THE BREAKING POINT: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1950) Criterion Collection
In 1944, director Howard Hawks challenged imminent author, Ernest Hemingway at a dinner party, claiming he could take Hemingway’s worst “bunch of junk” and transform it into a hit movie. The result was To Have and Have Not, a highly romanticized and heavily rewritten take on the author’s prose, costarring Lauren Bacall – in her screen debut – and Warner Bros. resident tough guy, Humphrey Bogart. In hindsight, what made To Have and Have Not such a sumptuous movie was not the adaptation, but the inimitable and electric screen chemistry between Bogie and Bacall, on the cusp of their real-life affair du Coeur; her smug sass, the perfect complement to his stiff-lipped insolence. And while To Have and Have Not proved a real money-maker for the studio, and is justly regarded as a great movie today, it really has no correlation with Hemingway’s masterwork. For this, we turn to director Michael Curtiz’s The Breaking Point (1950); as scripted by Randall McDougall, a direct descendant of the novel and very much more darkly situated within that anti-heroic netherworld in which Hemingway’s best characterizations of humanity exist.
Gone is the Harry Morgan of the former flick - brazen loner; brooding, belligerent and bellicose. In his stead we have John Garfield playing a far more evolved, flawed, stumbling and desperate every man; the good guy repeatedly turned to taking risks – neither self-serving or on a dare (as Bogie’s captain) but rather, to keep body and soul together for his wife and two young daughters. This Harry Morgan is a family guy, squeezed on all sides, besieged by bad luck and some very misguided life choices. It is, in fact, the sort of characterization John Garfield was born to play, and so sad that instead of this movie attaining the high water mark of his own artistic achievement it was quietly swept under the rug with a quick n’ dirty release that effectively buried it from most public view for decades to follow; and this, despite overwhelmingly positive critical reviews of the day. In screening the rushes to Curtiz’s carefully calculated ‘sunny’ noir melodrama, studio chief, Jack L. Warner had been ecstatic; firing off a memo to Curtiz, suggesting they might have another mega hit on par with Curtiz’s most memorable movie to date: Casablanca (1942). According his enthusiasm, Warner began to hand-craft a marketing blitz to promote The Breaking Point. This would be Curtiz’s crowning achievement.
Ah, but then fate stepped in; star, John Garfield’s name published in ‘Red Channels’ as a communist sympathizer. For the record, Garfield’s wife, Roberta Seidman had been a member of the Communist Party. And while Garfield’s own political views veered to liberal (then, a designation of varying tonal shades of grey), the closest he ever came to the communist party’s influences was in his support of the Committee for the First Amendment which basically opposed governmental investigation into anyone’s political beliefs. Nevertheless, Garfield’s refusal to ‘name names’ caused the House on Un-American Activities to consider him a hostile witness. HUAC’s relentless pursuit of subversives in the entertainment industry savaged Garfield’s reputation, barring him from procuring future work in the movies. Ostensibly, being ostracized directly led to the strain that caused Garfield’s death. Two years after the release of The Breaking Point, while investigating Seidman’s involvement in the Communist Party, HUAC decided Garfield had perjured himself under their investigation. As the actor prepared to divorce his wife he suffered a major heart attack and died alone in his hotel suite. He was only 39 years old. As a matter of public record, following the epic outpouring of sympathy at Garfield’s funeral, HUAC cleared him of any wrong doing: too little, too late. For shame! And what a waste!
