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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Made in 1950 Warner Bros. THE BREAKING POINT is one of Hollywood's
great and classic Film Noirs! Meticulously directed by Michal Curtiz it
is, after "Force Of Evil", John Garfield's best movie! Beautifully
written by Ranald McDougall, from a short story by Ernest Hemingway,
this was the third time it was filmed by Warner Bros. Both earlier
versions "To Have & To Have Not" (1945) and "Key Largo" (1948) starred
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall but this version was the more
definitive and broadest reworking of the story.
John Garfield giving one of his best hard boiled performances plays down-at-heel charter-boat captain Harry Morgan who reluctantly falls foul of the law while trying to make ends meet for himself and his family. His wife (Phillis Thaxter overbearing in an over written role) pleads with him to give up his boat THE SEA QUEEN ("pop says you can have a job anytime on his lettuce ranch in Salinas" to which Harry balks "I'm not going to squat on my hunkers down in Salinas, trying to pick lettuce quicker than the bugs can eat it, I'm a boat jockey, it's all I know"). But when a fishing party lets him down and he runs out of money in Mexico - a shifty shyster lawyer, F.R Duncan, (brilliantly played by Wallace Ford) entices him to take some illegal migrants back on his boat into the United States, Harry has no choice but to comply. "Don't fight it Harry - relax - roll with it - let it happen" Duncan repeatedly advises Harry, to which Harry rounds on him - "you're poison!-....you'd sell your own mother if she was worth anything"! Later in the movie Duncan inveigles him to take a quartet of gangsters out to sea when they flee after their racetrack heist - culminating in the picture's gripping and climactic set piece - a suspenseful and bloody shootout on board THE SEA QUEEN.
Peppered with sparkling dialogue throughout, everything in the film is splendidly executed. The movie just rattles along at a well defined pace. Crisply photographed by the great Warner cinematographer Ted McCord ("Johnny Belinda"/ "Treasure Of the Sierra Madre") his brilliant low-key black & white camera work gives the movie a compelling visual style. Oddley enough though the movie goes virtually unscored but it does have a lovely and beguiling orchestral piece heard over the opening credits and for the finale. There is no music credit on the picture except for Music Supervision by Ray Heindorf but the piece sounds suspiciously like something Max Steiner would have written. In a letter from the esteemed composer to this writer in 1968 he intimated to me that he had indeed written the piece - without credit - adding that he wrote it as a favor to Ray Heindorf. The following year Steiner, again without credit, would oblige Heindorf with a helping hand with the score for the Cagney classic "Come Fill The Cup".
"The Breaking Point" is a terrific movie that badly needs a DVD release! I am surprised that Warner Home Video have not already included it in one of their noir box sets. Perhaps it will turn up in their next one? Or maybe in an overdue Garfield set - who knows?
Classic line from "The Breaking Point"....... when smart-mouthed good time girl Patricia Neal, drinking in a Mexican bar - ignores the clamour of a cock-fight taking place in the background - Garfield asks "don't you like cockfights? To which she blithely replies "all that trouble for an egg".
This is a remake of TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT that supposedly from what I've
read sticks closer to the Hemingway story. Garfield could play the
strong but tormented guy like nobody's business, here however we have
most of the information needed in understanding just what's eating at
this guy, wearing him down and making him afraid. "A man alone hasn't
got a chance," he keeps repeating. But Harry isn't alone. He's got a
family that loves him, a plain but good woman he adores, and who adores
him. A best friend who is his shipping mate, yet he still can't shake
the feeling that somehow the universe is against him, working overtime.
He's like a man that needs some spiritual guidance. Something is
missing. On first viewing this plays like a well done yarn. On
subsequent viewings however, this film begins to haunt. The characters
and scenes play on a deeper, more meaningful level. The domestic
scenes, usually the throwaway, boring parts of a story like this,
become the rock and Garfield and Phylis Thaxter emit genuine emotion
and affection for one another that is unusually realistic. Patricia
Neal is the temptress here, and in an unusual move, we're not supposed
to fall in love with her or maybe even like her, which is evident in
how she's physically presented. Her haircut is really bad and she's
basically unflatteringly lit and photographed. She too looks realistic:
like a once beautiful creature who's been around the block too many
times and is starting to look all used up.
