The Breaking Point: All at Sea

Great movies speak to future audiences without knowing it. The Breaking Point, made in 1950, isn’t the film for which director Michael Curtiz is best remembered. That honor would most likely go to the 1942 Casablanca, so vividly, pleasurably romantic and so rapturous in its idealism—no wonder successive generations continue to love it. But The Breaking Point—starring John Garfield as the operator of a small fishing boat, the Sea Queen, who’s struggling to support his family in a small seaside town in Southern California—is a more piercing and complex picture, one that even today speaks boldly to the fractured notion of what it means to be an American. Its view of love is bracingly adult but also infinitely tender. And it is idealistic only in the sense that it understands just how hard it can be, in a cruel world, for a man to live up to his ideals. If Casablanca is the great Hollywood film of our dreams, The Breaking Point is the quiet masterpiece for our waking moments.

This is a noir wrapped in a cloak of sunshine; there are no dark city streets, no detectives in rumpled, tilted hats. The two central elements are a guy and his boat, but there are also a loyal friend, a stalwart wife, and, as in any noir, a gal with sin on her mind. The picture was adapted by screenwriter Ranald MacDougall from Ernest Hemingway’s 1937 novel To Have and Have Not, and although the plot and certain significant details veer from the original story, Curtiz’s movie hews closer to the novel’s spirit than the earlier, more famous adaptation made by Howard Hawks in 1944. That picture is pure Hawks, a wartime adventure with a jaunty romantic spirit.

The Breaking Point—which Hemingway himself called the best film adaptation of any of his books—is a vastly different creature. The Hungarian-born Curtiz was one of the great filmmakers of his era. The variety of pictures he made, in a Hollywood career spanning thirty-five years and over a hundred features, is astonishing—and that’s not even including the films he made in Europe, before emigrating to the United States in 1926. In addition to Casablanca, we have him to thank for Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) and Mildred Pierce (1945).

Even so, The Breaking Point is in a class by itself. In an early scene, Garfield’s Harry Morgan, having just spent the last of his family’s meager allotment for living expenses on the gas he needs for his boat, takes the measure of his wedding picture, propped on the bureau in the tidy but modest little house he shares with his wife, Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter). The portrait—the groom in uniform, the bride in a broad-brimmed hat ready for sunlight—was probably taken just seven or eight years earlier, and we can feel its radiant optimism. But the circa-1950 Harry, reflecting on that picture and the people in it, is a shoreline worn down by the surf: “Ever since I took that uniform off,” he says, “I’m not exactly great.”

Audiences at the time would know exactly what that line meant, because they were living it. Today, it’s a beautiful piece of historical code. It captures film noir’s essential reason for being, as a response to postwar disillusionment, and a way of addressing the anxiety of men adjusting to a changed world. It also tells us, in one bold shorthand stroke, just how high a bar Harry has set for himself. He had a role to play during the war. Now he has other roles—husband, father—and his responsibilities are wearing him down, not because he loves his family too little but because he loves them so much. Harry acts like a tough guy, but family life has smoothed his roughest edges. The job that demands so much from him, taking sightseers and amateur fishermen out on his boat, keeps him away from home for days at a stretch, and his wife misses him. As he’s about to head out to sea, Lucy—played beautifully by Thaxter, she’s an intensely practical woman who has no concept of her wildflower loveliness—faces him directly, with resolute softness in her eyes. “I can think about you anytime and get excited,” she tells him.

It’s a gorgeous moment, forthright and unadorned, a snapshot of marital carnality rarely seen in any movie, made yesterday or today. (It also, incidentally, comes almost directly from Hemingway’s prose.) Lucy’s love both sustains Harry and causes him anguish: the last thing he wants to do is fail her, or their two little girls. As he heads out the door for this next trip, accompanied by his scampering, chattering daughters, he runs into his first mate and friend, Wesley (Juano Hernandez), who’s seeing his own son off to school. The girls see the shy little boy and greet him happily. All three go off together.

Wesley and his son are black, but in this town, and in this story, they’re treated as equals—it’s as if Curtiz had recognized that there was already enough despair and anxiety in the world. Who has room for racism? Hernandez himself was breaking some barriers: the Afro–Puerto Rican actor, formerly a radio and vaudeville performer (and, for a time, a professional boxer), had earned acclaim for the role he’d played just a year earlier in Clarence Brown’s William Faulkner adaptation Intruder in the Dust. The presence of Wesley and his son (the latter played by Juan Hernandez, Juano’s son in real life) and the crucial role they play in the story represented, on Curtiz’s part, a flagrant rejection of American segregation—not just in the South, then segregated by law, but anywhere that it might insidiously take root.

Curtiz shows us all these things—the kind of community Harry lives in, the way he treats his friends, the happiness of his home life—in the first seven minutes of the film. Every detail intensifies our sense of how much is at stake for Harry. We sense that he will more often than not do the right thing—but that pushed too far, he could also make bad choices. The first real mistake we see him make is agreeing to take a tubby businessman on a fishing trip to Mexico. The guy stiffs him; it’s money Harry can’t afford to lose, and to make up the difference, he reluctantly accepts a highly illegal gig, brokered by the sleazy, sweaty lawyer Duncan (Wallace Ford). The other complication—she’s too wild and wonderful to be called a mistake—arrives on a set of killer stems: the deadbeat’s foxy blonde mistress, Leona Charles (Patricia Neal), takes a liking to Harry, and though he’s devoted to Lucy, he is, after all, just a man. He barely stands a chance against Leona, as played by Neal. A forthright, confident actor, Neal had recently been suspended from Warner Bros. for refusing to appear in a western, Sugarfoot, with Randolph Scott. Her reasoning, she said, was that the part “was just a part and not a role.” The Breaking Point, the first film she made after her suspension was lifted, gave her plenty to dig into. In her burnt-sugar voice, Leona subjects Harry to tiny, flirtatious insults that blossom into compliments. At one point, she tells him how much she likes the back of his neck, blowing on it as if dispersing dandelion tufts. Greater men have fallen for lesser witchcraft.

