To non-cinephiles, the name Michael Curtiz might not mean much. Yet, he’s responsible for some of the biggest and most iconic pillars of classic Hollywood film – Casablanca being the most obvious one, but The Adventures of Robin Hood and Mildred Pierce also spring to mind. I find it necessary to introduce Curtiz as a big name director because The Breaking Point suggests something different. Here, his compositions are economical yet displaying flashes of artistic grace suggest something out of a B-film. A faithful adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway novel from one of Hollywood’s biggest names points to a film that might overwhelm the viewer with its importance, crushing them under the weight of its artistic aspirations, but Curtiz keeps his material in check and delivers the best kind of genre film: one that doesn’t get bogged down in overly pointed pathos, but still isn’t slight.
Captain Harry Morgan doesn’t have the most luxurious life, but he does seem to have things pretty good. He has his own boat, which he maintains with his best friend, Wesley. He lives in a nice house right by the water with his wife and two daughters. Money, however, is still an issue and he decides to accept a risky proposition. He’s to transport a group of immigrants into San Diego. The task sounds simple enough, but Harry decides to not tell Wesley, and the addition of the seductive Leona Charles into the situation only further complicates matter. Harry flakes out at the deal at the last moment, but it’s still too late. He’s lost his boat. He resorts to alcohol and begins to take an interest in Leona.
The Breaking Point, despite not soaking in an urban landscape, is still unmistakably a film noir. Unlike Howard Hawks’ adaptation of the same text, To Have and To Have Not, Hemingway’s text is not translated into a witty and clever romance. It’s something far more dreary here, perhaps a better cinematic comparison would be Docks of New York, though the “edgy” ammoral nature of the protagonist here is not hit as squarely on the nose. Instead, we have a heartbreaking performance from John Garfield, one that could have easily gone the route of being too maudlin and self-consciously tragic. He’s a deplorable human being, the kind that Hemingway excelled at writing, but that alone is not what makes a character complex or interesting. Morgan’s heart always seems to be stuck in between two places, and he seems to struggle with the fact these opposing positions aren’t polar opposites.
These opposing positions sound vague, but the idea seems to be supported by Morgan’s consistent indecisiveness. One moment, he’s ready to do something illegal to improve his standing, but once faced with the reality of his actions, he becomes unglued. The irony of course is that he backs out of these dealings without actually helping himself. His first mission ends with his boat being taken away from him, and the next one ends with his best friend dying. Curtiz deserves credit for visualizing this relationship: the tightness of his compositions is unique in his filmography. He’s able to maintain a sense of unease by contrasting these closely composed sequences with ones where the camera seems to almost needlessly linger on. It’s half way to adopting the momentum of a B-film, but they wonderfully clash with his more artful and deliberate shots, ending in something entirely new.
This “halfway between two places” idea (which I wish I could express more eloquently) resurfaces again in Morgan’s romantic relationships. Hemingway’s brooding, alcohol-fueled prose has often labeled him as either casually misogynist or just a sad man caught in wish fufillment. It’s hard to elevate the women here beyond that, but Patricia Neal and Phyllis Thaxter certainly try their hardest. Thaxter’s performance as Lucy Morgan is the more immediately noticeable and one could argue that her story is actually more tragic and dire than that of her husband. She fights to keep her husband, which sounds retrograde but her ambivalence is this fight suggests that her pride is also on her mind. She’s skeptical of all of her own moves made to ensure their relationship, half of her wants to fight and other half just wants to give up entirely.
Patricia Neal’s performance as Leona Charles seems, at the surface, to be disposable. She’s Morgan’s temptation and as such, one might expect that her character is only framed in relation to Morgan. This is true to an extent, but like Lucy, she is well aware of her position in this love triangle and how pitiful that position is. At first glance, we understand her as the one who is seducing Morgan, but weirdly enough, he doesn’t budge. Well, not entirely. Making something out of her blonde hair seems like a reach, but so frequently femme fatales are brunettes, perhaps a signifier that they’re the dark and evil forces that are trying to tear conservative, conventional families apart. Curtiz seems to be saying something about these signs and their arbitrarily assigned meanings, the faithful brunette, Lucy, bleaches her hair as a tactic to keep her husband interested. She’s visibly jealous of his interactions with Leona so she tries to physically transform herself into something that closely simulates his ideal of beauty, the one that makes his eyes wander to Leona in the first place.
Of course, all of this falls apart when Leona fails to live up to the femme fatale trope. One could criticize her characterization as she too easily falls in love with Morgan, who isn’t exactly the most charming individual. Still, her more sympathetic background suggests that the “femme fatales” who are so often viewed as manipulative and calculating are still just women and more importantly, still human. As so often in genre films, the conditions of the narrative are based on the moral failings of one character and while we may get a male bad guy, his villainy suggests nothing about his gender when the hero is, of course, a man himself. I hesitate calling a film based on a Ernest Hemingway book “feminist” but Curtiz squeezes as much humanity out of Hemingway’s projections of women as one possibly can. If they fail to achieve complete agency, Curtiz may not to be the one to blame. Rather, it’s the source text.