The Breaking Point

by Glenn Erickson Jul 22, 2017

You can tell it’s film noir — even the cabin cruiser has Venetian blinds. Ernest Hemingway’s favorite film adaptation of his work is this uncompromised story of a good man charting a criminal course on the high seas. John Garfield is again ‘one man alone’ against the system, and the moral quicksand all but swallows up Patricia Neal, Phyllis Thaxter and Wallace Ford.

The Breaking Point
The Criterion Collection 889
1950 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 97 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date August 8, 2017 / 39.95
Starring: John Garfield, Patricia Neal, Phyllis Thaxter, Juano Hernandez, Wallace Ford, Edmon Ryan, Ralph Dumke, Guy Thomajan, William Campbell, Sherry Jackson, Donna Jo Boyce, Victor Sen Yung, Peter Brocco, John Doucette.
Cinematography: Ted D. McCord
Film Editor: Alan Crosland Jr.
Original Music: Howard Jackson, Max Steiner
Written by Ranald MacDougall from a novel by Ernest Hemingway
Produced by Jerry Wald
Directed by
Michael Curtiz


After a patriotic rewrite for wartime audiences, Ernest Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not became the classic 1944 Howard Hawks movie with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It was also later revisited in the weak adaptation The Gun Runners, with Audie Murphy. But the most faithful version of Hemingway’s original seagoing adventure is Michael Curtiz’ 1950 The Breaking Point. One of the last films John Garfield made while under attack by the political predators of the House Un-American Activities Committee, The Breaking Point is a hard-edged film noir with a strong subversive streak. Its cash-strapped hero feels compelled to commit criminal acts by an unforgiving economic situation, until he reaches his ‘breaking point.’ Hemingway’s Depression-Era tale adapts well to the boom year of 1950, where the illusion of nationwide prosperity isn’t being felt at the lower levels of the working class. Star Patricia Neal said that of all his works, Ernest Hemingway liked this film adaptation the best.

Instead of a bachelor adventurer looking for love and loyalty in the Caribbean, Point’s Harry Morgan (John Garfield, never better) is a married veteran with two kids, and falling behind on the payments for his fishing-touring boat. His wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) wants Harry to quit and work for her father, a prosperous farmer. Things look up when Harry gets a charter to carry the wealthy Hannagan (Ralph Dumke) and his blonde mistress Leona Charles (Patricia Neal) to Mexico for a few days’ fishing and gambling. But Hannagan strands Harry and his first mate Wesley Park (Juano Hernandez) in Ensenada without funds to even buy gas for the return trip to Newport Beach. Desperate, Harry agrees to a deal set up by the shady lawyer/middleman Duncan (Wallace Ford): he’ll smuggle a group of Chinese illegals into the U.S. for the sinister Mr. Sing (Victor Sen Yung). Already interested in seducing Harry, Leora stows away, not realizing what she’s getting herself into.

The Breaking Point is disturbing because, more than most noirs of its ilk it makes a persuasive argument for the hero’s turn to wrongdoing. Ex- Navy PT boat captain Harry Morgan’s entire identity is wrapped up in his fishing boat; it’s his dividing line between success and failure. It’s also the only thing between him and landlubber work on a lettuce farm. Morgan represents the millions of returning servicemen that didn’t find an easy footing in the postwar prosperity boom. Five years after the victory, his fishing fleet hasn’t materialized and he’s fighting a losing battle to keep his single boat. Faithful Lucy understands this, but she probably won’t understand why he accepts contraband cargo.

Other pressures are just as powerful. Morgan’s loyal and ethical first mate Wesley, a black man, is a nagging conscience to do the right thing. The crooked lawyer Duncan continually tempts Morgan with criminal ‘opportunities’ to get himself in the clear, urging him to stop being so uptight about the law, to “stop worrying, relax and let it happen.” Falling in with Duncan is the worst thing Morgan could do. Not only do Duncan’s crooked associates not keep their end of the bargain, Duncan uses Morgan’s involvement as a wedge to force him into assisting an even bolder crime, a bank robbery. The Breaking Point shows how a good man allows himself to slide to the wrong side of the law. When the Coast Guard officer impounds Harry’s boat for suspicious activity, and the boat owner comes to repossess it, Harry decides that everybody is against him. He formulates a crazy plan to double-cross the bank robbers on the high seas.

Using a great deal of impressive location photography, this version is far more naturalistic than the elaborate studio sets of the earlier Bogart movie, or the Warners/Garfield dockside mystery Out of the Fog. Harry Morgan’s ‘noir’ dilemma partially plays out in a sunny canal-side bungalow with two boisterous daughters and a wife who can’t pay the bills. Harry resists the provocative come-ons from the playgirl Leora, who quietly offers herself to him almost as soon as they meet. Patricia Neal’s teasing grin and ‘let’s play’ eyes are nearly irresistible. Morgan bends but does not break under Leora’s enticements, which is why we still side with him. Harry Morgan would be a standard noir loser except that he refuses to cave in to despair and elects instead to set up his own deadly anti-gangster ambush. That makes him a severely tainted, and therefore very modern, hero.

Director Michael Curtiz is in top form here. His often overly compressed studio style has adapted into something more relaxed, pointing to the new decade of ’50s noir with its mix of stylized and semi-docu visuals. The film is as carefully lit and controlled as any Warners item from its year, but the dark shadows no longer seem to be hiding deep psychological secrets. Ted McCord’s cinematography reflects the sharp California sunlight; the rear projection process work is nigh undetectable. The previous year’s White Heat pushed the traditional Warners gangster style to the brink of visual insanity, a graphic overkill; The Breaking Point looks and feels much more modern. By comparison, James Cagney’s next picture Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye seems a return to the filmic textures of the early 1940s.