If only Jack Warner had stood up to the absurdity of these times and behind The Breaking Point…if only. Instead, fearing even more scrutiny directed at him and every contract player in his stable of stars, Warner elected to cower from his planned press campaign for the movie; virtually dumping The Breaking Point on a general release circuit with zero fanfare or promotion. The picture’s lackluster performance at the box office quickly hastened its retirement into the studio vaults where it would continue to languish for decades thereafter; rarely seen on television and never re-issued in movie houses. In hindsight, The Breaking Point is a fascinatingly complex re-evaluation of ‘the American dream’; or rather, a reflection of its post-WWII fallout. Garfield’s Capt. Harry Morgan puts it thus, “Ever since I took the uniform off, I’m not exactly great.” Exactly what he is, or believes he has become since, is what this movie is all about, pitting Morgan’s high ideals against a tsunami-sized backwash of moral turpitude that chronically envelopes and threatens to snuff out his faith in humanity; most temptingly embodied by Patricia Neal’s Leona Charles – the proverbial femme fatale, made more three-dimensional and emotionally composited than most of her breed. But the picture is as superior a portrait of that Rock of Gibraltar-like sturdiness Harry’s marriage endures made even more granite-like for having been repeatedly compressed into the molten pressure cooker of life; Phyllis Thaxter’s Lucy Morgan, the epitome of a certain archetype in womanhood, now almost defunct: the ever-devoted Sweet Polly Purebred who cannot conceive – much less believe – her man would stray into the arms of another. And Harry, for all his too brief contemplations of indiscretion with Leona, is fundamentally a straight arrow; ashamed of his own inability to be a good provider for his family, rather than the semi-tragic frump his wife has been transformed into since their wedding day.
There is an eloquent and heartrending moment, expertly handled by Curtiz and even more monumentally downplayed to perfection by his players: Thaxter’s Lucy, believing Garfield’s Harry might be interested in Neal’s cool blonde, dyes her own tresses platinum to reclaim her man’s sexual appetite; forgetting, first and foremost, her own strength in their marriage derives from an ever-renewable faith and fidelity in their vows. Ridiculed by their two daughters, Amelia (Sherry Jackson) and Connie (Donna Jo Boyce) who are shocked and disappointed in their mother, Harry’s response to Lucy’s latest manifestation of self-sacrifice is nothing less than poignant. “It does something for you,” he suggests, even though his eyes tenderly reveal the opposite; also – his grateful disbelief any woman, much less the one he married, could love him so completely in spite of his flaws and failures. The Breaking Point teems with such stolen snapshots of Harry and Lucy’s muddled domesticity; his chronically foundering male machismo most perfectly counterbalanced by her more pragmatic sense of self. “I can think about you anytime and get excited,” Lucy tells her husband. And we believe her hook, line and sinker.
We would be remiss in not acknowledging Garfield’s monumental contribution to the world of film in general and this picture in particular; bringing silhouettes to his portrait of this conflicted, tortured soul. Garfield allows Harry Morgan’s openness to shine through; intently – if transparently – masked by a thin veneer of ‘cool to hot’ callousness he has inextricably confused with no-nonsense masculinity. It doesn’t fool Lucy. But it mildly amuses Leona, who sees through it just the same. Garfield’s solicitous concentration was hard won; a byproduct entwined with his own hard-luck story as a scrapper from New York’s lower east side where, by his own admission, he was to learn at an impressionable age “all the meanness, all the toughness it's possible for a kid to acquire.” That some of this early disillusionment with life should have carried over into his unlikely career as a movie star and rub off on the characters he played is inevitable; Garfield’s interpretation of ‘dialogue’, as spontaneous outbursts of spur of the moment speech, never actor-ish or showy; merely, existing in the moment as the total embodiment of his alter egos. Despite his diminutive physical stature, Garfield always appeared to be ten feet tall on the screen; his stubborn entrenchment transferred into an unlikely sexualized aura – the tough guy without deliberately trying to be, and, the introvert quietly clinging to this placard as a shield for his truer self from the unforgiving outside world. Harry Morgan has sustained all the superficial cuts to his outlook that he can take. Time to lash back. Like all forthright men of action, it’s the thoughtfulness in contemplation Garfield brings to Harry that proves his Achilles heel. He can no more be ruthless, even for a good cause, than he can, simply to get ahead. It’s just not in either man’s nature.
