The Breaking Point (1950)
Michael Curtiz’s The Breaking Point (1950) is always being referred to as a re-make of Howard Hawk’s To Have and Have Not (1944). But if you look at both of them side by side you will see that isn’t so. Yes, they’re both adapted from the same literary source, Hemingway’s novel that was called To Have and have Not. But Hawks virtually changed everything in the novel except some of its bare essentials and constructed something more coherent and livelier. And with the magical casting of Bogart and Bacall in their first screen pairing created a motion picture classic that seems fresher upon repeated viewing. The Breaking Point is not that lucky but it’s a pretty good film in its own right. I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid in the 1950s and had forgotten all about it. Then I saw it about a week ago on TCM and was surprised at how good it is. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Michael Curtiz, that unheralded master of the studio system who directed so many classics that he deserves a serious and in-depth appreciation by some film scholar or critic, directed the film. Here he seems to be working in his studio–professional mode yet the result is still both engrossing and entertaining.
John Garfield this time assumes the Harry Morgan role. And he still owns a boat and to make his payment on it he still has to run some illegal immigrants from one place to another. But where Bogart’s Harry Morgan was laid back, and cynically amused, Garfield’s is tense, worried, suspicious and more than a little desperate. Walter Brennan played Eddie, Morgan’s mate as an amusing drunk who supplied a lot of the humor to the film. Here that character is called Wesley and is played by the black Puerto Rican actor Juano Hernandez, not as a drunk. Far from it, he’s a caring, wary sidekick or partner who functions in some ways as Morgan’s conscience. In this version Harry has a wife and two little girls. The wife is played by Phyllis Thaxter and there’s no surprise there. Ms. Thaxter throughout her career played multiple variations on the “stand-by- your- man” girlfriend or wife. But here she is given more individuality and spunk than usual. Patricia Neal young, sophisticated and sexy plays Leona Charles, a sort of lost, rich woman who rides on Harry’s boat and develops the hots for him. She’s the equivalent of the Slim character played by Lauren Bacall in the Hawks film. The only problem is in this one the character is not very well defined and romantically has nowhere to go since Harry is devoted to his wife and kids. But with virtually nothing to do it’s amazing how much Patricia Neal makes her presence felt. She even gets to sing a song in a sort of rundown nightclub. And Neal, not a singer, does it in a half-talk/ half singing style that Rex Harrison perfected some years later in My Fair Lady (1964), and she’s pretty darn good.
This film is more in the suspense/ melodrama category than To Have and Have Not therefore it lacks the humor of the former. What humor there is, is mostly provided by Wallace Ford as a smarmy con man and from a lot of the terrific wisecracking dialogue supplied by screenwriter Ranald MacDougal who went on to become a pretty good director himself. The cast brings it off with great brio. So much so that it all seems fresh and urgent and even unpredictable although we’ve been down this plot path before.
But for me the thing that makes the whole film work, despite some misgivings stated before, is the mise en scene. Curtiz was a master of that. And as I watched the film I was reminded of scenes from Casablanca (1942), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and Yankee Doodle Dandy (also 1942) and otherswhere he made things on screen so alive by keeping the camera in medium range and letting the characters define themselves through behavior as well as dialogue. He also had a good sense of narrative and knew how to keep a story in forward motion all the time. So we’re staying with Harry Morgan through out The Breaking Point to see which way he’ll turn and how it will come out for him. And there’s an interesting sting in the end. It’s the last shot in the film and one that’s totally unexpected that sends us out with a somber thought or two despite its sort of happy ending. Once again that was Michael Curtiz telling us that he wasn’t just a studio hack but a man with a sense of the larger picture who was able to ask questions about how one man’s actions can impact the lives of others. And Master director that he was he could do it with one shot that contains no dialogue.
