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The Sea Wolf

by Glenn Erickson Oct 14, 2017

Now restored to perfection, this genuine classic hasn’t been seen intact for way over sixty years. Michael Curtiz and Robert Rossen adapt Jack London’s suspenseful allegory in high style, with a superb quartet of actors doing some of their best work: Robinson, Garfield, Lupino and newcomer Alexander Knox.


The Sea Wolf
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1941 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 100 min. uncut! / Street Date October 10, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Edward G. Robinson, Alexander Knox, Ida Lupino, John Garfield, Gene Lockhart, Barry Fitzgerald. Stanley Ridges, David Bruce, Francis McDonald, Howard Da Silva, Frank Lackteen, Ralf Harolde
Cinematography: Sol Polito
Film Editor: George Amy
Art Direction: Anton Grot
Special Effects: Byron Haskin, Hans F. Koenekamp
Original Music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Written by Robert Rosson, from the novel by Jack London
Produced by Hal B. Wallis, Henry Blanke
Directed by
Michael Curtiz

 

Chopping up films for television was once the norm — I don’t think I saw my first film on TV without commercial interruption until at least 1976. Would you believe that in the 1950s and 1960s, even pictures like Casablanca would sometimes be radically cut to fit into one-size-fits-all TV slots? Some pictures were unlucky even before TV. Thanks to the Greenbriar Picture show we’ve learned that Warner Bros. clipped both The Sea Hawk and The Sea Wolf to fit on a double bill. It’s always been a problem title at Warner Home video, because the long version was presumed lost in good quality, along with Norman Foster’s Rachel and the Stranger and Howard Hawks’ The Thing from Another World and The Big Sky. In the last ten years we’ve seen excellent WB restorations for hot titles when better materials were located, including Little Caesar, The Public Enemy and Mutiny on the Bounty. The happy surprise this time is Michael Curtiz’s superior seagoing drama — which is now thirteen minutes longer than what anybody’s seen since 1947.

I’ve never seen all of The Sea Wolf in one go before, although I’ve seen parts of it numerous times in the old days when changing channels. It may have been abridged, and maybe not. When we sat down to see the new Warner Archive Collection disc last night, the usual clues weren’t there: the image and picture are flawless from one end to the other, offering not a clue as to where thirteen minutes had been taken out. I know that TV sometimes deleted the on-shore scenes, starting right with the ferryboat accident. But was that an additional cut made by the TV station?

It barely matters now, for The Sea Wolf on Blu-ray plays like a classic, as it should have been considered ages ago. It’s an almost perfectly realized harmonious whole, surely some of Michael Curtiz’ finest work and a marvelous showcase for the talents of its stellar cast.

 

Leaving San Francisco in a 1900 fog, the schooner The Ghost picks up some shanghaied seamen, plus two survivors of a ferryboat’s collision with a steamship. Coerced fugitive George Leach (John Garfield) and ferryboat castaway Humphrey Van Weyden (Alexander Knox) are shocked to find that they’re all but slaves on a renegade ship. Captain ‘Wolf’ Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) holds sway like a gangster. Larson claims that the ship hunts seals, but everyone knows that he carries a cannon to attack other sealing ships and steal their catch. He mistreats his sailors, keeping them in line with brutality, and by playing them against each other. Van Weyden becomes the galley helper for Cooky (Barry Fitzgerald), a nasty little Irishman who seems to enjoy Larsen’s injustices. Leach’s objections to tyranny earn him a terrible beating. Larsen refuses to return to harbor and says that The Ghost won’t be visiting any ports or exchanging passengers with other ships — they’ll all be stuck there until he returns. The other ferryboat survivor, escaped prisoner Ruth Brewster (Ida Lupino) survives only because Van Leyden guys the ship’s alcoholic Doctor Louis Prescott (Gene Lockhart) into performing a blood transfusion. Larson jokes that Brewster and Leach’s blood should be compatible, because they’re both jailbirds. As the voyage continues, Larsen begins to communicate with the educated Van Leyden about philosophy, arguing over Larsen’s misanthropic view of life. He finds out that Larsen has a secret malady, and suffers occasional headaches and partial blindness. Leach gathers together the seamen to preach mutiny, not knowing that Cooky is an informant, and will betray any mutiny attempt. Larsen encourages chaos and disorder, with the notion that’ ‘it’s better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.’

