By Tony Williams.
Since the inclusion of a co-written article by Tom Flinn and John Davis in the pre-David Bordwell University of Wisconsin-Madison era of The Velvet Light Trap (in an issue titled “Forbidden, Forgotten, Neglected and Unlucky Films”), Michael Curtiz’s The Breaking Point (1950) has been relatively neglected until fairly recently. (1) In 1975, it was “unavailable in 16 or 35mm” but did ”surface occasionally” (2) on broadcast television at the time and undoubtedly afterwards in our now spoiled era of cable, VHS, and DVD. I first read about it in that TVLT issue, copies of which were often available at the National Film Theatre Bookshop in London before it moved to its present location. Having viewed a DVD copy several years ago from one of those numerous, but welcome, “L’Armee des Ombres” companies willing to supply items not worthy of reissue by established firms, it was a welcome experience to see this film once more in an excellent 2K digitally restored version exhibiting those well-known qualities that The Criterion Collection is justly celebrated for.
The Breaking Point is an unusual film in many ways. It is another version of Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1937) generally regarded as his poorest novel but turned into the celebrated film version by Howard Hawks who departed from the novel radically both in terms of his own personal authorship and utilizing the star charisma of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Filmed by the same studio, The Breaking Point is mostly faithful to the structure and conclusion of the Hemingway original but also departing from it in several key areas. In her DVD interview, Julie Garfield speaks eloquently about both her father and this particular film. Unlike her mother, John Garfield was never a member of the Communist Party but rather a “humanitarian and anti-racist”, qualities which would have placed him under suspicion at that time anyway. Already suffering from heart problems and the stalling of his film career, harassment by the FBI who wanted him to “name a name” – namely his wife who had long departed from the Communist Party – he eventually succumbed to a fatal heart attack at the age of 39. Garfield had earlier left Warner Bros, dissatisfied with the majority of roles his contract forced him to play, formed his production company, and appeared in two outstanding films in the newly formed Enterprise Studios – Body and Soul (1947) and Force of Evil (1949), one a box-office success, the other a commercial failure that has since become recognized as one of the great films of post-war American cinema. The young Robert Aldrich was assistant director on both these films. As with his participation in the 1930s Group Theatre, Garfield sought projects that combined art with social relevance. He found these in these Enterprise Studio films and, returning to his former Hollywood studio, believed that The Breaking Point fulfilled this requirement. Here he was correct. Despite being directed by Michael Curtiz, often regarded as a journeyman director of no artistic merit, the completed film matched his expectations and was even hailed by Jack Warner as a “new Casablanca” until Garfield’s appearance in Red Channels led to lack of promotion and publicity for the released film. This ended his Warner Bros association. Produced by his production company, He Ran All The Way (1951) was his last film, one that involved other blacklist victims such as director John Berry and co-scenarists Hugo Butler and Dalton Trumbo.
The Breaking Point is a bleak re-working of Hemingway’s original source devoid of its bad writing, macho attitudes, and racism. It is as much a film of its time as Hawks’s 1944 film version. While the earlier film loosely belongs to Hollywood cinema’s “Why We fight” series, it is also a key expression of the humanitarian aspects of the Hawks professional group, the necessity of avoiding personal isolation and fighting a Fascist enemy whether the Vichy police force on Martinique or any Thing from Another World totally antithetical to Hawks’s particular ideal utopian society. The Breaking Point is set in the post-war era, five years after the cessation of hostilities with Garfield’s ex-Navy Philippine veteran trying to “dream the impossible dream” of being a successful businessman but finding economic and family circumstances thwarting his desires. Garfield’s veteran has returned from “The Best Years of our Lives” to confront a new society where his former status and values are now redundant. His wife (Phyllis Thaxter) pleads with him in one scene to forget his Purple Hearts and understand that he now has to fight a very different war in an economically hostile Homefront and attempt to navigate his way through treacherous currents of precarious self-employment and family relationships. Ranald MacDougall’s accomplished screenplay balances the expected parameters of a Warner Bros. action film with the no-less-threatening economic circumstances of existence jeopardizing everyday survival. Filmed in a restrained and subtle manner by Curtiz, analyzed expertly in a superb accompanying video essay by Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou, The Breaking Point is a major accomplishment by a director often criticized for having no personal style and being the originator of the title of David Niven’s second memoir Bring on the Empty Horses (1975). However, a compelling sense of visual style, camera movements, and superb direction bringing out the best of actors such as Garfield, Patricia Neal, Phyllis Thaxter, Juano Hernandez, and Wallace Ford reveals the presence of another master, not an auteur, but a different professional at the height of his powers.
