The good news is that we didn't have the same level of meltdown this past year, and the film discussed here not only has been released on DVD, but has been given the ultra-sleek Criterion treatment. But it's been years since anyone has given the film's star a real showcase--the last time it happened was when Elliot Lavine put together two films featuring the heart and soul of THE BREAKING POINT as part of his DARK SIDE OF THE DREAM festival in 2018, when BODY AND SOUL and WE WERE STRANGERS were screened. Hats off to Mr. John Garfield...and now here's Carl, with hat in hand...
Noir of the Week—THE BREAKING POINT (1950)
Posted by Carl (1-15-07)
My goal for this NOTW was to write about the best film noir either not yet released or officially scheduled for release on commercial DVD (or previously released on video). There were a lot of good candidates, and working through the list of the Blackboard’s all-time best noirs poll from a couple of years ago, eight films actually ranked higher than the film I eventually chose (
But The Breaking Point--No. 73 on our list--ultimately got the nod. Why? Personal preference first. I really like all of the films listed above for one reason or another and I love a couple of them. But ever since seeing The Breaking Point less than two years ago, I have been captivated and mesmerized by this film. I’ve watched it five times, the latest time for this review. It was just as hypnotic this latest time, maybe more so than the first time, because repeat viewings allow you to pick out nuances and important bits of dialogue that enhance this great film.
The Breaking Point is not only a neglected noir classic, it is a neglected classic film above and beyond its subtle yet powerful noir qualifications.
--It features John Garfield’s best performance on celluloid.
--It might be Michael Curtiz’s most convincing work that qualifies him as a great director.
--It features an African American actor who actually has some meat to his role.
--It has two stirring female performances by Patricia Neal and Phyllis Thaxter.
And it’s a reasonably faithful and compelling screen version of one of Ernest Hemingway’s best stories, "To Have And Have Not," perhaps made even better in this film version by giving Garfield’s character, Harry Morgan, a history consistent with his subsequent actions in the plot.
Of course, To Have And Have Not was first made in 1944 starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and directed by Howard Hawks. It’s a fine movie in its own right, with crackling dialogue--easily recalled and often recited by most movie fans--and memorable character performances by Walter Brennan and Hoagy Carmichael. But it was a rather complete gutting of the Hemingway tale, one that stripped Bogart’s inner conflicts to a bare minimum and turned the film into an entertaining but fairly soul-less action picture.
The Breaking Point, which attempts to get Hemingway’s intent more correct, accentuates those inner conflicts and does so masterfully. Garfield’s Harry Morgan is a noble man, a former war hero, who attempts to do the right things in his life – follow his entrepreneurial dream, be faithful to his wife and family, befriend a black man without prejudice – but is beaten down by the cruel forces of the outside world. He is pushed from all sides to his breaking point: economic struggle, disillusioned restlessness, sexual temptation, and ultimately, criminal deceit.
Garfield operates a charter fishing boat and is having a hard time of it. He can’t pay his bills. Creditors want to repossess his source of income. His wife wants him to abandon his dream and find a safer lettuce working in the lettuce fields near Salinas. But he won’t give up. He charters a trip for a businessman and his pickup girl (Neal) into Mexican waters, but the businessman ducks out on payment and Garfield is stuck in Mexico without enough cash to even pay for gas for the return trip. To save his business, he is coerced by an oily con man (played superbly by Wallace Ford) to smuggle a party of Chinese into the United States from Mexico. Desperate, he goes along but the plan goes bad. Garfield kills one of the would-be Chinese illegal émigrés and dumps the rest of the party on a Mexican shore, then bolts back to his home in Newport.
Following an investigation, Garfield manages to escape charges but his financial woes are worse than ever. Then his wife gets wind of a possible affair with Neal. The neighbors whisper about him. When he gets sauced up one night to relieve the tension, neighborhood kids see him snockered and tease his own children. Man, it’s just all going wrong.
