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.