Juano Hernandez rounds out the main players as Garfield's friend and shipmate. It was Garfield who insisted the character be a black man and had the relationship between the two beefed up. According to Garfield's daughter, the studio didn't like the idea and tried to talk him out of it, eventually giving up. This casting led to someone (director Michael Curtiz?)coming up with that final shot in the film that hits like a sucker punch to the gut, unexpected and unforgettable.
Watch this one a second time and see if you agree.
Ernest Hemingway is said to have liked THE BREAKING POINT more than any
other film made from one of his stories and it's easy to see
why--especially if you compare this to the earlier version, TO HAVE AND
HAVE NOT, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. While that film
sizzled with their chemistry in the leading roles, the story here is
much more compelling and has much more urgency in the telling.
Of course, it's always a shame that Hemingway's anti-heroes fail to understand that playing around with crooked gangsters can be detrimental to the health of all concerned, but THE BREAKING POINT makes you sympathize with the character of Harry Morgan that Garfield plays so well. The shady lady in this case is smoothly played by PATRICIA NEAL, whose patrician presence made Garfield inform her (or so we're told by Miss Neal herself): "You know, don't you, you're playing a whore." She tells this amusing anecdote in a documentary called THE JOHN GARFIELD STORY.
PHYLLIS THAXTER is the plain wife of boat captain Garfield, who lightens her hair when she gets a load of the woman (Patricia Neal) she suspects her husband is having an affair with. Thaxter gives one of her best performances as the loyal wife struggling to keep her husband straight, away from the gangsters she knows will ruin the lives of their small family. WALLACE FORD is excellent as the shady lawyer willing to take abusive treatment from Garfield as long as he goes along with the crooked schemes he has in mind.
The film has a stark film noir quality to the excellent B&W photography and builds to a quietly effective ending after the long shootout that ends the story, an ending that makes the viewer more aware of the consequences of Garfield's stupid decision to conspire with gangsters who shoot his best friend. Michael Curtiz does a superior job of directing.
I just saw this movie in the last week at a recent Film Noir Festival here in San Francisco. Garfield owns this role as a down on his luck captain of his boat. He is willing to take shady deals to make money for him and keep his family (his two young daughters) with money. His wife played by Phyllis Thaxter gives a fine turn as a wife and mother. Patricia Neal is smooth and dangerous in her role as a two timing blonde broad. The daughters that played the kids were effective and smart like their ages were depicted. Garfield's mate Wesley Park was very good in his role of Garfiled's suffering partner. The reptilian role of the attorney was convincing and nasty. The final minutes of the movie had me choked up with the performances from Garfield and Thaxter. Another great movie by Michael Curtiz. Why isn't this movie on DVD?
No one played the haunted/hunted character better than John Garfield (Humphrey Bogart is a close second). Here, Garfield is a boat captain that gets in way over his head. The thing with Garfield's characters, is that even though the audience sympathizes with his plight, the character always brings it on himself. With Garfield's usual acerbic delivery, his Harry Morgan is hard to like but when he is with his family, one sees that he is basically a headstrong but good guy. Even though Michael Curtiz directed this, the tone and especially the ending shot kept reminding me of Fritz Lang. I think this film should be commended for the ending, which although a somewhat happy one, reminds the audience of the affect of one's actions on everyone. This generally was ignored in a lot of the crime dramas from the 30's to the 60's. My only complaint is the Patricia Neal character seemed tacked on for romance sake. She didn't add much and certainly didn't have an impact on the main thrust of the story. But that is a minor quibble. Another gem for one of the move overlooked actors - John Garfield.
