October 22, 2018

Criterion's Blu-Ray cover for Breaking Point

Posted August 8, 2017 by D. K. Holm







Scratch any number of films and you will find a legacy of remakes, adaptations, reboots, and translations into other media. A prime example comes in the form of the new Criterion Blu-Ray edition of The Breaking Point, which has an interesting history.

The film is based on a Hemingway novel, which is really a collection of three stories about the same protagonist, Harry Morgan. Its allure, however, seems to have been widespread.

Howard Hawks directed the first adaptation, and claims that he got the idea while hunting with the author, who was complaining about the bad films made from his books. Hawks said that he could make a good movie from even his worst book. An irritated Hemingway asked which one would that be, and Hawks offered To Have and Have Not. Hawks did make the film, but threw out most of the book to lay claim to the basic situation of the first story in the book and add the Hawksian elements that he found comforting.

Released in 1950, The Breaking Point is the second adaptation, but not the last. There was a Lux Video Theater hour-long adaptation in 1957, and Don Siegel did a version a year later in 1958 called The Gun Runners, with modified locations. The Lux is really an adaptation of the Hawks film, with Edmond O’Brien as Harry Morgan, nicknamed “Steve” by Beverly Garland’s “Slim.” John Qualen is in both the TV version and the Siegel, and Dan Seymour comes over from the Hawks film.

The Gun Runners is an Audie Murphy vehicle. After the stunt casting by John Huston of the WWII war hero as a coward in the adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage, Murphy became a box office draw in cheap westerns. Siegel was drawn into the project unwillingly but did get a good script from one of his favored collaborators, the great screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (Out of the Past, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Phenix City Story). Along with Patricia Owens as the faithful wife, and Swedish starlet Gita Hall as the femme fatale, Everett Sloane plays the drunk crew member, and Richard Jaeckel and Jack Elam as peripheral thugs, the film features a charming and charismatic turn by Eddie Albert as the villain Hanagan, the reason to watch the movie. In fact, the presence of Jaeckel and Elam inspires the idea that Robert Aldrich might have been a better match for the material.

Even Edward D. Wood, Jr., got into the act, taking the story of the previous films and creating a version directed by Hank McCune and released in 1956. McCune is or was a denizen of Hollywood’s fringe, the host of a his own show in the early 1950s before graduating to movie direction and production. His adaptation is called Wetbacks. We all know about Ed Wood at this point. Wetbacks stared Lloyd Bridges as the Harry Morgan equivalent, along with Nancy Gates and Barton MacLane.
According to Wikipedia, the Jacqueline Bisset vehicle The Deep (1977) is a vague remake, and there is also apparently an Iranian version, from 1977, called  Captain Khorshid. It is directed by Nasser Taghvai, and is apparently a great film.

As for The Breaking Point itself, it seems more like John Huston material than a Michael Curtiz project, though written by Ranald MacDougall, who also helped on Pierce. But Criterion has begun a revaluation of the Warners house auteur, in decades past ignored as a workmanlike helmer with no artistic personality. Thanks to discs of Mildred Pierce and now Breaking Point, and especially the supplements on the discs, we have a better sense of man behind the camera.



As in a Huston film, Harry Morgan (John Garfield) is a hard-working, honest guy beaten down by social forces, like Huston characters in The Treasure of Sierra Madre and Fat City. He’s a man’s man who runs his own cruise business out of Key West, where he deals with impatient creditors and slimy hustlers. The film follows him in three realms, his boat where he is king, his business where he is buffeted by competing and hostile forces, and his home life. There, he has two adorable daughters and a wife (an excellent Phyllis Thaxter) of supreme loyalty. In fact, the most disarming element of Breaking Point is its portrait of a happy marriage, happy despite the daily grief and setbacks that befall the quartet. To make ends meet after a “have” –  a sleazy wheeler dealer and fraud – abandons Morgan after a marlin fishing cruise without paying, he succumbs to a middleman (Warner standby Wallace Ford) looking for someone to transport some human cargo for a trafficker. Later, after more setbacks, Morgan is press-ganged into helping a gang of race track robbers make their getaway. The heist seems especially Houstonian, but the way that Curtiz mounts the action, and especially a shoot-out in Morgan’s boat in the end, the efficiency and clarity is all his own. In fact, some writers have claimed that Huston stole Curtiz’s shooting plan for a similar scene in Key Largo.

