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Breaking Point, The (DVD Review)

4 Jul, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars John Garfield, Patricia Neal, Phyllis Thaxter, Juano Hernandez.

At some indeterminate point over recent decades, the second Warner Bros. screen version of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not saw its critical reputation spike — so much so that a few now even rate it over the Jules Furthman-William Faulkner-Howard Hawks 1944 screen original, which used Hemingway’s title but virtually none of its story. I won’t go that far due to the sizzling quality of Have’s prototypical Hawks male-female banter — and in a movie that not only invented Lauren Bacall but Bogie-Bacall as well.

Yet The Breaking Point shrewdly avoids any attempts to beat the earlier picture at its own game — showing what the life of fishing boat captain Harry Morgan might have been like (this time postwar) if his Newport Beach, Calif., business was lousy, he had a wife and daughters he loved and was forced by circumstances to get mixed up with some shady characters. The result is one of director Michael Curtiz’s best movies, though I’m not quite ready to assert that he never again made another as good until the next time I’m able to see 1958’s King Creole.

Speaking of pre-army Elvis, the great John Garfield was a screen rebel, too — the first, in fact. Often times, an actor looks younger on screen than his real-life age, but Garfield (37 here) could pass for a well-preserved 45. By this time, the HUAC pukes were doing their successful best to hound him out of a career, and the actor would make only one more movie before his death at 39 in 1952 (the regretfully never-on-DVD He Ran All the Way, a pet of mine since I first saw it on TV at age 11).

Garfield’s Harry is tanned but also worn down enough to briefly consider fooling around with a free-spirited passenger (Patricia Neal, not looking too natural here as a blonde). But he is faithful to a struggling wife played by Phyllis Thaxter, who is quietly attractive without much or any makeup while giving what was probably the performance of her career. (Much, much later, she would play Christopher Reeve’s adoptive Earth mother in the first Reeve Superman movie.) Harry also tries to remain faithful to his on-the-boat buddy (Juano Hernandez), one of the first screen instances where a white man and a black man were portrayed almost as co-equals. (John Cassavetes and Sidney Poitier would finally remove the “almost” from the equation in 1956’s Edge of the City.) During production, Garfield reportedly lobbied to get the Hernandez role strengthened and built up, which by itself was probably enough by itself to get you a subpoena from HUAC in those days.

Cinematographer Ted McCord shot a lot of the movie on aquatic location, and you can really feel the humidity. McCord never quite received the career huzzahs he deserved, even though he also photographed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Johnny Belinda, East of Eden and The Sound of Music, none of them exactly visual slouches. Ranald MacDougall’s script has some tangy dialogue, and the story doesn’t get bogged down in the melodrama that dominates the final quarter, as some movies that shift their focus during their late going frequently do. There’s also no cop-out at the end, and the final shot is a killer — its emphasis quite unlike any other I can recall from the era.

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