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A Nice Guy in Noirland Reaches 'The Breaking Point'

Victor Sen Yung, Wallace Ford, John Garfield (The Movie Database)

This 1950 adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not features John Garfield and director Michael Curtiz at their best.

The Breaking Point

Director: Michael Curtiz
Cast: John Garfield, Patricia Neal
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: Not rated
US DVD release date: 2017-08-08

After To Have and Have Not hit the bookstores in 1937, a New York Times critic complained that “Hemingway’s record as a creative writer would be stronger if it had never been published.” Still, the less-than-stellar novel went through four initial printings and also inspired two film adaptations that are now considered classics.

First came To Have and Have Not (1944), directed by Hemingway pal Howard Hawks, who had bet Papa that he could make a good movie out of the author’s (then) worst book. But Hawks had an advantage. It’s hard to go wrong when you have a post-Casablanca Humphrey Bogart playing Hemingway’s tough charter boat captain and real-life flame Lauren Bacall famously asking him onscreen, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and... blow.” As critics of the time noted, though, it was uncomfortably similar to Casablanca -- even to the point of moving the novel’s action from Key West to an island with a Vichy France government and resistance movement. Now, those similarities are more warmly embraced, and the two stars and their director have pushed it into the pantheon of classic films.

But legendary film critic Bosley Crowther thought the “gripping and pictorially genuine” 1950 remake, The Breaking Point, a far superior film -- a home run, compared to Hawks’ valiant swing and miss. “All of the character, color and cynicism of Mr. Hemingway’s lean and hungry tale are wrapped up in this realistic picture, and John Garfield is tops in the principal role,“ he wrote. The Breaking Point was ironically helmed by Casablanca director Michael Curtiz, and Curtiz biographer Alan K. Rode, who appears in an excellent bonus feature on this Criterion Blu-ray release, thinks it’s the director’s best postwar film. I find myself agreeing with both men.

Once you get past the near-suburban strangeness of the Newport Beach, California location filming -- a considerably tidier-looking area than the ramshackle “Conch” houses of Depression-era Key West -- it’s easy to get caught up in the world of Harry Morgan, a hardworking WWII veteran who served heroically on a PT boat and now ekes out a meager living taking on fishing charters. Times are tough and Harry finds himself in an impossibly tough spot after a rich fishing charter stiffs him and leaves him stranded in Mexico with no way of paying the port exit fee. What else can he do but deal with Mr. Sing (Victor Sen Yung) and take on a load of illegal Chinese immigrants in the dead of night? After that encounter, he knows it was a first step toward either his salvation or ruination.

If you know Hemingway’s novel, it doesn’t take long before you realize that The Breaking Point is the most faithful screen adaptation, and what few key alterations Curtiz and his screenwriters made have actually created a stronger story. While Hemingway’s hero turns “rumrunner” before getting involved with bank-robbing Cuban revolutionaries near the novel’s end, Curtiz cuts right to a crucial encounter with bank robbers who charter Harry’s boat for their getaway, setting up one of the big screen’s memorable climaxes.

Along the way, the director makes more sense of the femme fatale character played by Bacall in the first adaptation, with Patricia Neal turning in a strong and sultry performance that plays well opposite Garfield’s vulnerably flawed hero. When she comes on to him his responses range from a cynical “Turn it off, turn it off” to a momentary lapse of morality. He is, after all, married, as was Hemingway’s boat captain, and Curtiz takes full advantage of that detail. In making Harry wanting to be faithful to his wife, in softening the main character and removing some of the socialist politics that rattled around uncomfortably in the book, Curtiz crafts a more moral, likeable, and believable hero.

That softening and the inclusion of more domestic scenes between Harry and his wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) and their two daughters also provides Curtiz with the opportunity to do something radical: to create, essentially, a half-noir film by shooting scenes showing Harry’s shady side and encounters using heavy shadows and other elements of noir style, but rendering the domestic scenes with natural and standard three-point lighting. Harry may be tough, but in Curtiz’ hands he’s basically a nice guy in noirland, and the way the director has chosen to film this complex character contributes to the “pictorially genuine” nature of the film that Crowther praised.

One scene in particular illustrates how deftly Curtiz can shift gears between noir and non-noir staging. It occurs when Harry is at a bar sitting at a table with Leona (Neal), who also found herself stiffed by the rich man and is, shall we say, between rich men. As she comes on to Harry again, going full-bore femme fatale, the table they’re at is cloaked in shadows, one of which covers a portion of his face as if to suggest an encroachment of darkness, cynicism, or a lapse in morality. But then Lucy walks in on them. Almost imperceptibly the lighting begins to shift, and by the time Lucy has replaced Leona at the table, the noir curtain has been lifted completely.

Another small but significant change Curtiz made was to jettison Harry’s “rummy” first mate (played by Walter Brennan in Hawks’ film) and make the mate black, with Joano Hernandez playing Wesley Park. Hemingway went on record as saying that The Breaking Point was his favorite of all the films that had anything to do with his books or short stories, and one suspects that relative faithfulness to the novel was only a part of the reason. Hemingway was very big on racial equality. He deliberately bought a home in the black section of Key West and gave black boxers a chance to earn money during the Depression by going a few rounds with him in his spacious backyard. He refereed fights at what is now the Blue Heaven, and the boxers who remembered him recalled how fairly he treated them, how he interacted with them like a genuine friend. That’s the way that Harry and his mate, Wesley, act. Race is never an issue -- not even a subtext. For a film that was released seven years before nine African-American students made headlines when they were blocked from enrolling in a formerly all-white Arkansas high school, that’s no small thing.

That matter-of-fact treatment is recounted in one of several excellent bonus features, while another -- a mini film class by Tony Ramos and Tony Zhou (Every Frame a Painting) -- walks viewers through a series of scenes illustrating what they call Curtiz’ “3D style of staging”, in which they point out the three rooms of Harry’s residence and the pattern of always having other rooms visible in the background, often with activity. They discuss how Curtiz breaks down his shots so that the arguments occur in one room, intimacies in another, and the couple’s putting on a “brave front” in the third room, with always something going on in the background.

In another bonus feature, Garfield’s daughter talks about her father and the sad reason why The Breaking Point, despite being a film that the studio thought was as good a movie and potentially as big a hit as Casablanca, fell into obscurity. It had everything to do with her father.

Shortly before the film was released, a publication named Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television identified Garfield among 151 in the industry who were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers. As a result, Warner Bros. chose not to promote the film beyond a quiet initial release. Garfield, who was blacklisted and refused to name his wife as a communist just to be able to work again, made only one more film before he died at age 39 of a heart attack. His performance in this rediscovered gem isn’t just a reminder of his talent or that, as Hemingway wrote, “One man alone ain’t got no **** chance” against social and economic forces that conspire against him. It’s a reminder too of that sad Hollywood blacklist and a testament to the genius of Curtiz, Garfield, and, yes, Ernest Hemingway.


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