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Sea Wolf, The (Blu-ray Review)

6 Nov, 2017 By: Mike Clark



Available via Warner Archive
Warner
Adventure
$17.99 DVD, $21.99 Blu-ray
Not rated
Stars Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield, Ida Lupino, Alexander Knox, Gene Lockhart, Barry Fitzgerald.

To view The Sea Wolf even in its all-too-familiar truncated form is to see the A-team in action, and we’re not talking about TV’s George Peppard version (George would have been around 13 when the movie came out), but the best talent packaging that early 1940s Warner Bros. had to offer. One would have to sail the globe a time or two to find studio-contracted casting leads more formidable in its era than Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield and Ida Lupino in the same movie — while Michael Curtiz (the “it’s-about-time” subject of a new 698-page Alan Rode biography that has the look of being definitive-and-a-half) was the Brothers’ top house director. And that’s a designation that doesn’t give Curtiz full due.   

Meanwhile, Robert Rossen — who’d later direct Garfield in signature Body and Soul and, much later, become the guiding dark light behind The Hustler — wrote the screenplay. And just to extend the string, cinematography and scoring credits went respectively to Sol Polito (who wrote some of the book on early three-strip Technicolor, though here, he was working in black-and-white) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose carefully rationed talents weren’t ever going to be parceled out to ’41 Warners ephemera like, say Singapore Woman or Three Sons o’Guns, which mostly qualified as restroom breaks. And yet this best and best-known of many preceding and subsequent screen versions of Jack London’s popular novel suffered the kind of ignominy that certain other Warner hits did when they proved popular enough to re-issue.

Which was: severe cutting (to shorten a double-feature’s combined running time) when Wolf was reprised in theaters later in the decade. And, in this case, the picture was trimmed from 100 to 86 minutes or about one-seventh of the movie — footage that was lost and thus not restored when the studio began releasing its pre-1949 talkie library to TV a decade later. This means that all the movie-crazy kids who grew up with Eddie G.’s cerebral snarl at the helm have never really seen the picture until this notably seamless Blu-ray restoration, taken from an unearthed 35mm source. Though I saw the televised Sea Wolf two or three times growing up, I hadn’t viewed it in years so can’t say with certainty which scenes have been re-inserted, though reportedly they’re more political (Nazi comparisons weren’t tough to make, given Robinson’s title character). All I know is that this restored version hangs together smoothly (including print consistency) from the opening scene in a way that, say, Howard Hawks’ 1932 The Crowd Roars (shorn by Warner from 85 minutes to the long-exhibited 70) does not whenever I re-look at it on one of my periodic Hawks binges.

As for Wolf, it just doesn’t waste any time. Not too many seconds after we’ve read the “z” in “Directed by Michael Curtiz,” we find ourselves in a San Francisco Bay saloon immediately after we seen the Warner Bros. fog machine going full octane outside. The cops are after Garfield, as are some of the boys from the local shanghai concession, and once word gets around that the ship soliciting crewmen is the Ghost (whose toxic reputation precedes it all but on a bullhorn), he has an impossible choice to make. In any event, he ends up aboard — around the time a ferry carrying a refined writer (Alexander Knox, in his first role of note and first big-league movie) is rammed by a ship and picked up by the crew commanded by ruthlessly cold Capt. Wolf Larsen (Robinson) — a sadist whose advanced reading taste and occasional flashes of humor make him all the more formidable when it comes to sadism. Joining Knox as a guest via the same mishap is the Production Code equivalent of a prostitute (Lupino), who at least isn’t ordered into ship’s duty; matter of fact, she’s nearly dead. Abetting her rather miraculous survival, along with Garfield’s transfused blood, is another of the screen era’s alcoholic doctors (Gene Lockhart, memorable) — who by virtue of his long disintegrated pedigree can still claim a thimble of dignity against a crew of rabble. Foremost of these is Barry Fitzgerald as walking halitosis who would double-cross you for a used barnacle.

Like most Curtiz movies (and with Casablanca and his co-directed The Adventures of Robin Hood as significant exceptions), Wolf isn’t one I’d put in the absolute pantheon of its year, being a little too on the nose for my taste. But in terms of speed, economy and getting the most out of actors (even those) with underwritten parts, it’s packed with the kind of virtues missing from so many of today’s movies — and in Robinson’s case, the underwritten qualifier hardly applies. This is one complicated dude — and we can see this long before it’s divulged that he has a seafaring brother bent on killing him plus a malady (one that Knox is savvy enough to figure out) that you figure has to be affecting a psyche additionally stoked by readings of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. And thanks to Robinson’s ever-forceful personality and the low angles from which Curtiz and Polito often shoot him, it’s easy to forget that it’s an actor very short in physical stature playing the emotionally towering Larsen. By the way, this was yet another meaty role that George Raft (Mr. Career-Move himself) elected to turned down, in typically hilarious and pitiful fashion. In the same era, Raft also nixed High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity, judgment that his later career castings in the likes of Loan Shark and Outpost in Morocco didn’t do a whole lot to rectify in the cruel judgment of screen history.

Oscar-nominated for special effects and created totally on a soundstage, the newly reborn Wolf is anything but a patched-together quilt from uneven source material but a MoMA-restored looker all the way, and though the story plays around a lot with the author’s original text, the hour/40 here certainly has the feel of a London yarn. It all reminds me that a decades-long desire of mine has been to see a worthy screen adaptation of the author’s Martin Eden, which is one of my favorite novels of all time and definitely my No. 1 favorite about “the writer’s angst.” Columbia did a minor adaptation in 1942 (The Adventures of Martin Eden, with the young Glenn Ford), which has a zilch rep beyond a little viewer love on IMDb.com. There was also apparently an Italian/German telepic from 1979 that I doubt many in the U.S. have even heard of, much less seen. I wish some American filmmaker of stature (however many that are left) could give it a shot.


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