Exceptional version of Hemingway's To Have and Have Not is far superior
to the Bogart/Bacall film. While the Bogie film was a good picture
awash in style and the chemistry of the two leads this is far more
realistic without the atmosphere perhaps but loaded with pleasures
For starters this contains one of John Garfield's best performances. Always a fine actor he gets under the skin of his character and makes you understand his desperation and moral conflict, he's riveting every second he is on screen. This was one of his last films before his tragically early death, a sad loss of a great talent who isn't as well remembered as he should be today.
Patricia Neal also scored strongly in this the best of her early roles. She is tough and world weary but also kind and sexy with her whiskey voice and blonde hair. Although it's never stated specifically it's very clear that her character is a prostitute, for the time period a bold point. She and Garfield work very well together and it's a pity his death prevented them from being paired again.
The two other main actors, Phyllis Thaxter and Juano Hernandez, contribute exemplary work as well providing terrific support. Phyllis and Particia Neal are interesting contrasts and their scene together is a study in underplaying. Her scenes with Garfield are also very good, without being explicit they make it clear theirs is a full and happy marriage in all regards with the normal strains and joys.
All this fine work would be for naught if not supported by an excellent screenplay and tight direction from the versatile Curtiz, a man who could direct any genre without problems.
Less romantic in tone but a gripping drama that has been unfortunately obscured by the fame of the other version this is well worth seeking out.
The Breaking Point (1950)
Forget for a second that this is a Hemingway story, or that it was more famously and loosely made into a movie ("To Have and Have Not)" with Bogart and Bacall in 1944.
Here was have John Garfield playing with great realism a boating man who has hit hard times. Boat payments are due, and getting people to charter his boat has been hard. So he is tempted by an illegal run for some big money. And it goes badly. Then, to get out of that jam, he is drawn into yet another one, which goes even worse.
So this is really a story of a man against the odds. He's basically a good person, which we see in how he treats his partner, his wife, his kids. But it's partly because of those others that he feels he has to come through and make some money. In a way, this is what Hemingway's novel is all about--how a man copes with crisis. (This is always what Hemingway is about, in a way.) It's great starting material.
The two women in the story, made to look slightly similar, are key in a Hemingway kind of way, too, because a Hemingway man is essentially torn by love all his life. His wife is terrific in a simple, unexciting way, and when Patricia Neal appears very sexually hungry he at first is not interested. Neal's character is not quite a noir femme fatale, since she really wants nothing for herself, but is a distraction and siren.
The two of them are terrific. Around them are a whole swarm of characters, some with important roles and excellent character actors, but we really get inside the head of Garfield and we really feel the weirdly brazen and carefree intensity of Neal.
So why is this a forgotten film? For one, Garfield is a low key leading man. He always is. His effect is subtle. And Neal isn't a steaming hottie or an outrageous caricature like some leading (blonde) women in these crime films. And then, frankly, they don't totally have chemistry on screen, which is neither one's fault alone, and which isn't so inaccurate to the story.
The Bogart version is legendary partly because it's first, but mostly because it abandons the Hemingway plot whenever it feels like it in order to make a more compelling and openly entertaining movie. In that 1944 version, it is about effect and legend, and also about humor (with Walter Brennan as the sidekick, quite the comic relief). I suppose in the long view the Bogart kind of movie just has more resonance and distinction and aura. But this later one from after WWII is in some ways a better movie, and a better drama. That doesn't mean you'll like it more, but check it out. It's really good, seen on its own terms.
And about Hemingway? The book is great. You have to like his style and his manly view, but if you can adapt to that, read it. Easy reading, too. And he set the scene in the waters between Florida and Cuba, which is where he lived and fished. The Bogart version was set in the war, working for the French Resistance in Europe. The Garfield version was set (and shot) in California, with a trip to Mexico. A later version (1958) is set in Florida.
It's worth pointing out that "The Breaking Point" is by the director of "Casablanca," Michael Curtiz. And it's handled with the same expertise--great bar scenes with lots of coordinated things going on, expert editing and filming, just first rate storytelling. Recommended.
