Saturday, August 2, 2014

Stubs – The Breaking Point

The Breaking Point (1950) Starring: John Garfield, Patricia Neal, Phyllis Thaxter.  Directed by Michael Curtiz. Produced by Jerry Wald. Screenplay by Ranald MacDougall. Based on the novel To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway (New York, 1937).  Run Time: 94 minutes. U.S.  Black and White. Drama

Another year and more sequels (The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Transformers: Age of Extinction, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and remakes (Robocop, About Last Night, Annie, Godzilla) released or planned by Hollywood. But this is really nothing new, as film studios have long been remaking properties they own; even ones we consider to be classic films are not spared.

Take the example of To Have and Have Not (1944), the political thriller from Warner Bros. That film starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and took place in Martinique, a French colony in the Caribbean, during World War II. Produced and directed by Howard Hawks, To Have and Have Not is not only responsible for Bacall’s rise to stardom, but for introducing Bogart to his future wife.

Hawks did not think much of the Hemingway novel the film was supposed to be based on. He considered To Have and Have Not to be Hemingway’s worst book, calling it a “bunch of junk” even to the author himself. As a result, the film Hawks made preserves the title and the names of the main characters, but little of the plot after the first fifth of the novel. Still, the movie is considered a classic, if not a true adaptation of the source material, but that’s nothing new in Hollywood either.

A few years later, screenwriter Ranald MacDougall informed his bosses at Warner Bros. that they hadn’t actually made the novel To Have and Have Not into a movie and he was assigned the job. The film was made as a star vehicle for John Garfield, but would turn out to be his penultimate film. Following his appearance in front of the House Committee on Un-American Activities and subsequent blackballing in Hollywood, Garfield’s film career was coming to an end. Knowing he needed as much as he could get in his corner, Garfield insisted on Michael Curtiz as the director.

From his home in Newport Beach, California, former P.T. boat operator Harry Morgan (John Garfield) rents out his private boat, the Sea Queen, to fishing parties. Harry barely manages to make enough money to support his wife, Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter), and their two children, Amelia (Sherry Jackson) and Connie (Donna Jo Boyce). Tired of the financial struggle, Lucy continually begs him to give up the boat and move to work on her father's lettuce farm.

Harry Morgan (John Garfield) and his wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter). She wishes
he would give up his boat and work with her father growing lettuce.

One day, Harry is hired to take Hannagan (Ralph Dumke) and his attractive blonde friend, Leona Charles (Patricia Neal), for a three week fishing trip off the Mexican coast. While out to sea, Leona openly flirts with Harry and, though nothing happens between them, Hannagan doesn’t like what he sees and abandons Leona and leaves Mexico without paying Harry. Desperate for money to get home, Harry makes a deal with F.R. Duncan (Wallace Ford), a shady lawyer, to transport illegal Chinese laborers into California.

Desperate for money and stuck in Mexico, Harry makes a deal with Mr. Sing
(Victor Sen Yung) that is brokered by shady attorney F.R. Duncan (Wallace Ford) (center).

But before the boat casts off, Leona shows up. She’s broke and is hoping to catch a ride back to the states, but Harry gives her bus fare to go home. And in order to prevent his first mate, Wesley Park (Juano Hernandez), from becoming involved in the illicit activity, Harry tries to send him back to the United States on the bus, too. But Wesley and Leona both sneak back aboard the boat, which Harry discovers only after he’s left the docks.

The Chinese laborers Harry is paid to, but doesn't, smuggle into the U.S.

Too late to change plans, Harry docks the boat in a deserted cove to pick up the laborers, but when the smuggler, Mr. Sing (Victor Sen Yung), tries to shortchange Harry, a fight breaks out. Sing has a gun and, in the struggle, he is killed with it. Harry throws his body overboard and returns the Chinese men to shore. Unbeknownst to Harry, the Chinese laborers, one of whom remembers the boat's name, are picked up by the U.S. border patrol. When Harry reaches San Diego, his boat is confiscated. Leona is questioned, but knows not to mention what she witnessed.

When Sing tries to shortchange Harry a fight breaks out and Sing gets shot with his own gun.

Both Leona and Duncan turn up again in Newport Beach. Learning of Leona's presence, Lucy becomes jealous and, deciding that Harry must prefer blondes, dyes her hair. Meanwhile, Harry almost succumbs to Leona's seductive attentions, but remains faithful to Lucy. After Duncan arranges for the "Sea Queen" to be returned to Harry, the boat is about to be repossessed and Harry is again forced to take Duncan up on another job offer.
This time Duncan arranges for him to take four gangsters to an offshore boat after they commit a robbery at a racetrack. Harry makes sure to tell Duncan that the gangsters have to pretend to take the boat by force.

Trying to hold onto her husband, Lucy dyes her hair blonde, like Leona's.

With his advance for the job, Harry is able to retain his boat. He now concocts a plan to double-cross the gangsters and collect the reward. When she sees him loading a gun, Lucy announces that she is planning to leave him, telling him that nothing has been the same between them since his trip to Mexico. Nevertheless, Harry goes ahead with his plan.

