Saturday, June 5, 2021

Movie Reviews: The Breaking Point

The Breaking Point
directed by Michael Curtiz
This is a 1950 film noir that feels very modern both in its story and in the treatment of its characters. 
During a time when racial segregation was still very much in effect this movie depicts a black boy and two white girls playing together before they go to school as no big deal. Their fathers are friends.
Considering that in several states such innocuous activities could easily result in violence, legal or otherwise, against a Black boy and/or other nearby Blacks, this part of the movie was something of a political statement, though it's not presented as one. 
The Breaking Point was one of lead actor's John Garfield's last movies. The left-wing Garfield was forced to testify before the House Committee for Un-American Activities and bravely refused to name names. This act of defiance destroyed Garfield's film career. The consequent lack of income and resulting stress may have contributed to Garfield's early death from a heart attack just two years after this film was released. 
Much like the younger actor Charles Bronson, whom I think he slightly resembled, Garfield grew up in an impoverished environment and often played cynical working class heroes. That is very much the case in this movie, which is based on a Hemingway novel, which I may or may not have read before.

Harry Morgan (Garfield) is a decorated WW2 veteran living in southern California with a wife Lucy (Phyllis Taxter) and two young daughters. Harry owns a charter fishing boat along with his (Black) friend Wesley Park (Juano Hernandez in a very non-stereotypical role). 
However the skills which allow you to survive battling Japanese soldiers in the Pacific are not necessarily the skills which make you a successful businessman. Harry had planned on having a multi-boat charter business by now. Instead he only has the one boat. 
Harry doesn't have the working capital to market his business successfully. Harry lacks the winning personality to make fishing on his boat an experience that many people want to repeat. Harry is losing business to larger charter companies. Business is so bad that Harry is months behind on his boat loan payments. 
Every dollar counts, but Harry is running out of dollars and time. He's tried to hide much of this from Lucy but she's no dummy. Lucy thinks that Harry should give up the idea of a charter fishing business and go work for her father, a farmer. Failing that, Lucy thinks she should get a job. Lucy thinks it's the only way that they can keep financially afloat.

Harry is horrified by both of Lucy's ideas, considering them to be intolerable assaults on his masculinity and responsibility to provide and protect. In Harry's view a man does all of that. A man does certainly NOT let his wife work or go to his father-in-law for help. No sir. No way. No how. Harry's business is his identity. 
If he fails at that then he has failed at being a man. And if he has failed at being a man then how can he possibly be a worthwhile husband and father? 
Harry will lie down and die before he lets Lucy work or sees pity in Lucy's eyes. 
When a rich man and his sexy mistress for the day Leona (Patricia Neal) hire Harry for a Mexican fishing trip Harry's convinced that his financial woes can be put off for a few weeks or longer. But as some rich people will tell you they didn't get rich or stay rich by giving money away. The man stiffs Harry on the payment. 
Harry is thus primed to listen to the sleazy lawyer Duncan (Wallace Ford). All Harry needs to do is help Duncan with a less than legal act. Harry will make enough money to get out of the hole, get up to date on loan payments, and maybe even buy Lucy some nicer clothes. 
Duncan claims to be Harry's friend you see. Well you know that when you start doing one wrong thing, it's hard to stop. There are more dangerous people behind Duncan. And they don't take kindly to people suddenly getting attacks of conscience.

Lucy and Wesley are the obvious angels on Harry's shoulders. Duncan and to a lesser extent Leona are the devils. 
Leona is turned on by Harry's blunt honest nature. Leona also takes it personally that Harry is faithful to his wife Lucy. Leona makes it her personal mission to seduce Harry, more because of her vanity than her desire. 
Leona can't tolerate the idea that any man would turn her down. Although this is of course a moral failing, Leona is not depicted as a totally bad woman. She's just looking for something like everyone else in the world. For her part Lucy is no shrew. She really is trying to do her best to support her husband and family.
I didn't think the black and white photography would work so well for a film that often is shot over water. There are a tremendous number of high crane shots interspersed with close ups. 
The overall impact mixes sadness and isolation with brief moments of humor and pathos. This is one of those movies where you might yell at someone on the screen not to do something which appears self-evidently stupid but when you think about it you later understand why the character behaved as he or she did.  All of the characters feel and look very real. The ending and final screen image will likely leave an impact upon the viewer.  

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