The one thing Garfield has going for him is his plain-Jane wife (Thaxter), who continues to shower love on her husband, believes that he hasn’t had an affair, sews half the night to try to keep his dream alive. Lucy even dyes her hair blond to make herself more attractive to him. But financially, it’s still not working. Garfield is sucked into another scheme (again by Ford) that is far more serious--a racetrack robbery by a quintet of thugs who want to hire Garfield to help them escape by water to the far side of Catalina.
He accepts the job with extreme reservation but the lure of a $1,000 advance payoff is enough for him to do it. But again, it goes wrong. When the thugs kill Garfield’s black friend Wes, the good soul in him can’t go through with his role in the heist. He takes matters into his own hands in a gripping climax on the ocean, and the film ends with Garfield’s own life threatened by wounds that require the amputation of his arm. But his wife, who had threatened to leave him if he took this final job, stuck by him … a semi-happy ending that is tempered by a stark and arresting noir image: Wes’ young bewildered son, wondering where his own father is, standing on the dock as Garfield is taken away by ambulance.
Given the choice between To Have And Have Not and The Breaking Point, the latter is the film I cling to my bosom. So why has this Warner Brothers feature production disappeared? Good question. It surfaced a couple of years back in a Garfield retrospective on TCM, but is shown very infrequently even by Turner. I’ve read of legal entanglements, but details are sketchy. Bottom line, this is a film that deserves cutting through any of those entanglements to be re-released. It’s too good and too important not to be available to the masses. When it was shown at Noir City 4 (2006), the audience--including some Blackboarders seeing it for the first time--was knocked out. I would submit anyone who watches it for the first time will be ... and again on repeat viewings.
Even though I really like many of his pictures, I was never a huge fan of Garfield until I saw this film. But he is phenomenal here, and clearly it was a project he cared about as intensely as the performance he gave. He reportedly convinced Curtiz to cast a black man, Juano Hernandez, in the important role of his fishing sidekick and that touch serves to give the movie a strong subplot. For one thing, Harry Morgan doesn’t see color, but he can see deceit and corruption a mile away in people with skin the color of his.
By the same token, against his better judgment, Wes sticks with Harry because, like Lucy, he sees the good man inside. That plot element is written through consistently. Harry is always trying to do right by Wes. He doesn’t want him to take the return trip from Mexico with the Chinese. He tries to ditch him before the robbers show up. It’s fascinating interplay on screen.
Neal’s character is just as intriguing. A tramp of the first order when she first appears, trying to seduce anything that moves, she is slowly won over by Garfield’s good heart as well as his wife’s devotion. She continues to work on Harry, though, and the scene in which Garfield is very nearly tempted to finally cheat on his wife with is brilliant work by both actors, a more powerful scene than anything delivered by Bogart and Bacall in 1944’s version.
Curtiz, who piloted Casablanca and so many other great films, appears to get far more freedom to make personal touches in this film and it shows. The cinematography is sparkling and eye-catching*.
He is equally adept getting the most out of the set-piece scenes as well as the action ones. In this case, the best action is around a kitchen table or the bar lounge. Little touches, like people always bumming smokes from the beleaguered Garfield, enhance the action.
In short, every scene offers something of substance, and that’s what makes a great movie, noir or otherwise. But this is very, very much a noir story...and as for the ending, we don’t really know what happens to Garfield, do we? Sure, we suspect he survives, but to what kind of life?
He must live with the fact that he was responsible for his friend’s death, and that surely gives an otherwise hopeful ending noir credibility, as does the incredible final shot of Wes’ son on the dock. It’s the final image you’re left with: unresolvable, conflicting, chilling. Totally noir.
*Ted McCord, who became Curtiz' primary photographer in 1949 and continued to work with him for the better part of the 1950s despite what was described by McCord's protegé Conrad Hall as a "colorful relationship," conjures up some tricks in lighting ocean scenes that have a palpable effect on the audience's response to the action. The effect of McCord's tinkering with camera filters was discussed as part of a series in the NC e-zine in 2012 about the film in arguably the most unified use of the then-current writing staff that the now-venerable publication has ever had (including Carl).