Wesley Park (Juano Hernandez) is loyal to Harry. But it will cost him his life.

Wesley shows up unexpectedly, just before the gangsters are due to arrive, wanting to do some work on the boat. Harry tries to get Wesley away to keep him safe, but the gangsters show up and kill him. After the boat is out at sea, they force Harry to throw his mate’s body overboard. Harry uses the diversion to get rid of one of the gangsters' guns. He then fakes engine trouble, grabs the gun he has hidden aboard, and starts a shootout with the gangsters.

During the ensuing fight, Harry kills all four robbers, but is badly wounded himself. He turns off the boat’s engines and passes out on the deck. When the Coast Guard finds the "Sea Queen", Harry is barely alive. Lucy and their kids arrive at the docks and a doctor asks Lucy for permission to amputate his badly wounded left arm. Lucy, who still loves her husband, convinces Harry to have the operation and save his life.

After the gun fight, Harry is wounded in his left arm.

As the ambulance leaves, Leona and her latest lover show up on the docks. She tells him she knows Harry, but doesn’t let his predicament weigh too heavily on her. After the crowd thins down, only Joseph (Juan Hernandez), Wesley's child, waits futilely on the dock for his father's return.

The closing shot, with Joseph (Juan Hernandez) left to wait for his father's return.

The ending of the film seems very similar to the ending of Key Largo (1948), another Bogart film. In that film, Frank McCloud (Bogart) is forced at gunpoint to take Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) and his cohorts to Cuba, only he manages to turn the tables on them when they’re out at sea. There is a gunfight, in which Frank gets shot, but he manages to be the lone survivor. Not having read the Hemingway novel or seen the Maxwell Anderson play Key Largo is based on, it’s hard to know which film, book or play, influenced the other or if it is just a coincidence that two films with nautical themes should end similarly.

The Breaking Point was well-received upon its release, but even this wouldn’t be the last time Hollywood remade Hemingway’s story. Eight years later, a third film was made, The Gun Runners (1958), starring Medal of Honor winner turned actor, Audie Murphy as Sam Martin, the role by a different character name Bogart and Garfield had played in their films.

Despite best intentions, The Breaking Point is not a strict adaptation of the novel, which takes place in Cuba, not in California and Mexico, but it is closer to the Hemingway novel than the film with the same name, which was turned into a wartime political thriller. Also, the Hemingway novel takes place during the Great Depression, while The Breaking Point is post World War II, but that may have been done to make the story seem more current as many veterans no doubt struggled, as Harry did, to adjust to post War life.

But I didn’t know any of this when I first decided to watch this movie. I was just curious to see more John Garfield, an actor whose work I’ve liked. It is a shame to think this film is so close to the end of his film career, his last film was his next one, He Ran All the Way (1951). He would return to Broadway and a revival of Golden Boy in 1952, which would turn out to be his last stage production. He would die that year, of a heart condition, some say that was aggravated by the stress of his blacklisting. Garfield was only 39 when he died.

John Garfield starred as Harry Morgan in his next to last film role.

Patricia Neal was 24 when she made this film. In the role, she played a blonde who was very secure with her own sexuality and doesn’t mind the attentions of married men like Harry. Up until now, I had only see an older Neal in such films as Hud (1963) for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress, so it was quite interesting to see her play a sex kitten type role early in her career. She even does a little singing, like the Bacall character, a few verses, for some inexplicable reason, while charming a man before she changes her mind when she sees Harry.

Patricia Neal's Leona can't help but attract men wherever she goes.

Phyllis Thaxter was an actress with a girl next door type of beauty. She made her film debut in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), opposite Van Johnson, and also appeared prominently in Jim Thorpe – All American (1951) before a bout with polio in 1952 would stall, but not end her career. Like everyone else in the film, Thaxter’s performance, as the loving, but jealous wife, is strong as she fights for her man and for her family.

Phyllis Thaxter plays Harry's wife Lucy, who tries to support him, but wants what's best her for family.

This film is a little more complex than the Bogart film that I feel I know better, having seen it several times and this one only once. While I watch To Have and Have Not to enjoy the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall and the supporting performances by the likes of Walter Brennan and Hoagy Carmichael, The Breaking Point’s story is more involving in many ways. A sea captain trying to stay one step ahead of his bills and the possible repossession of his livelihood does whatever he has to get back home. And one bad deed leads to the next one. He is attracted to another woman who is a great temptation, but he manages, with the exception of one kiss, to stay faithful to his wife. But the fact that he goes to the precipice and pulls back may be for production code reasons as much as anything. The story is changed back from the political thriller of To Have and Have Not back to the intended struggles of an everyman, which still resonates today.

Comparisons to Bogart and Bogart films aside, John Garfield gives a very strong performance in The Breaking Point. When I started watching this film, I had little to no expectations but I came away very impressed with the acting, directing and story. I would highly recommend this film.

The Breaking Point is available from the Warner Archive:

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