So far the definitive account of The Breaking Point is in the fourteenth issue of The Velvet Light Trap  from early 1975. In an issue themed “Forbidden, Forgotten, Neglected and Unlucky Films,” it offers up a four-page article that covers all the background and groundwork to appreciate the film, with several frame enlargements, created back in the time when getting such art was difficult.[1] 

The Breaking Point qualified for the issue because at that time there were no prints in circulation, no 16mm prints (the most accessible format for students), and only rare television broadcasts. In fact, legal or copyright issues kept the movie under wraps until well in the recent past. It was a hard-to-see film, and today even the article is hard to track down, so here’s a summary of its salient parts:

• Co-authors Tom Flinn and John Davis begin by discussing the weak adaptations of Hemingway  novels and how noir thrillers are more likely to embody the Hemingway ethos.

• They then discuss the reception to The Breaking Point, producer Jerry Wald’s support, but the company’s backing off, despite receiving positive attention at the Venice film festival.

• This leads natural to the situation with John Garfield, who was under scrutiny by HUAC.




• Following is an examination of the differences between book and film, primarily a relocation to California and Mexico, and also a building up of Morgan’s domestic profile. They discuss the role of Patricia Neal as the house wrecker left behind by the cruise cheat, and how she offsets the narrative and textural complexities of the Morgan social unit.

• Realism in postwar Hollywood cinema: the pair are insightful about the differences between this film and its Neo-Realistic contemporaries and the gritty De Rouchemont thrillers shot in the streets, followed by a political analysis of the various settings. When he wrote the book, Hemingway was in his Spanish War lefty phase and the film touches on these issues in a discrete manner, then they assess how Curtiz uses sound and indigenous music.

• Insights follow into Curtiz’s use of violence, which is surprisingly effective and sometimes more “Hawkisan” than Hawks.

• Having covered all that, the duo does some classic auteur criticism, forging thematic links between Curtiz’s later films and the troubling changes in the industry.

• Appropriately, the essay concludes with Curtiz’s penchant for dramatic powerful and emotional final shots. The Breaking Point has one of Curtiz’s best and most heartbreaking.




Equally helpful are the supplementary materials on the Criterion Blu-Ray. They begin with “Helming a Masterpiece: Alan K. Rode on the Making of The Breaking Point,” (21:16), a career survey of Curtiz by the author of Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, so far the only book on the director. He quotes Curtiz as saying that he only included “as much art as the public can stand,” with the implication that he was interested in art and providing it to viewers.

This is followed by “Fluid Style: Michael Curtiz and The Breaking Point” (10:00), by Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos, makers of Every Frame a Painting. They analyze Curtiz’s screen “busyness,” in which he uses the “crossover” form of blocking to keep the screen moving and interesting, and they note how he liked to give Garfield stage business because he worked so well with his hands. The bulk of the feature is given over to a breakdown of the film’s first domestic scene,  a 56-second opening shot and the reversals that follow. Breaking down the rooms and what they “mean,” they note that the information that comes at the viewer does not complicate the story.



Garfield’s daughter discusses her father in “John Garfield: The Greatest Passion, Julie Garfield on John Garfield” (16:41). She discusses his harsh childhood, his entering the American Theater Lab then the snobby Group Theater, where he lost out on getting the lead in Clifford Odets’s Golden Boy, which drove him to Hollywood where he ended up star after appearing in Curtiz’s Four Daughters. Frustrated with the assignments he was offered, Garfield formed his own company and made two masterpieces Body and Soul, and Force of Evil. Ms. Garfield also provide some behind the scenes gossip, such as that Neal didn’t like Garfield’s method acting at first.

The remaining elements are negligible. There is an except (4:51) from NBC’s Today show of December 19, 1962, shot inside Ernest Hemingway’s house, where Hugh Downs riffles through the late author’s possessions, and the film’s slightly misleading trailer (2:17). Finally, there is a 12 page booklet, with cast and crew, transfer info, and an essay by Time magazine’s Stephanie Zacharek.

The Breaking Point hits the streets on Tuesday, 8 August for $39.95. The 1950 film is 97 minutes in  black and white at 1.37:1, in 23 chapters and with the color bars and timeline features, and according to the company, the film sports a new “2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray.” It carries the Criterion Collection number 889.

[1] Other films covered in the issue include Ken Russell’s Mahler, the first gangster film The Racket, Cagney’s The Time of Your Life, Native Land, Wayne and Loren in Legend of the Lost, The Young Girls of Rochefort, Deep End with Jane Asher, and Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie.