THE SEA WOLF: Blu-ray (Warner Bros. 1941) Warner Archive
Edward G. Robinson plays one of his most rewarding reprobates in Michael Curtiz’s The Sea Wolf (1941); an irascible sea captain, in possession of a wounded self-taught intellect, exercised without restraint and unmitigated heartlessness where compassion ought to have been the order of the day, or at the very least, the mantra of his ship. Here again, we have an exemplar of the gritty sea adventure so oft told, immaculately tricked out in all the studio-bound professionalism a big outfit like Warner Bros. could provide during its heyday. Yet, only Warner Bros. would be so bold as to tell such a tale of corruption, violence, self-destruction and self-loathing, and the ultimately degradation of humanity itself driven, either to the brink or meant to survive its own abject chaos. Based on Jack London’s sobering novel, the screenplay by Robert Rossen makes several crucial alterations to greatly influence the outcome of our story. First, unlike London’s 1904 antihero, and, in keeping with the times, this Capt. Wolfe Larsen (Robinson) is depicted as a symbol of corrupt fascism rather than a victim of the oppressive ‘capitalistic hierarchy’. The staunchly liberal London would have hated that. Rossen also splits the attributes of a single character in the novel between John Garfield’s con on the lam, George Leach – herein recast as a very rebellious seaman – and Alexander Knox’s intellectual bosun, Humphrey van Wyden. Knox’s participation here would act as a springboard to a very lucrative movie career. But Rossen affords the testosterone-driven crew of ‘the Ghost’ a very shapely vice too; Ruth Webster (Ida Lupino in a part expressly written for her, and later expanded at the actress’ behest). Although much of Rossen’s politicization would wind up on the cutting room floor, The Sea Wolf remains one of the most intelligently scripted adventure stories every brought to the screen; its questioning of authority and systematic deconstruction of a very complex antihero gives meaty parts to all and food for thought to anyone bright enough to appreciate its underlying implications.
Why don’t they make movies like this anymore? Indeed, why are there no unique stars like Edward Robinson, John Garfield and Ida Lupino gracing our movie screens today? The Sea Wolf gives all three ample opportunity to shine; ditto for Barry Fitzgerald’s chronically cackling mess hall manager, Cookie, and Gene Lockhart’s alchie physician, Doctor Louis J. Prescott – Louie, to this lawless crew who, along with Larsen, senselessly pummel Prescott’s self-respect beyond the brink of suicide. The Sea Wolf is a harrowing tale of ruthless men on the edge of savagery, fronted by a contemptible fraud. Larsen’s brutalities are a smoke-screen; a means to keep those fearful of their own truths subservient to his demands. To this motley crew he adds a trio of unlikely stowaways destined to prove his undoing. Whether from van Weyden’s forthrightness, Webster’s lurid sex appeal, or Leach’s show of muscle, from the moment these three unlikely compatriots board the Ghost, each proves a very painful turning of the screw, surely to do in Larsen. Shot entirely in the Warner tank, with skillfully assembled miniatures’ convincingly standing in for the tall ship, Sol Polito’s spookily-lit and fog-laden cinematography delivers maximum visual intensity to this very atmospheric excursion that penetrates deep into the still waters of so many conflicted, lost souls.
Enough cannot be said, and frankly – needs to be, of screenwriter extraordinaire, Robert Rossen who began his tenure in Hollywood in 1937, rather inauspiciously with Marked Woman; a truly disposable Bette Davis/Humphrey Bogart programmer. Nothing about this debut seemed to mark Rossen for greatness, except that for the next thirty years he managed to write, produce and direct a spate of incredibly diverse and intelligent movies; many of which have withstood the test of time: The Roaring Twenties (1939), The Sea Wolf (1941), Body and Soul (1947) All the King’s Men (1949), Island in the Sun (1957), and, The Hustler (1961) among them. Blacklisted for being a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, in hindsight, Rossen was likely more scrutinized for ‘biting the proverbial hand that fed him’, joining the picket line against Warner Bros. in 1945. Ever-popular and in high demand, Rossen’s falling out with WB producer, Hal B. Wallis would lead to an uneven spate of post-war projects, culminating with one irrefutable comeback – the multi-Oscar-winning classic, All the King's Men – made for Columbia. Left to his own devices, Rossen’s writing style is typified by his empathy for the common – and occasionally, less than common – man of questionable moral integrity who, nevertheless, is in search of the promise and distinction forever to be denied him in life. The Sea Wolf is, if not Rossen’s finest hour, then undeniably a top-tier effort on all fronts. His social commentary paired down in the resultant 90 min. general release print (losing 10 min.) still echoes through the hollowed out below decks’ atmosphere of the Ghost.
