Michael Curtiz brings a master skipper’s hand to the helm of this thriller, Hollywood’s second crack at Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not. John Garfield stars as Harry Morgan, an honest charter-boat captain who, facing hard times, takes on dangerous cargo to save his boat, support his family, and preserve his dignity. Left in the lurch by a freeloading passenger, Harry starts to entertain the criminal propositions of a sleazy lawyer (Wallace Ford), as well as the playful come-ons of a cheeky blonde (Patricia Neal), making a series of compromises that stretch his morality—and his marriage—farther than he’ll admit. Hewing closer to Hemingway’s novel than Howard Hawks’s Bogart-Bacall vehicle, The Breaking Point charts a course through daylight noir and working-class tragedy, guided by Curtiz’s effortless visual fluency and a stoic, career-capping performance from Garfield.
Think of To Have and Have Not and images of a slinky, smoldering Lauren Bacall purring the now immortal come-on, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow,” to a nonplussed Humphrey Bogart immediately come to mind. Yet despite its notoriety (the movie launched the Bogart-Bacall partnership on screen and off), Howard Hawks’ 1944 film isn’t the best adaptation of what some have called Ernest Hemingway’s worst novel. That honor goes to the largely and criminally overlooked The Breaking Point, made just six years later by Casablanca director Michael Curtiz, who takes a far more intimate approach and transforms the tension-filled tale into a gripping film noir.
Aside from the title and main character’s name, there’s very little Hemingway in Hawks’ film, which instead focuses on the Bogart-Bacall chemistry and World War II propaganda. The Breaking Point rights that wrong, even though the taut screenplay by Ranald MacDougall (Mildred Pierce) also at times strays from its source. Most importantly, Curtiz preserves the book’s central theme as he chronicles the mounting pressures that force an honorable man to make a series of bad decisions, all of which jeopardize everything he holds dear and push him ever closer to the edge of a dangerous precipice.
Harry Morgan (John Garfield) is a decorated war hero, but the battles he must fight on the home front are more discouraging and debilitating than any action he saw overseas. Married to the devoted Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) and the father of two young daughters, Harry struggles mightily to make ends meet. He owns a fishing boat and takes rich, often shady clients on expeditions, but the transient nature of the work puts a strain on the family budget, and makes Lucy - who wants Harry to sell the boat and take a more regular job on her father’s farm - anxious about their future.
At the behest of a boozy bon vivant, Harry agrees to sail to Mexico, but when his passenger stiffs him after they arrive - and leaves his good-time girlfriend (Patricia Neal) high and dry - Harry must find a way to pay the tariff at the port so he can go home. Against his better judgment, he agrees to smuggle some Chinese immigrants into the States, but when the scheme goes awry and a man ends up dead, Harry’s troubles begin to snowball, ultimately leading him to his breaking point.
Film noirs often focus on a desperate everyman who feels isolated and cornered, but by adding a potent domestic angle The Breaking Point makes Harry’s pressures relatable. Nothing matters more to this husband and father than his wife and kids, and he’s willing to do anything to protect them and better their lives. Yet beyond the black-and-white film noir world, Harry also fits the grayish mold of many Hemingway heroes. Not only is Harry at war with an unfair, often cruel world he can’t control, he’s also at war with himself, fighting feelings of inadequacy and impotence while trying to maintain his integrity and self-respect. And it’s that inner struggle, more than any plot points or dramatic events, that draws us into Harry’s world and makes us care deeply about his fate.
As does the natural, multifaceted performance of Garfield, which ranks among his very best. Always subtle, yet brimming with intensity, the actor never makes a false move. He makes us feel the angst churning inside Harry and the unrelenting pressures weighing upon him, and as a result, we sympathize with both the conflicts ripping him apart and impossible choices he’s forced to make. The Breaking Point would be Garfield's penultimate film (he passed away two years after its completion from chronic heart problems at age 39), and his affecting portrayal makes us rue his early death all the more.
Neal makes a striking impression, putting a unique twist on a stereotypical siren. Though at times she seems to be channeling her inner Bette Davis, Neal never betrays her role, and her husky voice, sexy allure, and lack of pretense help her craft a memorable performance. Thaxter is equally good, making the most of what’s usually a thankless part. Her supportive wife is more complex and nuanced than most, and she brings a warmth and sincerity to Lucy that resonates throughout the film.
MacDougall’s excellent script beautifully develops all the characters, and Curtiz, who never gets enough credit for his technical skills and understated artistry, frequently holds us spellbound. Often the best direction is invisible direction, and Curtiz, despite some impressive shots, rarely calls attention to himself. The ending he constructs - which reportedly was not in the screenplay - is both gut wrenching and a searing indictment of our social culture, yet Curtiz doesn’t overplay it. His restraint heightens the sequence's emotional impact and puts a powerful coda on a virtually flawless film.
