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Humphrey van Weyden, a writer, and fugitives Ruth Webster and George Leach have been given refuge aboard the sealer "Ghost," captained by the cruel Wolf Larsen. The crew mutinies against Larsen's many crimes, and though van Weyden, Ruth, and George try to escape Larsen's clutches, they find themselves drawn inexorably back to him as the "Ghost" sails toward disaster. Written by
Jim Beaver <firstname.lastname@example.org>
It's amazing what a really good actor can pull off. In the Jack London novel on which this film was loosely based, Wolf Larson is tall, blond, Scandinavian, an "ubermensch" flaunting his invincible strength and power over other men. Edward G. Robinson was very short and dark, almost gnome-like with little stubby hands, a homely face and nasal voice. Yet somehow he fills this improbable role, making Larson at once larger than life and credibly human.
Larson is, of course, the "sea wolf" of the title, captain of the Ghost, a mysterious, perpetually fog-enshrouded schooner. Manned by a crew of brutal and brutalized men, the ship is ostensibly hunting seals, but its real destination is a show-down with Wolf's brother, the even more colorfully named Death Larson. We never learn much about this sibling feud, or about the backgrounds of the major characters. Aside from Larson, there is George Leach (John Garfield), who signs on with the ship to escape a prison rap, and two passengers rescued from the wreck of a ferry in San Francisco harbor: Ruth (Ida Lupino), an escaped convict, and Van Weyden, a well-bred writer who becomes, as observer and interpreter of the action, the film's central consciousness. Larson refuses to put the two castaways ashore, seemingly out of pure spite. Leach plots to escape the ship, and the threat of mutiny hangs in the air.
As this summary suggests, the movie's plot is as foggy as its atmosphere, but this doesn't matter very much. The atmosphere, at once raffish and eerie, and the beautifully drawn characters provide plenty of interest, and there is also a serious and compelling theme. Larson's motto (from Milton) is "better to reign in hell than serve in heaven." Van Weyden, who becomes the secretly intellectual captain's confidant, realizes that Larson is afraid to leave his ship because only as its captain can he enjoy absolute power; on shore he would be forced to compete with his equals and betters. His sport is humiliating his victims and stripping them of dignity and self-respect. He gratuitously insults and torments all those who attempt to challenge him: in addition to Leach and Ruth, there is Louis (the excellent Gene Lockhart), a broken, alcoholic doctor who tries to recover his dignity after saving Ruth's life with a transfusion of Leach's blood. Larson won't let him, of course, and his desperate response prompts the writer's comment, "There is a price no man will pay for living." Larson even turns against Cookie (Barry Fitzgerald), his most loyal crew-member. Fitzgerald is spectacularly loathsome, shrieking with laughter and scuttling around his galley like a demonic leprechaun.
John Garfield, to his credit, was never reluctant to take supporting roles in films he admired. His part here, while secondary, is a pip: a defiant young roughneck, smarting with wounded pride, looking terrific in a tattered sweater and fisherman's cap. He gets a great introduction in the first scene, walking into a waterfront dive where he brushes off a pickpocket ("If you find anything in there, brother, I'll share it with you") and knocks out the recruiter who tries to slip him a mickey. On board the Ghost, he's the only one of the sailors who rebels against Larson; when ordered to address the captain with respect, he manages to make "sir" sound like a four-letter word. "Don't worry," he says before the transfusion, "This kind of blood never cools off."
Ida Lupino is wonderful (when was she not?) as the convict who has lost her spirit; her pathetic lady-like act keeps giving way to flashes of anger and underlying sadness. She and Garfield make a perfect couple, and their romance, which could have seemed like a sop to the box office, is deeply touching. Like Garfield, Lupino regularly played tough, resentful hard-luck kids. But her pale, waif-like delicacy and wistfulness contrast nicely with Garfield's rough-hewn sturdiness and combustible temper. They have three good scenes together: one where she finds him huddled like a whipped puppy in the ship's hold (he has been beaten after assaulting the captain) and they smoke cigarettes together. Initially hostilehe tells her scornfully that he only stood up for her because "I can't even stand to see a dog beg, much less a human being"they quickly bond. He urges her to keep fighting and boasts that Larson can never break his spirit, while she wearily responds that nothing makes any difference to her anymore. Later they talk in a doorway, Ida in her nightgown, and he touches her arm, realizing that his own blood is running through it. They don't kiss, but their chemistry is palpable. Finally they play a love scene on either side of a locked iron door, whispering to each other with their lips touching the wall between them.
Eventually Larson's invincibility starts to crack, as he suffers from crippling migraines and hysterical blindness. He remains too vicious to arouse any pity, but Robinson makes him a fascinating monster. He conveys such a dominant, overpowering will that you hardly notice he's not physically imposing; his sneering voice, nasty laugh and devious intelligence make him genuinely scary. The intense performances of the whole cast knit together this unusual blend of boy's-adventure-story entertainment and serious drama, a classic of the Warner Brothers' minor-key style.
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