The Breaking Point begins at the dusk of Harry Morgan’s descend into desperation; having just spent the last of his family’s allotment for living expenses on the necessary gas he needs to power up his fishing boat for another rented excursion. Since the war, Harry has tried to make a go of The Sea Queen – mortgaged to its keel and in danger of being repossessed. The opening scenes, picturesque and backlit by another miraculous sun-filled California day are offset as director, Curtiz takes us backstage into the Morgan’s modest bungalow; clean and well-ordered, but otherwise unprepossessing. The Morgans are hardly well-heeled folk and in their modestly mismatched bric-a-brac one can immediately sense the tenuous nature of their entire existence. As he prepares to break the news to Lucy, Harry takes stock of their wedding portrait on the bureau; himself in uniform, snuggled close to her cheek, the bride – bright-eyed and exuberant. And although we may assume, judging by the age of their children, the couple has yet to make it to their tenth wedding anniversary, the Lucy we meet shortly thereafter is a distant cry from the vivacious woman depicted in this photograph; wan and reedier, but still blissful in her belief she has married the right guy as she prepares him a hearty lunch to take on his trip abroad. “We’ll manage,” she assuredly insists without a shred of disappointment in her voice.
Alas, almost from this moment forward, the tenuousness of their meager marital bliss will be repeatedly tested by Harry’s shortsightedness and anxiety. The hired expedition to Mexico turns rancid for Harry and his first mate, Wesley Park (Juano Hernandez) after their fare; businessman Hannagan (Ralph Dumke) stiffs him, leaving his gal pal, Leona Charles high and dry as well. With no money to get back home, Harry falls prey to a spurious lawyer, Duncan (Wallace Ford), who convinces him to smuggle a handful of Chinese illegals into the country for the spurious, Mr. Sing (Victor Sen Yung). This affair too curdles when Sing threatens to renege on his fee, forcing Harry to get tough. He shoots Sing, tossing his body overboard. In full panic mode, the illegals are now deposited on a beach head not far from where Harry first agreed to pick them up. Penniless, Harry manages to make it home with Leona in tow. And although the two barely speak to one another, except to exchange adversarial comments, very shortly Leona will begin to see things Harry’s way – enough to consider him desirable. Back in California, Harry is seemingly finished with shady deals. Indeed, Sing’s ‘accidental’ murder has unraveled him. Only now, Lucy gets a job at a parachute factory, bringing work home at night and staying up all hours at her sewing machine, just to keep body and soul together. Harry is ashamed, electing to bury his self-pity in strong drink. Lucy tails him to his favorite watering hole, slightly unsettled to discover he is not alone but with Leona. Shortly thereafter, presumably to beat this she-devil at her own game, Lucy dyes her unprepossessing mop of hair platinum. Harry is touched by the devotion that drove his wife to believe she had begun to lose his affections. Their love-bond strengthened, Harry makes valiant attempts to get his life back on track.
Only now, Duncan resurfaces with news of Mr. Sing’s bullet-riddled body having washed ashore. Knowing only one man who could have done it, Duncan threatens to expose Harry to the authorities unless he helps him charter his boat as a getaway vehicle for a small gang of hoods intent on pulling off a racetrack heist. Fearing the worst for her husband, Lucy demands Harry come to his senses. When he refuses to back down from his commitment to Duncan, Lucy threatens to leave Harry for good. Backed into a corner, Harry retreats to Leona’s apartment. And although they incessantly flirt, sharing a solitary kiss, both realize Harry could never be truly unfaithful to his wife. He departs for the prearranged rendezvous on the docks, shocked to discover Wesley stowed away The Sea Queen beforehand. Callously, one of the hoods assassinates Wesley, his body pitched over the side. But Harry has planned ahead. Faking engine failure, he retrieves a pair of loaded pistols from the cargo hold, taking dead aim at Wesley’s killers. One by one, the crooks are dispatched, though not before they get off a couple rounds, seriously wounding Harry. Barely conscious, Harry sends out a distress signal. The Sea Queen is discovered adrift by the coastguard and sailed back into port. Lucy, who could never truly abandon Harry, is waiting; told by a dock attendant and doctor Harry’s condition is grave and that, regardless of his chances, he must have his left arm amputated to spare his life. Gangrene has begun to set in. Lucy implores her husband to see to reason and Harry finally agrees to the surgery. As the camera pulls back to reveal the crowd of gawkers dissipating, Harry is carted off by ambulance, Curtiz settles on the heartbreaking image of Wesley’s young son, isolated and abandoned, curiously left to wonder what has become of his own father.
