Toronto Film Society presented The Breaking Point (1950) on Monday, February 25, 1974 in a double bill with Force of Evil. as part of the Season 26 Monday Evening Film Buff Series, Programme 4.
Director: Michael Curtiz. Producer: Jerry Wald. Production Company: Warner Brothers. Script: Ranald MacDougall, based on Ernest Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not”. Photography: Ted McCord. Editor: Alan Crosland Jr. Art Director: Edward Carrere. Music: Ray Heindorf.
Cast: John Garfield (Harry Morgan), Patricia Neal (Leona Charles), Phyllis Thaxter (Lucy Morgan), Juano Hernandez (Wesley Park), Wallace Ford (Duncan), Edmond Ryan (Rogers), Ralph Dumke (Hannagan), Guy Thomajan (Danny).
John Garfield was a strong, sympathetic actor too often rapped in ordinary films. Pauline Kael lists him as “one of the folk heroes who really strikes a nerve, loners, like Bogart and Brando; men whose intensity on the screen stirs an intense reaction in the audience”. Born in New York City in 1913, he worked with several acting groups, including the Group Theatre, before Warner Brothers signed him in 1938. The titles of two of his early films give an idea of the sort of role he was called upon to play for WB–They Made Me A Criminal and Dust Be My Destiny: it was he who was made a criminal, he who was searching for destiny. He considered he was either given the Cagney and Bogart rejects, or stuck behind the eight-ball in the same old tough social-conscious melodramas. When he left WB and formed his own production company, it was obvious that an enormous talent had been obscured; behind his vigour and pugnaciousness there was a real sensitivity. His choice of roles–maltreated and bitter delinquent, duped boxer, honorable gangster, articulate slum dweller–now reflected his strong socialistic views. He made the two films generally considered his best, Body and Soul and Force of Evil, with his own company and returned to WB to make The Breaking Point. Garfield’s performance in this film (‘Am man alone ain’t got no chance’) was exceptionally true and he considered it “the best thing I’ve done since Body and Soul. It’s better than that”. Because of suspected left-wing sympathies, he found it difficult to find work in Hollywood in the McCarthy era. His death of a heart attack in 1952 at only 39 left an irreplaceable gap in American films; his type of actor, an idealistic everyman, is too seldom mseen on today’s screen
Ernest Hemingway’s novel ‘To Have and Have Not’ has been filmed two and half times. Howard Hawks used little more than the original title and isolated sequences while John Huston grafted the novel’s climax onto Key Largo. Curtiz’s The Breaking Point is perhaps the most successful adaption, though the Key West locale has been switched to California and a different female part added by screenwriter Ranald MacDougall, Hemingway’s terse sentences, his constant use of repetition, his hectic punctuation–all of these give his style a quality which is an inseparable part of what he writes. The picture contains scenes that manage to achieve visual effects comparable to the verbal ones produced by his prose; Curtiz has made even slambang action realistic and the underplayed scenes tense. The Breaking Point has been all too little appreciated. It digs into human motives and makes real life problems exciting.
Inescapably one of the best directors ever to emerge in the cinema, Michael Curtiz, who directed in six European countries before coming to America, was a victim of the studio system. The talent that might have produced masterpieces if left to mature was cast and hardened by WB’s ruthless insistence on pace and production. But Curtiz’s films have a ferocity about them which suggests he refused to allow the material he was given to dominate him. The sheer quantity of his output (over 150 films) and the range which he encompassed successfully, outwit any attempt to illustrate his work by means of analysis as an auteur. He worked in nearly every genre but there is no consistent development of ideas or themes. His masterpiece, Casablanca, has become a cult movie, it’s “Blue Parrot” Café (also “Mildred’s” from his Mildred Pierce) popping up on university campuses to this day. Yet it is one cult movie that richly deserves its reputation. Put across with fabulous technique, the exotic setting brings out the virtuoso in Curtiz, whose highly individual low-key camera style has seldom been more excitingly shown off. Among his other memorable films are The Charge of the Light Brigade and The Mystery of the Wax Museum.
Notes compiled by Aideen Whitten
Sources: The Hollywood Professionals, The Great Movie Stars, Film in Revue – April 1959, Hollywood in the Thirties