Our story begins on a fog-laden wharf; a recalcitrant George Leach fleeing police on foot and ducking into the Eight Bells Pub to conceal his identity, staving off the greedy fingers of a local pickpocket (Ernie Adams) before skulking to the bar for a drink. There, he overhears an agent (Ralf Harolde) procuring sailors for the Ghost. There are no takers so the agent approaches George with the promise of steady paid work, signaling the bartender to slip him a mickey to seal the deal. Rough around the edges, and fixin’ for a fight, George flattens the agent with his fists, then hurries to the docks to join the Ghost as she pulls out of port. Meanwhile, aboard one of the nearby ferries, cultured fiction author Humphrey van Weyden is reading the papers when he is approached by Ruth Webster. She begs him to conceal her identity from two police officers. Unable to bring himself to openly lie, van Weyden instead gives Ruth away. She vows to get even. But before that the ferry is broadsided by another ship suddenly emerging from the dense fog. In the ensuing panic and subsequent sinking, Ruth is knocked unconscious. Clinging to some wreckage, van Weyden saves her life; the two brought aboard the Ghost. Van Weyden is initially grateful for their rescue but soon discovers the ship’s Captain Wolfe Larsen has no intention of returning either of them to port. While Ruth clings desperately to life in a cabin below decks, van Weyden comes to learn more than he ought about the man to whom he owes his life and is about to be chained in service.
Larsen is a brutal task master. Even under the best conditions he treats his crew with a certain disdain for humanity at large; gleefully taunting Prescott, a one-time physician who, by his own admission has three medical degrees but has since succumbed to the bottle and destroyed his abilities to practice as a physician. When van Weyden learns of Ruth’s precarious ailing he begs Prescott to intervene with a blood transfusion. Larsen volunteers George as the donor. Despite his misgivings, Prescott performs a successful transfusion and Ruth recovers from her injuries. However, upon feeling well enough to go on deck and thank Larsen for saving her life, Ruth is exposed as a wanted criminal. Larsen is delighted by this news. But George comes to her aid and is beaten unconscious for his efforts. Meanwhile, the ship’s cook – aptly named Cookie – taunts van Weyden for his writer’s prowess. Eventually, Larsen touches upon the idea van Weyden should write his memoirs. Prescott, newly restored to his former self and dressing the part of a doctor, is ridiculed by the crew. He demands satisfaction from Larsen. Cruelly, Larsen pretends to play along before ruthlessly kicking Prescott down a flight of stair. The wounded doctor is then chased around the deck by members of the crew as van Weyden helplessly looks on. Climbing up the ropes and briefly escaping his detractors to the crow’s nest, Prescott has the final word; accusing Larsen of being a fraud. He is actually being hunted by his own brother, Death Larsen. Immensely please with himself, Prescott willfully commits suicide, throwing himself off the mast.
The latter half of The Sea Wolf is almost entirely dedicated to unraveling the complexities of Larsen’s extremely flawed character. For here is a book-read intellectual who, by his own admission, sees no worth in higher education; a man who can respect brute force yet finds no usefulness in any man who can think his way out of a grisly situation. Meanwhile, George and Ruth have fallen in love. She is desperate to escape the Ghost, to be dropped off anywhere but back in San Francisco where, surely, she will be arrested and taken to jail for undisclosed crimes. George promises to look after her once they reach Shanghai. And although Ruth admits to never having been in Shanghai she rather cryptically confesses to George the likelihood of slipping back into old habits once they have arrived in port (prostitution hinted at, though thanks to the Production Code of Censorship never revealed outright). Believing she possesses more self-worth than perhaps even she is able to acknowledge, George gathers various members of Larsen’s crew who have had a change of heart and together they ambush the Captain and his first mate (Charles Sullivan), throwing both men overboard. Barely surviving this ordeal by clinging to the end of a trailing rope, Larsen climbs back aboard the Ghost. Shamelessly, he reveals to the crew it was Cookie who acted as his informant. Outraged, the crew now drop Cookie into the water, collectively agreeing to pull him back to relative safety only after an advancing shark has bitten off one of his legs.