The Breaking Point cannot properly be called a remake of To Have And
Have Not as that classic film was altered to make the story relevant
for domestic consumption in wartime America. There was also added the
legendary chemistry of Bogey and Bacall in their first film together.
Ernest Hemingway did not write that for the movie-going public.
The Breaking Point is far more Hemingway and far more realistically done. John Garfield makes a perfect Hemingway hero and the locations along the California coast aren't glamorized in any way. This is a working class locale and the black and white cinematography and wind swept look given by same reflects Garfield and the area he is raising his family in.
Garfield plays a World War II veteran who wanted to earn a living on the sea and have Phyllis Thaxter raise their daughters in that coastal location. But business comes in cycles and a bad season finds Garfield owing everyone including the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker. Most of all he owes for fuel and that guy is ready to take the boat for payment.
When a charter client stiffs him on the bill, Garfield is forced to make some bad choices to pay his bills and support his family. Providing some of those bad choices is Wallace Ford playing a truly sleazebag shyster living on the Mexican side of the Pacific coast who ostensibly will get you a quickie Mexican divorce, but dabbles in all kinds of illegal fields. Actually I'm being unfair, shysters make bad lawyer jokes about Ford.
Providing a little temptation for Garfield is Patricia Neal who is trying very hard for the same Lauren Bacall effect. She's the girlfriend of the client who stiffed Garfield in the first place and she has most original and cynical point of view about life and men.
The Breaking Point provides John Garfield with one of his best performances in his next to last film. And he far more fits the Hemingway conception as does the overall film itself.
Hard-working Newport Beach, California fisherman John Garfield (as
Harry Morgan) is struggling to support practical housewife Phyllis
Thaxter (as Lucy) and their two girls. For some desperately-needed
extra cash, Mr. Garfield and his "Sea Queen" shipmate Juano Hernandez
(as Wesley Park) agree to take alluring blonde Patricia Neal (as Lenora
Charles) and her sugar daddy to Mexico. When the man jumps ship,
Garfield is left without payment. He is tempted into a smuggling by
wily Wallace Ford (as Duncan), and continues to receive sexual
invitations from Ms. Neal. Eventually, Garfield faces "The Breaking
This is the more faithful adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's "To Have and Have Not" (1937), though it's not as flashy or memorable as the 1944 version, which focused on the sexual sparks being set off by co-stars Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. "The Breaking Point" is more of a "Harry Morgan" character study. Here is the more less romantic reverse of the "American Dream". Garfield plays a hard-working man who does not get ahead. Short-term satisfaction is represented by sex (Neal), drugs (alcohol), and Mr. Ford's offer of easy money. Ford's character predicts Garfield will, "break when the load gets too heavy..."
Garfield offered yet another excellent performance in "He Ran All the Way" (1951), before succumbing to a heart attack. He had a history of heart problems, but some believe his heart may have been broken by those persecuting the actor for his "liberal" political views. Garfield was accused of being a Communist and declined to provide a list of "Communist" pals to Congress. As usual, director Michael Curtiz, Garfield and several co-workers excel. Yet the overall production is flat; or, like several Garfield pictures, this might have been a masterpiece. Watch Mr. Hernandez and his son for something buried in the mix.
******** The Breaking Point (9/30/50) Michael Curtiz ~ John Garfield, Patricia Neal, Phyllis Thaxter, Juano Hernandez
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
What makes this movie exceptional is its ending, which underscores a powerful racial theme. However it was intended, the effect was to dramatize the true racial divide in our country. I have always been amazed that this film has not received recognition for this statement. Without disclosing the particulars, I recommend this film for its ability to convey so much with so little, to underscore a potent reality by simple visual impact. Its not only about evil, and the compromises one makes with it to survive, but about anonymity, and the devastating effect anonymity has on the human spirit for those who fall under the social radar.
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