But Leona doesn’t bring about Harry’s downfall. And if she tempts him, she also catches him up in a whirl of healthy erotic energy. “A man can be in love with his wife and still want something exciting to happen,” he tells her at one point, an admission of weakness that tells us how strong he really is. Lucy, for her part, knows her husband is wavering, and she’s smart enough to be jealous: the scene in which she acknowledges her worries is a marvel, underscoring both her human frailty and her generosity. Thaxter ought to have been better known as an actress, but she packs a career’s worth of perceptiveness into this one performance.

The Breaking Point is a superb portrait of a sturdy marriage, one that is all the more solid for being challenged. It’s also a remarkable depiction of masculine desperation, and socially progressive at its core. So what, exactly, happened to this extraordinary picture? Why haven’t more people seen it? Why isn’t it more frequently talked about or written about?

The answer, to the extent that any exists, is entwined with the story of its star, a parable about how misfortune and injustice can destroy not just a career but a life. John Garfield, born on New York’s Lower East Side in 1913, was a scrappy kid whose luck was changed by a reform-school principal who noticed how gifted he was—and also that he stammered. Part of his speech therapy involved acting exercises, which led to drama classes and small stage roles. Clifford Odets saw the young actor in one of those parts and brought him to the Group Theatre. The only Group Theatre actor to become a true movie star, Garfield made thirty-three feature films between 1938 and 1951. His first was Four Daughters, also directed by Curtiz, in which he played a disaffected but charismatic musician (the role earned him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor). The Breaking Point was his next to last film.

In between, Garfield brought deep contours and shadows even to movie roles that weren’t particularly well written. His charm was the street-smart kind: he looked like the sort of guy who might slug you if you looked at him sideways, then give you the last nickel in his pocket. He could bend from implacability to vulnerability, from cool to hot, just by shifting the curve of his smile. He brought thoughtful intensity to everything he did, sometimes throwing his fellow actors off guard. “Talking to people [in movies] is very difficult,” Garfield told an audience in a 1945 guest lecture at the Actors Laboratory in Hollywood. “Once, I looked at an actor and he got scared—he thought I was crazy.” Garfield’s commitment to craft, and his insistence on quality scripts, often led to disputes with the studio that had signed him, Warner Bros. When his contract expired in 1946, he opted not to renew. Although he continued to work, his standing as a star was threatened.

Yet just a few years later, his old studio appeared to have softened its stance on him. After Warner Bros. head Jack L. Warner had been persuaded to take this second swing at Hemingway, Garfield was courted for the lead. He pushed for Curtiz to direct and got his wish. The two had built a mutually respectful relationship over the years, working together on Four Daughters and its 1939 follow-up, Daughters Courageous, in addition to The Sea Wolf (1941), and before filming began, Garfield even wrote a letter to Curtiz, suggesting a few changes to MacDougall’s script that eventually made it into the film. He wanted to incorporate, for example, a detail from the novel in which Harry brings trinkets home from his travels for his wife and daughters: “This kind of touch, which makes him not just a tough guy but human, creates a fuller person,” he wrote. He signed the letter “With much love and regards, Johnny G.”

The picture Curtiz and his splendid cast made together—shot, gorgeously, by journeyman cinematographer Ted McCord, who somehow captured the quietly mournful quality of bright, cloudless California—was released on September 30, 1950, and got terrific reviews from critics. Even professional windbag Bosley Crowther, of the New York Times, called Garfield “tops” in the leading role.

But just a few months earlier, Garfield’s name had been one of the 151 listed in the anti-Communist pamphlet Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, perhaps partly because of his connection to the artistically liberal Group Theatre, but also because his wife, Roberta Seidman, had briefly been a member of the party. Inclusion on that list meant death for an actor’s career, and Warner Bros. did little to promote The Breaking Point, almost certainly because of Garfield’s involvement. The picture faded from the landscape. Garfield made one more film, He Ran All the Way (1951). On May 21, 1952, at age thirty-nine, he died of a heart attack.

For years, The Breaking Point has been something of a lost movie—the penultimate film of a lost man, buried upon its release because a foul, cowardly faction of the American government had been granted too much power. Garfield’s performance here is astonishing, a marvel of deeply expressive economy. In a late scene, when Harry is at last forced to reckon with the horrific cost of keeping his family together—a price that another family will have to pay—his face is an image of tender wreckage. His family lives, but something in him has died. There is a moment of recovery, where you think Curtiz will give us something resembling a happy ending, or at least a scrap of hope to cling to. But the film ends with an anguishing visual coda, a shot of a lone figure who deserves none of the suffering that has been inflicted on him. The Breaking Point is a picture of fine-grained, desolate beauty. It’s as if Curtiz and Garfield were sending us a message in a bottle without even knowing it. The story inside the film and the story around it are now inseparable. Both remind us that to live in America is, sometimes, to live in a lonely place.

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