Adventure, mystery, danger — The Sea Wolf is as good a studio production as was ever made. It more than honors its literary source material, which didn’t happen that often. It also proves that it is possible for a studio to cast from its contract roster and end up with an ideal actor in each role. All the parts are character parts. Edward G. Robinson gets his best role in years (and he’d have to wait four more years for Double Indemnity to come along). Wolf Larsen’s hatred feels deep-seated, not something to be fully ‘explained’ by a facile back story. When Larsen turns mean, encouraging mob vengeance on his ship, he’s genuinely disturbing.

 

Garfield and Lupino make a good couple; I think it was their first film together. Both Leach and Ruth have sullied backgrounds and are not the type to beg for sympathy. The script is neither hardboiled-cynical nor overly sentimental, although writer Rosson gives everyone a fair shot, even Larsen. Backing them up are some terrific London-inspired characters. Gene Lockhart really came into his own during the war years, in many pictures — The Devil and Daniel Webster, Hangmen Also Die! and The House on 92nd Street. Alcoholic doctors are a given in melodramas good and bad, but Lockhart’s Dr. Prescott is made sympathetic without a single appeal to the audience.

 

The same goes for Barry Fitzgerald, who in 1941 was not yet associated with kindly priest characters. Fitzgerald’s Cooky is a rotten little S.O.B. happy to play Larsen’s cheerleader and lackey. When he receives the worst of Larsen’s malice, we neither cheer nor cry. The real subject is the ugly way the captain manipulates his own crew, and scapegoats individuals to sidestep a mutiny. Michael Curtiz’s grim crewmen are a good group of ugly-mugs. These guys are really dangerous, unlike the lovable, ethical cutthroats of the Warners pirate movies. Stanley Ridges is an unhappy San Franciscan shanghaied aboard. Notable among the unshaven, mean faces is the great Howard Da Silva.

Canadian actor and recent Broadway notable Alexander Knox won the role of Van Weyden, the intellectual who engages Wolf Larsen in verbal introspection. You might not recognize the actor, who later became ubiquitous as a stuffy aristocrat or authority figure, usually English. Van Weyden analyzes the Captain, trying to bring out the ‘why’ of his villainy. What in another movie might be talky detours, in this picture work well — we want to know what makes Larsen tick. Alexander Knox would soon get an unexpected major starring role playing a controversial president in Darryl Zanuck’s Wilson.

The studio must have been proud of The Sea Wolf’s look, all manufactured in studio sound stages. Byron Haskin’s miniature effects were nominated for an Oscar, but we’re most impressed by the perfected ocean backing as seen from the deck of the ship. It’s a great trick. Without knowing how it was done I think it’s far superior to the fake sparkly waves or static water seen in the older pirate movies.

The various blacklist victims in the cast, and the troubles that screenwriter Robert Rossen had with the HUAC make us wonder if The Sea Wolf was ever singled out as an example of Red influence in Hollywood. The class friction is all in Jack London’s original book — the conflict between the wicked captain and his downtrodden crew is easy enough to interpret politically. The most familiar material up front, with waterfront thugs kidnapping men to serve as sailors, is much like any story of the Barbary Coast — Warners’ pre-Code drama Frisco Jenny has a similar atmosphere. Yet the situation on board The Ghost comes off as a call to revolution. The workers are criminalized and marginalized for being poor, and their existence is intolerable exploitation. Labor issues (mutinies) are met with empty promises, or pre-empted via informers and scapegoats. Larsen is of humble origin, but he’s quick to pronounce himself better than his jailbird crew — and feels he has the right of life and death on his ship.