I have read too many reviews championing The Breaking Point as a superior adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not; the Bogie/Bacall precursor judged as everything from ‘feeble’ to shockingly ‘not the book’. It’s an ‘apples to pomegranates’ comparison at best. While we cannot argue with the fact, director Howard Hawks’ movie of the same name bears little resemblance to Hemingway’s authorship, we draw a parallel breath to suggest this was never Hawks’ intent. Nor is The Breaking Point a 100% faithful translation of Hemingway, although it undoubtedly comes much closer on virtually most points of interest. Each movie is its own stand-alone piece. Both have their merits. The Breaking Point is a more starkly lit, realistic account of God’s lonely man; John Garfield adding uncharacteristic depth to the part. There is no hint of screen romanticism about this sordid tale of one man’s spiral into the inescapable fear and loathing of that ‘little life’ he will forever lead. With very few exceptions the characters populating The Breaking Point are virtually unscrupulous to downright evil; ravenous and driven by greed; long since become slaves to their own cynicism. Ted D. McCord’s evocative cinematography and Max Steiner’s underscore reveal and amplify this depth of suffrage lurking about every corner. Despite its sunny backdrop (relocated from Florida to California – most likely for economic reasons) The Breaking Point is a remarkably ‘dark’ and foreboding thriller. Michael Curtiz has delivered a potent roller coaster ride that never skimps on its heightened sense of melodrama, directing in a strikingly crisp, unassailable style. Our ‘hero’ is hardly ennobling. But he is as Hemingway would have wanted him to be; fairly genuine to the dissonant rigors of life. Curtiz’s expert tutelage considerably fattens this calf with abundant, studied minutiae and discriminating, significant reflections about the human condition. In the final analysis, it’s still a taut adventure story, but one unexpectedly tricked out in hard-luck ironies, never preachy or ringing thin.
The Breaking Point arrives long overdue on home video in a pristine transfer from Warner Bros. via the Criterion Collection. Several years ago the studio would have considered it sacrilege to lease out its formidable library to a third party distributor. Now, Criterion has the lion’s share of the company’s ‘golden oldies’, and, with the promise of many more to come in the future. It is gratifying to see both Warner and Criterion on board, working in tandem to deliver the goods on deep catalog masterpieces such as this one. Created from a new 2K scan derived from an original 35mm fine grain positive gleaned from the original camera negative, what is here is pure quality: sumptuous grain levels appearing indigenous to their source, solid tonality in the grey scale, and excellent contrast levels that attest to Ted McCord’s use of, in many cases, natural light sources to evoke a moody magnificence. There are occasional lapses in image sharpness. One can only assume these were inherent in the original elements and no fault of this mastering effort. The PCM mono audio has also been sweetened to perfection. This is a great looking disc, surely not to disappoint.
Less impressive are the extras: we get a new video essay from Alan K. Rode, another featuring John Garfield’s daughter, Julie, and a third by Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou that investigates Curtiz’s contributions on the movie. None of these featurettes is particularly immersive. Aside: I sincerely miss the days when studios used to assimilate copious amounts of archival footage with new and more comprehensive interviews to create full-blown documentaries devoted to the study and deconstruction of their subject matter. But I digress. Herein, there are also excerpts from 1962’s Today Show, taking us on a tour of Hemingway’s Key West, Florida home: finally, an essay by noted critic, Stephanie Zacharek. I really should not be complaining – and won’t. The extras could have been more inclusive. Nevertheless, they are competently assembled and highly relevant as appendages to this home video release. Bottom line: The Breaking Point is quite an achievement for all concerned. It ought to have become ‘a great film’ in its day. Perhaps now it has the opportunity for such reassessment. Highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)