The Breaking Point (Warner Bros., 1950) directed by Michael Curtiz
I just finished watching A Bullet Is Waiting (1954), and although it’s included in the recently released Columbia Noir #4 box set from Indicator, I can’t realistically call it a film noir. Yet although much of The Breaking Point takes place in pure sunshine, that film is totally noir.
Although the plot of The Breaking Point is similar to the Howard Hawks film To Have and Have Not (1944), both based on the Ernest Hemingway novel, the Curtiz film is (in my opinion) the greater of the two versions. Harry Morgan (John Garfield, in one of his finest roles) operates a small fishing boat in the San Diego area. Although he’s a hard worker, he always struggles to provide for his wife (Phyllis Thaxter) and two little girls (Donna Jo Boyce and Sherry Jackson).
When Morgan books a gambler named Hannagan (Ralph Dumke) and his mistress Leona (Patricia Neal) for a fishing trip, Hannagan disappears before paying his bill, leaving man-eater Leona with Morgan. Hannagan’s money was going to get Morgan out of a tight spot, but now the spot is even tighter, especially with the temptation of Leona. Morgan’s offered a way out of his predicament, but he’ll be forced to do business with F.R. Duncan (Wallace Ford), a shady character lurking around the docks who lives and breathes crooked deals.
When I was a kid, one of my relatives would say, “People will show you who they really are,” and the characters in The Breaking Point certainly do that. Each character in the film could probably carry their own movie. Morgan wants only to captain his charter boat and provide for his family, but times are hard. Not only that, Morgan is beginning to doubt his identity. Looking at an old picture taken during the war, Morgan reflects, “Ever since I took that uniform off, I’m not exactly great.”
Morgan brings the frustrations of the job home with him: the snooty sightseers he takes out on his boat, the demanding would-be fishermen, and the clients who skip out on paying their bill. Yet when he comes home, these frustrations seem to disappear into the acceptance given him by his wife Lucy and their precocious daughters. Lucy is a practical woman, willing to sacrifice just about anything to keep the family going on the right track. They are his world. Until Hannagan and Leona charter his boat.
Once Hannagan stiffs Morgan, the captain has to make some hard decisions that mostly have to do with money. The advances of Leona, however, concern matters of the heart. Leona isn’t a typical femme fatale, and in some ways she’s just as practical as Morgan’s wife Lucy, albeit in a very different way. When Morgan explains to Leona that he’s very much in love with his wife, Leona responds, “A man can be in love with his wife and still want something exciting to happen.” Morgan will repeat the line to Leona later (see the trailer below), leading to...
I won’t go into what happens beyond next, but I will point out one scene that shows that Michael Curtiz was a gifted director. Morgan has come home to deliver some bad news to Lucy, news that could affect their marriage and future. Lucy is seated at a table at the right of the picture with Morgan on the left side facing away from her. The camera is much closer to Morgan, presenting a giant of a man with Lucy as far away from the camera as she can be and still remain in the frame. Morgan is dressed in a dark seaman’s sweater; Lucy in white (or off-white). All of these visual elements convey that Morgan may be “outgrowing” his marriage, while Lucy is shrinking into the background, her husband falling into a darkness that appears to be overwhelming him. It’s a powerful shot, and it’s just one of many.
Cinematographer Ted McCord (who worked with Curtiz many times) captures the darkness that has descended upon Morgan in several nighttime scenes, moments on the boat, and even interiors of the Morgan house. Yet Garfield brings his own shadows and darkness to the role, one that would be his penultimate picture before He Ran All the Way (1951).
In discussing a largely unsung film, I must also bring up a largely unsung actor, Juano Hernandez, who plays Morgan’s friend and first mate Wesley. (Wesley’s son in the film is played by Hernandez’s real-life son Juan.) Hernandez, a black Puerto Rican stage and film actor, enjoyed a long and distinguished career, but here Wesley is seen as not only as Morgan’s friend, but also an equal, something extremely rare for American films from this era. Their relationship is honest, refreshing, and engaging. I wish we could’ve seen a movie just about these guys and their previous adventures.
I could go on about this film, but if you have never seen The Breaking Point, I urge you to make it a part of your Noirvember viewing. You can find a spectacular Blu-ray from Criterion, and you can also rent it from Amazon Prime. The Breaking Point gets my highest recommendation.
(Special thanks to my friend Tim)