There was something about this story that made the studios go back to it once more. But don’t ask me what it is because I have no idea. But the story was remade again eight years later, this time starring War hero turned actor Audie Murphy in the Harry Morgan role. This time he was called Sam Martin and the Film was called The Gun Runners (1958) and it was directed by Clint Eastwood’s favorite director Don Seigel. I haven’t seen the film since I was a kid so I can’t report on it. But there you have it, the same story told three different times by three different idiosyncratic directors who weren’t trying to create carbon copies of the one that preceded it. And as far as that goes The Breaking Point stands independently on its own as a worthwhile endeavor.
Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981)
From around 1969 to 1994 (The Black Sparrow Press years) Charles Bukowski (a/k/a “Buk”) was the Demon Angel of American letters. Attacked, vilified or ignored by the so-called “literary establishment” Bukowski established himself as “King of the Lower Depths” with a “Damn them all who don’t like it attitude”. He wrote about drunks, whores, criminals, derelicts and low lifes of every discernible stripe in a manner that both fascinated and repulsed the middle class in a variety of ways that made him, his writings and his poetry readings extremely popular especially among college students to whom he was something of a hero. And he wasn’t a one-trick pony either. Bukowski was a short story writer, a novelist, a controversial essayist and a poet. His books, especially the books of poetry, sold very well and his novels too. After a while he developed a cult following of considerable size. Again among the young.
Now Bukowski was a drunk, and a disorderly sort of person in life and nearly all of his fiction were thinly veiled autobiographies and he made no secret of it. Quite the opposite, he seemed to glory in the fact that him and his fictional alter ego Hank Chiniski, were effectively twins under the skin. Both were writers and drunks, both had fights and romances with wild, crazy women. Or women that he made wild and crazy once they became involved with him. Reading a Bukowski book is a wild but satisfying ride. And like Richard Brautigan, another idiosyncratic writer of a different stamp, you read one Bukowski book and you want to read another and another and another.
So it was only a matter of time before Hollywood, with its bourgeois taste and sensibilities came calling. And the independent filmmakers took on the challenge too. So much so that to date there are over 30 short films adapted from his short stories and 4 mainstream features from his novels. Now I have only seen a few of the short films and all of the feature length ones and to me they all are misses in one-way or another. Barfly (1987), with an original screenplay by Bukowski himself and directed by Barbet Schroeder, starring Faye Dunaway and Mickey Rourke (before his physical transformation), is the most popular and although the film is entertaining and sports good performances by its two star leads it still fails to capture the essence of Bukowski and his world. Factotum (2005), with Matt Dillon misses it even more. The other one called Crazy Love (1987) hits and misses, mostly misses. To me the one that comes closest to capturing the man and the world he wrote about is the little seen (here in the US) Tales of Ordinary Madness (1981), adapted from a book called Errections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and other Tales of Ordinary Madness directed by the Italian filmmaker Mario Ferreri starring Ben Gazzara in what I consider to be among the five best performances of his career. He somehow seemed to channel Bukowski better than anyone before him or since. His writer/ alcoholic, here called Charles Serking, does poetry readings, drinks too much, misbehaves with women and figures of authority not so much by design but out of his renegade instinct. In the film he wanders all over the place in a drunken haze going from one fractured situation to another and one burnt-out woman after another. And the structure of the film has this wandering quality too. That is one of its strengths and its major weakness as well, because while watching it one wishes that the narrative was more disciplined and not so seemingly chaotic. Some of the episodes appear to be arbitrary and unnecessary and sometimes just outright dull. But hey, then again, so does life.
Besides Gazzara, the late Susan Tyrell and others give good account of themselves in the various parts. Tyrell is an actress whose work I knew in the 60s and 70s when she was doing Off and Off- Off Broadway. Then when she transitioned to the movies I followed her career with interest. Her performances were always good and even more than that. But she seemed to be type cast in too often as the drunken lay -about who had fallen from grace and was somewhat bitter or angry about it. In other words she was playing Bukowski women before she was actually in a film based on a Bukowski book. So here, as I said before, she fits in quite perfectly with the milieu.
Why the films based on Bukowski material miss so badly is a question I can’t answer. Or if I tried it would take me quite a long time and a whole lot of words to explain. But the final simple answer is; I don’t know. But until someone does, Ferreri’s Tales of Ordinary Madness along with Gazzara’s central let-it-all-hang-out performance, comes the closest.