I had not seen The Breaking Point prior to this viewing, and must admit I initially questioned its inclusion in the Criterion Collection, which usually showcases more renowned films. My bad. Though its box office failure (more on that below) may have unfairly forced The Breaking Point into relative obscurity, Criterion has rescued this underrated gem from its unfortunate fate, at last giving it the respect and exposure it has always deserved. (Hemingway reportedly lauded the movie as his favorite adaptation of any of his literary works.) It's a shame it has taken 67 years for The Breaking Point to finally receive its due, but to quote a popular proverb, better late than never.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Breaking Point arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Criterion case. A 12-page fold-out booklet featuring an essay by Time magazine chief film critic Stephanie Zacharek, four black-and-white photos, a cast and crew listing, and transfer notes is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
According to the liner notes, "this new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution...from a 35 mm safety fine-grain positive made from the original camera negative," and the results are often breathtaking. With a beautifully modulated gray scale, rich blacks, and crisp whites, the image exudes a pleasing lushness and stark realism that help immerse us in the stirring narrative. To properly appreciate the bold brush strokes and subtle nuances of film noir, excellent contrast and clarity are required, along with enough grain to preserve the feel of celluloid and supply essential texture. This transfer employs those elements to maximum effect as it celebrates the perfectly pitched cinematography of Ted McCord, who photographed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, East of Eden, and The Sound of Music, among many other fine films. (One shot of Garfield engulfed in shadows as he walks along a dock with the last vestiges of the setting sun casting a warm glow on the calm water is suitable for framing.)
Shadow delineation is superior, background elements are easy to discern, and sharp close-ups showcase Garfield's rugged facial features, Neal's alabaster complexion, and Thaxter's drab, no makeup look. Just a couple of scenes appear a tad grainy, and nary a nick, scratch, or stray line mar the pristine source material. It's hard to imagine The Breaking Point looking any better on home video, and Criterion deserves kudos for yet another terrific classic movie transfer.
The LPCM mono track "was remastered from the 35 mm original soundtrack positive," and it supplies high-quality audio. Nuances such as footsteps and the rustling of a beaded curtain are wonderfully distinct, while sonic accents like gunfire and fisticuffs are crisp and forceful. Music is sparingly employed to lend the narrative a degree of naturalism, but the main title and end credit scoring composed by Warner workhorse Max Steiner (who doesn't receive any screen credit) sound rich and robust. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows without any distortion, and all the dialogue is well prioritized and easy to comprehend. Best of all, any age-related hiss, pops, or crackles have been meticulously erased, leaving a squeaky clean track that's alternately lively and unobtrusive.
Criterion once again supplies a comprehensive supplemental package that provides essential context and perspective on this classic film. An audio commentary would have been a nice addition, but its absence isn't a critical omission.
Featurette: "Helming a Masterpiece: Alan K. Rode on The Breaking Point" (HD, 21 minutes) - The biographer of director Michael Curtiz talks about the man and his movies in this captivating new piece that includes plenty of rare photos. Rode calls Curtiz "one of the most incredibly prolific filmmakers of all time" and The Breaking Point his best post-World War II motion picture. "Making movies wasn't just his passion, it was his opium," Rode says of the versatile "journeyman" who rarely endeared himself to actors and was known for his authoritarianism and impatience. Rode praises the camera movement and blocking that defines the style of Curtiz, and debunks a couple of myths that have dogged the director for years. He also cites the narrative changes that enhance The Breaking Point; notes how Curtiz turned the "casual racism" that permeates Hemingway's works on its ear; praises the film's final shot, which he calls a "visual punctuation mark"; and chronicles how revelations regarding actor John Garfield's tenuous links to Communist organizations way back in the 1930s derailed the big build-up Warner Bros had planned for The Breaking Point and contributed to the picture's box office failure. "Garfield's tragedy became The Breaking Point's tragedy," Rode says. This marvelous featurette is essential viewing for those who enjoy The Breaking Point and appreciate the work of one of America's finest directors.
Featurette: "Fluid Style: Michael Curtiz and The Breaking Point" (HD, 10 minutes) - Filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos dissect the film's domestic scenes (which don't appear in Hemingway's novel) and examine how Curtiz's three-dimensional style of staging and use of "reversals" heighten tension, establish relationships, and influence the story's themes. Shot-by-shot breakdowns using motion, stills, and freeze-frames illustrate the various points and enhance our appreciation of Curtiz's "fluid style."
Featurette: "The Greatest Passion: Julie Garfield on John Garfield" (HD, 17 minutes) - Garfield's daughter Julie profiles her legendary father, providing a brief overview of his troubled childhood, evolution as an actor, involvement with The Group Theatre, Hollywood career, and the ruthless political targeting during the McCarthy era that led to Garfield's early death. She also touches upon the illness that weakened his heart, the political activism of her mother that ultimately tainted Garfield, and his passion for the profession that shaped and drove his life. Julie Garfield's frank remarks and fervent spirit often reflect her father's tough screen persona, and it's a treat to hear her salute a man she obviously adores and admires.
Vintage TV Clip (HD, 5 minutes) - On an episode of NBC's Today from December 19, 1962, host Hugh Downs visited Ernest Hemingway's Key West home just a year and a half after his death to examine some of the author's personal artifacts. In this brief excerpt, we see some of the clippings Hemingway saved (one of which is a review of his novel To Have and Have Not), original typed manuscript pages, a galley proof from To Have and Have Not, and bits of writing on scraps of paper that document his quirky writing style.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - The original preview for The Breaking Point promises "a new high point in exciting entertainment from Warner Bros."
Taut, tense, and emotionally involving, The Breaking Point remains a high-quality film noir that examines how economic pressures drive an honorable man toward a personal crisis and disrupt the stability of his marriage and family life. Director Michael Curtiz improves upon the previous version of Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not by tightening the story's focus and ramping up realism, and a career defining performance from John Garfield heightens the impact of this riveting film. Top-notch video and audio transfers and an absorbing array of supplements distinguish Criterion's Blu-ray presentation, which brings this underrated and deeply affecting drama back into the spotlight where it belongs. Highly recommended.