As for political resonances, we must also remember that Curtiz directed what is probably the best Jack London adaptation, The Sea Wolf (1941) in which Garfield accepted lower billing for the opportunity of appearing in a film version of a novel written by one of his Socialist heroes, Jack London, that warned audiences about the dangerous nature of contemporary Fascism. (3) Without being emphatic, The Breaking Point depicts a post-war world far removed from the aftermath of WW2 victory populated mostly by people living lives of “quiet desperation”, trying to make a living, and surviving in a cold, materialistic society in which the promises of FDR’s New Deal are now long gone and where losers face a grim fate, especially if they are on the wrong side of the color line. This explains the bleak finale where the camera in a crane shot witnesses the poignant isolation of a young African-American boy whose father (Juano Hernandez) will never return. While Garfield’s survival is doubtful, the film leaving it open as to whether he will survive the amputation of his left arm (notice the non-committal response of the Navy surgeon to his family), the conclusion leaves no doubt as to which ethic group is the real victim in this destructive and self-destructive world of the American Dream. Garfield’s penultimate, repeated lines derived from Hemingway, “A man alone ain’t got no chance” may apply as much to the lost post-war hopes of communal solidarity as to echoes of Hemingway’s solipsistic anguish of a dying Harry Morgan in the original novel. The substitution of illegal Chinese immigrants for the anti-Vichy couple in the 1944 film version and the Hispanics in the novel may be an indirect reference to the Fall of China to Communist forces, something that those in the State Department who warned against Chiang Kai-shek were ironically blamed for. Then, as now, forces of reaction were quick to blame the victims of their misguided policies on the international and national spheres.
Other DVD features include an interview with Michael Rode, author of the forthcoming Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film (2017) and an otherwise redundant clip from a 1962 Today episode with participants examining To Have and Have Not contents from Hemingway’s Key West House. However, those who have read Leonardo Padura’s 2005 imaginative and compelling Adios Hemingway dealing with retired Havana detective Mario Conde’s investigation of an incident involving the writer in Cuba of 1958 with apt comparisons to past and present eras will encounter much more exciting territory. Accompanying this DVD is an essay by Stephanie Zacharek, “All at Sea” about what Hemingway described as the “best film adaptation of any of his books.” It is a refreshing, well-written essay recognizing the film’s relevance to today in term of its speaking “boldly to the fractured notion of what it means to be an American”, detailing how hard it is to live up to one’s ideals, capturing “film noir’s essential reason for being, as a response to to postwar disillusionment, and addressing the “anxiety of men adjusting to a changed world.” Viewing this film, reading the essay, following the DVD extras, and waiting for Rode’s forthcoming Curtiz biography (where he will undoubtedly expand on his observation that Curtiz’s wife scenarist Bess Meredyth acted in a same manner to that of Alma Reville with Alfred Hitchcock) may lead us to see the originator of the phrase “Bring on the Empty Horses” in a much different light from the one usually focused on him.
- Tom Flinn & John Davis, “The Breaking Point,” The Velvet Light Trap 14 (1975) pp. 17-21; Trevor Johnston, “The Breaking Point”, Sight and Sound 25.2 (2015): 112; Michael Civille, “`Ain’t Got No Chance’”: The Case of The Breaking Point”, Cinema Journal 56.1 (2016): 1-22.
- Flinn and Davis, 17.
- For further information see Jack London’s The Sea Wolf: A Screenplay by Robert Rossen. Eds. Rocco Fumento and Tony Williams. Carbondale, Il.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998.