Here are the newest entries in our video blog series 100 CRIME FILMS where I discuss Night Moves, Jackie Brown and The Big Sleep.
Picture of the Week: Pete Kelly’s Blues (1955)
The world of jazz and the life of jazz musicians appear to be one of the most elusive subjects as far as filmmakers are concerned. A number of bio and fiction films have been made on the subject but outside of the documentaries most of them aren’t worth much. One of the best is Bernard Tavernier’s Round Midnight (1986). But even that one has its flaws.
My film pick for this week is Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues and it’s not a great jazz film. If anything it’s a good distance from that. But it’s such a curious odd duck of a movie that it deserves a look-see for exactly that reason. And also for its interesting offbeat cast and their performances. I call the film “Jack Webb’s Pete Kelly’s Blues” because he produced, directed and plays the title character in the film. He was also the guiding creative force throughout. That to me makes him the films auteur in the true sense of the word…Now prior to making this film Webb was primarily known as the creator and star of the highly successful series Dragnet (1951-59). During that time he also directed, produced and acted in four theatrical features: Dragnet (1954), The DI (1957) and later on The Last Time I Saw Archie (1965). But it is his second film Pete Kelly’s Blues that’s the most interesting.
The story takes place in Kansas City circa 1927 and it’s about a jazz musician (Kelly) who has a small band and trouble with the organized crime figure in the area. Or as the poster put it: “In the world of bad booze and jazz they tried to push Kelly but Kelly just wouldn’t budge.” Edmund O’Brien plays the gangster who not only wants to control Kelly’s bookings but also insists that Kelly employ his alcoholic girl friend Rose (played by singer Peggy Lee) as the singer in his band. Janet Leigh is Ivy, a wealthy young woman who follows Kelly from town to town but is something of a social dilettante when it comes to music, men and love. Pete Kelly is a loner with integrity who rejects the socialite’s offer of romance, refuses to be strong-armed by the mob and is loyal to his men and fights for them even when they defiantly disobey his orders. But as I said before you’ve seen all this before. There are no turns in the plot that you haven’t encountered elsewhere.
But what keeps the film continually interesting and entertaining is the cast. Webb does his deadpan thing with a certain style and flourish. Janet Leigh is beautiful, sexy and nicely varied in what could’ve been a one-note role. Lee Marvin shows up in an uncharacteristically sympathetic part, Andy Devine has an interesting non-comic role as a cold hearted, tough-minded cop and he’s terrific. Jazz singing great Ella Fitzgerald plays a nightclub owner and the previously mentioned Peggy Lee is so heart breaking as the boozy, mentally damaged singer that she received an Academy Award nomination as the Best Supporting Actress that year. And just to make things more interesting, future sexpot Jayne Mansfield shows up in a tiny role as a cigarette girl.
The music in the film, a combination of Dixieland and Blues, is lively and sometimes haunting. The title song “Pete Kelly’s Blues” has gone on to become something of a minor standard among jazz musicians and can be heard on a surprising number of recordings. In the film it is memorably sung by Ella Fitzgerald while Peggy Lee knocks out a terrific rendition of “Hard Hearted Hannah”. Added to that, the whole film feels like a labor of love and it well might be. Jack Webb did play the cornet in life as he does in this film (although it’s not his music you hear) and he was a devoted jazz aficionado. Much of this comes through and keeps you interested. Then there’s Harold Rosson’s cinematography. He shot the film in a brightly colored palette that gives an almost child’s coloring book quality to the setting and the action. This effectively takes the story out of the historical past of the 1920s and sets it in a wonderfully imagined Never-Never-land world of its own, which I liked a lot.
Altogether it romanticizes and glamorizes the world of jazz but it can get down and dirty when it needs to be. This is a film I treasure for its peripheral as well as its primary virtues. Because as the lyric of the song states: “Some call em Pete Kelly’s Blues…You can call em anything you choose…I just call them blues.”