memorable are Allyn Joslyn as the kindhearted sheriff, Harry Morgan as Clark’s mute friend, Harry Carey Jr. as Russell’s other suitor, and Lloyd Bridges as the bully who sets the narrative in motion.

Based on Mackinley Kantor’s 1940 Saturday Evening Post short story, Gun Crazy is often cited as one of the best films noir. Joseph H. Lewis’ 1950 film has been given a stunning Blu-ray upgrade by Warner Archive. A cross between Annie Get Your Gun and Bonnie and Clyde, the film begins with 15-year-old Russ Tamblyn as the future sharpshooter/bank robber that would later be played by John Dall (The Corn Is Green, Rope). Peggy Cummins (The Late George Apley) is the controlling female sharpshooter Dall meets at a carnival. They were the third screen incarnations of the fabled Bonnie and Clyde previously played by Henry Fonda and Sylvia Sidney in Fritz Lang’s 1937 film You Only Live Once and Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell in Nicholas Ray’s 1949 film They Live by Night. Dall and Cummins would be the last until Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway starred as the real Bonnie and Clyde in Arthur Penn’s 1967 classic.

Originally released as Deadly Is the Female in January 1950, the film flopped and was re-released as Gun Crazy, the title under which it was filmed, eight months later and flopped again. It was only with the revived interest in film noir in the 1970s that it became the revered classic we know it as now.

Kino Lorber has released Blu-ray upgrades of two 1995 films that were originally released by Disney subsidiaries, the Merchant-Ivory production of Feast of July, originally released through Touchstone, and Peter Yates’ Roommates, produced by Disney and released through Hollywood Pictures.

Feast of July was directed by British TV director Christopher Menaul (Prime Suspect). As such, it has the look of a well-polished TV movie, which isn’t to say it isn’t good, just that it isn’t quite in the same league as the then recently produced Merchant-Ivory productions of Howards End and The Remains of the Day, both of which were directed by James Ivory.

It tells the simple tale of a late 19th Century Englishwoman (Embeth Davitz) who travels on foot to find the man who abandoned her. Along the way, she gives birth to a stillborn baby and arrives in the town where the man claimed to be from only to find that no one has heard of him. She’s taken in by the local shoemaker (Tom Bell) and his wife (Gemma Jones) whose three grown sons (Ben Chaplin, James Purefoy, Kenneth Anderson) all fall in love with her. She accepts the hand of one of them and then the man who abandoned her (Greg Wise) shows up and tragedy ensues. The film is best remembered for the star-making performance of Ben Chaplin that still resonates.

Roommates was marketed as a comedy, and although there are certainly comic moments in it, it is more aptly described as a family drama with comic undertones. Told in flashback by a noted heart surgeon (D.B. Sweeney) who is orphaned at a young age and brought up by his grandfather, it is the story of that relationship that changes and evolves over the course of the film. The grandfather is played by a never better Peter Falk who ages from 72 to 107 during the film. Yates brings the same kind of family dynamic to the film as he did to 1979’s Breaking Away, getting terrific performances from Falk, Sweeney, Julianne Moore (as Sweeney’s wife), Ellen Burstyn (as Moore’s mother), and a supporting cast of exceptionally gifted children. The film is also as much of a tribute to Pittsburgh, Penn. as Breaking Away was to Bloomington, Ind.

This week’s new releases include Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris and the Blu-ray restoration of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice.

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