Larsen reads the great literature, even ‘dangerous’ books like Darwin; critics once said that Marxism was godless Darwinism applied to social economics. Larsen represents corrupt power but he’s actually a victim of the same system, always trying to justify his existence. Almost a Conradian hero, he is pursued by an unseen brother, an apparently equally villainous twin. Are Larsen’s attacks of blindness physical, psychological or moral? The Sea Wolf makes a stab at literary greatness, what with all the classical allusions. At one point Larsen, unable to see, pretends to steer the ship so his men won’t catch on. But they’ve been tipped off to his secret malady, and are organizing revolt . . .

 

Over at RKO, producer Val Lewton was tasked with creating horror movies from titles sent down by the front office. More than once he tried to blend his stories with classic literature. Lewton surely knew London’s book and perhaps Curtiz’s movie as well; told to make a horror film called The Ghost Ship, Lewton gave RKO a loose Sea Wolf adaptation. His Larsen character, Captain Stone, is one of the movies’ first fully modern homicidal psychopaths.

The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther had a dull taste for films — he’d extol the virtues of most bland mainstream movies and his taste favored whatever the carriage trade considered socially uplifting. He either didn’t like The Sea Wolf’s naturalistic attitude, or he just didn’t like movies with morally compromised characters. Crowther’s review spends paragraphs deprecating what he thought was an over-reliance on aberrant psychology, which he considered an unwelcome, sordid intruder in ’40s movie fare. But Van Weyden’s war of words with Wolf Larsen is really over Nietzsche, not Freud.

Curtiz and Rossen’s movie improves on some aspects of the book. Jack London’s Larsen is a brute with the strength to battle more than one sailor at a time to retake his command. The film’s Captain instead prevails by sheer force of personality. The book also changes the origin and nature of the female castaway Brewster, dropping some strained coincidences. Larsen’s mysterious brother is named Death, by the way, which seems a stickier notion than any ‘psychiatry’ Rossen or Curtiz could have imposed on the story. The film also skips what would seem a strained final act with castaways and a damaged ship on a desert island.

Wolf’s intense headaches are in the book as well. Did James Cagney seize that idea his gangster character Cody Jarrett in the later White Heat?

There have been multiple movies made from London’s famous story, from the early silent days to a 2009 version in which Tim Roth plays Death Larsen. I’m told that the original novel The Sea Wolf (1904) sold out because it came right after Jack London’s major success The Call of the Wild. I wonder if any younger readers thought that the beloved sled dog Buck was going to return as a sea captain.

BTW, don’t let any criticism of the book turn one away from Jack London. The well-read Rocco Gioffre once steered me to a compendium of London’s hobo-themed short stories. I couldn’t put the book down, it was so good.


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Sea Wolf is a ray of hope in a climate where too many good movies needing restoration are allowed to rot in vaults. I didn’t quite catch the story behind this particular miracle, but it’s another case where a perfectly good full-length element popped up safe and sound, ready to be protected for film and re-mastered for video. Luckily, Sea Wolf has the kind of pedigree of filmmakers and actors that warrants quick attention. Apparently no legal impediments surfaced, either.

The rich and textured image has that dusty, dimensional look of Warners pictures from the 1940s. The sound is also crisp — there’s a gunshot sound effect that immediately tells us we’re watching a WB-created item. The music score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold is terrific, inducing moods and ratcheting up the suspense. Korngold takes the fog as a cue to slip in more tones of mystery. He doesn’t go overboard with motifs — no music cues help ‘explain’ Larsen’s madness.

If you’ve seen the movie, this will be a revelation both for how it looks and the fact that it’s now a well-rounded story (with the excellent extended dialogue debates that so irked Bosley Crowther). If you haven’t seen it, it will be a major discovery, a definite link with a more progressive narrative drive, such as that seen a little later in Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It belongs in the top rank of Edward G. Robinson’s work, as well.

I guess that the WAC is relying on web buzz to spread the word about this rediscovery, and I’m happy to comply. The extras are the original trailer, and a 1950 radio dramatization.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.


The Sea Wolf  Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent — and full-length again
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Screen Director’s Playhouse radio dramatization, 1950; theatrical trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 12, 2017
(5552wolf)

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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 DVD Savant.