Larsen vows revenge. But George, Ruth, van Weyden, and another crewman, Johnson (Stanley Ridges) manage their escape on a dory during one of Larsen’s repeated bouts of temporary blindness. Alas, even they have underestimated Larsen; the old salt switched their water rations for vinegar. Fearful of reprisals, George steers the dory toward open waters. Johnson later sacrifices himself to conserve the remaining water rations. Meanwhile, Larsen, unable to hide his blindness from the crew any longer, is exposed by Cookie. Death Larsen’s ship emerges from the dense fog, shelling the Ghost and forcing the crew to abandon her as she slowly begins to take on water. Unaware how close they are to their former slave ship, George, Ruth and van Weyden come upon the Ghost again, badly wounded and foundering. The ailing vessel seemingly abandoned, George elects to go aboard and salvage supplies. He is struck on the head and forced into the cargo hold by Larsen. A frantic Ruth follows van Weyden below decks. Unable to free George from the hold, van Weyden barters with Larsen to take his place. Larsen is determined to go down with his ship. Tragically, while attempting to smuggle the key to George, van Weyden is fatally shot by Larsen. Tricking Larsen into giving Ruth the key, van Weyden now quietly dies. As Larsen awaits the final moments of his own imminent death, Ruth and George escape to the dory and are stunned to see land ahead as the Ghost slips beneath the waves and is gone forever.
The Sea Wolf is a rather bone-chilling adventure yarn. Given all the carnage gone before this sad-eyed, yet unnervingly hopeful denouement, the last shot of a miniature dory drifting towards dry land is hardly encouraging. Will George and Ruth remain close? Is the island populated by cannibals? Are authorities waiting to take Ruth back to prison? These and other more prescient questions are never answered. We are left with the cryptic meaning of one man’s self-destructive behavior, and the immense tragedies it has wrought for so many along the way. Wolfe Larsen, the deceiver and destroyer of too many lives, has surrendered himself to the sea; an almost noble escape, given his utterly depraved nature towards his fellow man. And yet, there remains an undercurrent of empathy for whatever might become of Larsen’s soul – if, in fact, he possesses one. We are left to imagine what could have driven the spirit of humanity from such a man, partly because of Edward G. Robinson’s momentous and multi-layered performance. While virtually all the other characters remain anchored to a preset of traits, Robinson’s Larsen evolves, almost constantly without any degree of certainty. His wounded blank stare at the end as he clings to a ship caving in on all sides haunts us from the darkened recesses of the theater. Was this a man we beheld or truly the mark of the beast emboldened in a man’s skin? Despite his fascinatingly unraveling mass of contradictions, Robinson never reveals all to us. Instead, we are left with the miraculous tale of another thoroughly tragic figure of the sea; a Captain Ahab for modern times, or perhaps foreshadowing all the Captain Queeg’s yet to follow him.
The Sea Wolf arrives on Blu-ray via the Warner Archive (WAC). Unlike a great many of WAC’s most recent hi-def releases, The Sea Wolf is an irrefutable classic, long overdue for its face lift in 1080p. Not from a lack of interest on Warner’s part, but because it was sincerely thought no complete print had survived these past 70 years, for as long, it was thought the only salvageable elements were in poorly contrasted 16mm under the guarded custodianship of Julie Garfield (John Garfield’s daughter). But then there came to light a 35mm fine grain nitrate master, shockingly intact and remarkably well-preserved. It is from these newly archived elements WAC has struck what can only be described as a truly outstanding 1080p image harvest with impossibly satisfying black levels and superb shadow detail. Remastered in hi-def, The Sea Wolf is even more impressive. The audio is 2.0 mono and, as the image, exhibits a quality far beyond anything film collectors have had to grapple with in these intervening decades. Were that the likes of Edward G. Robinson, Michael Curtiz and Hal B. Wallis were alive today to witness The Sea Wolf’s reintroduction to the public. My one regret here is WAC did not shell out extra money for an audio commentary. We do get a radio broadcast and a theatrical trailer. But seriously – The Sea Wolf deserves more. Still, we cannot fault WAC’s mastering efforts here. It’s perfect. Bottom line: you will want to snatch up a copy of The Sea Wolf today. But be prepared to treasure it forever. This is a great movie – period!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)