“A man alone ain’t got a chance.” John Garfield is an amazing mass of virility, integrity, toughness and resentment, who also feels a strong love for his wife and kids. Phyllis Thaxter, the perfect WW2 spouse of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, projects concern without being a nag, and is shaken only when she thinks that the predatory Leora might have made a claim on her man. Lucy does her best to steer Harry in the right direction by saying she’ll leave if he gets involved in any more criminal acts. We know that she will stick to Harry no matter what, but Harry takes the ultimatum at face value.

Patricia Neal convinces us that she’s a real firecracker, an anything-goes sensationalist who gains respect for Harry when she sees what he’s really made of. Making a special impact as one of noir’s slimiest shysters is the veteran Wallace Ford. That his lawyer Duncan is walking free proves that the system is corrupt. He shows up like a bad penny, always eager to compromise Harry for his own profit and dishing out the worst advice possible: “Don’t worry about it, let it happen.” The weird thing is that when Duncan is put on the spot, he gains our sympathy as well.

And finally there’s Juano Hernandez’s character Wesley, whose impressive Intruder in the Dust (1949) is the sole uncompromised late-’40s issue picture about race. Hernandez doesn’t try to top Walter Brennan’s sublimely comic Eddie the Rummy from the Bogart picture. He instead plays it straight and thoughtful. Just like Harry, Wesley must stay employed to care for his young son, who goes to school with Harry’s girls. (For a 1950 film, that is itself a strong racial statement.)  Morgan can’t possibly appreciate Wesley enough, a fact driven home when Morgan learns how costly his prideful decisions can be for people he loves. Screenwriter Ranald MacDougall and director Curtiz leave us with a haunting final image that acknowledges the callous way that black characters are excluded and dismissed in so many Hollywood films.

The Breaking Point is one of the last major-studio noirs that can be said to carry a strong anti-HUAC undercurrent. The tide of reactionary opportunism was already rising against star John Garfield, who was one of the original committee that went to Washington in defense of the Hollywood Ten. When the Coast Guard impounds his boat, Harry Morgan complains that the government is taking away his livelihood, his only way of earning a living. That’s exactly the spot Garfield was in when he made the movie, when the HUAC pressured him to plead guilty to non-crimes and inform on his friends and associates. “Don’t worry about it, relax. Let it happen.”

Unlike John Garfield’s own Body and Soul and Force of Evil, this show makes no soapbox speeches blaming Harry Morgan’s dilemma on the capitalistic system. Harry’s plight makes a good comparison/contrast to that of Howard Tyler in Cyril Endfield’s openly subversive Try and Get Me!   Tyler is another ex- serviceman having a tough time staying employed after the war, and his situation is much more dire. Having relocated to a new town, Tyler has no friends and little hope because nobody is hiring. He lives in a shack and his wife fears that they cannot afford a doctor for the delivery of a baby. He falls in with a psychopathic stick-up man and parts company with his self-respect.

John Garfield’s Harry Morgan has more options; his problem is that he won’t face the reality that not enough people want to hire his boat. Harry has a supportive wife and best friend, and even Leora is faithful in her way. The Coast Guard officer bears no ill will when he (rightly) suspects Harry of foul play on the high seas. The owner of Morgan’s boat generously gives him extra time to come up with his missed payments. Unlike Tyler, Morgan does not feel defeated by society in general. He’s fighting for his pride and his dignity, both of which he’d lose if he gave up and worked for his father-in-law. He’s not an out-of-control alcoholic like Howard. He goes into his wrongdoing with his eyes wide open.

The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of The Breaking Point bests what was already an excellent Warner Archive DVD from 2011; it’s encouraging that Criterion is occasionally licensing selected Warners titles. The sharp B&W image has that clean, bright Warners B&W style from 1950 or so, when they seemed to have nailed the formula for grain-free images and crisp, punchy audio. Howard Jackson and Max Steiner’s music score has soft elements, but steers away from direct sentimentality — we must decide for ourselves how we feel about Harry Morgan’s willingness to break the law.

The Criterion extras start with a feature on the show and Michael Curtiz by Alan K. Rode, whose own film biography Michael Curtiz, a Life on Film is due out on November 6 — any closer and we’d suspect that the disc release was a tie-in. As explained by Rode, Curtiz may be classic Hollywood’s most unjustly overlooked director, and The Breaking Point an equally unfairly neglected winner, easily a top noir title for suspense and romantic intrigue. To Have and Have Not may be the fave of Bogie fans but The Breaking Point is the superior, more substantial suspense thriller.

John Garfield’s actress daughter Julie offers a heartfelt, uncensored memory of her father’s career and the terrible price he paid when HUAC and the F.B.I. made him a political target. Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou offer a visual essay analyzing Curtiz’ style, which I’ve never boiled down to more than a crisp pace, precisely honed images and impeccable dramatic instincts. We are also treated to a five-minute snippet from a 1962 Today Show piece in which host Hugh Downs goes through some of the late Ernest Hemingway’s possessions in his house in Key West. Stephanie Zacharek contributes a thoughtful text essay on The Breaking Point for a foldout insert.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Breaking Point
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Interview pieces with critic/biographer Alan K. Rode, and actor and acting instructor Julie Garfield; video essay by Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou on Curtiz’s filming methods; excerpts from a 1962 episode of Today showing contents of the Ernest Hemingway House in Key West, Florida; illustrated foldout with an essay by critic Stephanie Zacharek.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 20, 2017

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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