The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?” Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here. Enjoy!
After purchasing the rights to Ernest Hemingway’s 1937 novel To Have and Have Not from Howard Hughes (and later selling them to Warner Brothers, where he would make the film), director Howard Hawks bragged to Hemingway that he could film what he considered Ernie’s worst book (Hawks called the novel “a bunch of junk”) and make it work. Hawks was good as his word; the 1944 film that introduced the steamy star duo of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall (who would later tie the knot in real life) did very well at the box office, paving the way for future Bogie-Bacall vehicles including another successful collaboration between Hawks and the duo, The Big Sleep (1946).
As beloved as To Have and Have Not is among classic film fans, we tend to overlook the fact that the movie really isn’t all that faithful to Hemingway’s book (a few of the characters were retained, along with the first fifth of the novel)—it’s more Casablanca redux, with the added attraction of Bacall giving us instructions on how to whistle. The director of Casablanca, Michael Curtiz, gave moviegoers a better version of To Have and Have Not six years later, with actor John Garfield giving what may be his finest performance in his penultimate film: The Breaking Point (1950).
During WW2, Harry Morgan (Garfield) was a PT boat captain, but in peacetime he operates a charter boat, The Sea Queen, out of southern California to parties with an interest in fishing. Morgan and his partner, Wesley Park (Juano Hernandez), barely manage to keep afloat (pardon the pun) with their struggling business; Harry’s wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) has even been after him to get into another line of work. Harry and Wesley are scheduled to take a man named Hannagan (Ralph Dumke) down to Mexico for trawling, yet Morgan can’t even keep hold of Hannagan’s deposit, spending most of it for overdue bills and leaving Lucy with little to operate the household and care for their two daughters (Donna Jo Boyce, Sherry Jackson). “No sooner do I get my head above water than somebody pushes me down again!” a frustrated Harry exclaims.
On the trip to Mexico, Hannagan has brought along his girlfriend, an attractive woman named Leona Charles (Patricia Neal) who flirts with Harry despite knowing he’s married. The fishing is fine, but Hannagan loses a good deal of money on a cockfight in a cantina and hasn’t enough to pay what he owes Harry. Promising to settle up in the morning, Harry learns from Leona the next day that his client has taken a powder and left him in the lurch. Furthermore, Leona is dead broke and stranded as well. It looks as if the destitute trio are going to become permanent residents unless Morgan can scrape up the funds to head for home.
Against his better judgment, Morgan entertains a proposition from F.R. Duncan (Wallace Ford), a shifty lawyer who arranges for Harry to do business with a mysterious Mr. Sing (Victor Sen Yung). Sing wants Morgan to smuggle undocumented workers into California in exchange for a tidy sum, and Harry is desperate enough to agree to the offer. He gives some of his advance money to Wesley and Leona for bus tickets, not wanting to get them involved, but the pair sneak back onto the Sea Queen during Harry’s absence. The straightforward smuggling operation does not go according to plan, and the events that spiral out of control exacerbate Harry’s personal and financial troubles.
Ernest Hemingway wrote To Have and Have Not between 1935 and 1937, working on and revising the novel while shuttling back and forth from Spain during the Spanish Civil War. That conflict would have a conspicuous impact on both the finished book and Hemingway’s politics, and the Marxist flavor of the novel seeps heavily into the film adaptation of The Breaking Point, depicting a world where economic cruelties can influence a good man into pursuing criminal activity just to keep body and soul together.
Harry Morgan is that good man. He’s hard-working and ambitious, a faithful husband to his wife and a good father to his two daughters. His pursuit of the American Dream, however, is continually sidetracked by the uncomfortable reality that the system doesn’t always work to an individual’s benefit. Stranded in Mexico with two friends whose only transgression is they happened to be on the same boat chartered by a rich cheat who’s taken off for the tall grass, Harry succumbs to temptation and agrees to participate in an enterprise masterminded by a man (Morgan considers him a “crud”) for whom he has nothing but contempt. Though there are no rain-soaked streets or trench coats in Breaking Point, the movie is unquestionably noir, with its protagonist no longer in control of his destiny.
Adding to the contemporary feel of The Breaking Point is the relationship between Harry and Lucy Morgan, a couple very much in love. As previously stated, Harry’s fidelity to his wife is never in peril, but the two enjoy a loving association that implies a great deal of physicality (Lucy is always worried that one or both of their girls will catch them in the act of being frisky). The beauty of Ranald MacDougall’s adaptation of Hemingway’s work is that both the Lucy and Leona Charles characters are portrayed positively despite their rivalry over Harry. Patricia Neal, who would later be associated with earth mother roles like her Oscar-winning turn in Hud (1963), will turn more than a few viewers’ heads as the foxy Leona, and Phyllis Thaxter holds her own as the slightly dowdy Lucy, who’s more than willing to fight to keep her man (at one point in Breaking Point, she even dyes her hair blonde to emulate Leona’s coif).
What I’ve always admired about John Garfield’s acting is his ability to blend his tough guy persona with a charming vulnerability, and how his characters always display a keen intelligence more street smarts than that resulting from a long stint in the “halls of ivy.” Garfield’s Morgan is a man more than willing to admit he doesn’t have all the answers; he’s prone to make mistakes, yet motivated by an inner decency to do what’s necessary for the benefit of his family. The relationship between Morgan and Wesley Park will also please modern-day viewers in that the two men are presented as equals—Wesley is most assuredly not a stereotype, and is skillfully played by the great character actor Juano Hernandez (best known for his turn in 1949’s Intruder in the Dust, based on the William Faulkner novel).
There was a time when The Breaking Point was not accessible on home video. (In fact, the first time I watched the movie was on Cinemax as part of their “Not Available on Home Video” programming.) Its appearances on TCM eventually led to a Warner Archive release in 2011, but now Breaking Point has received the deluxe DVD/Blu-ray treatment from Criterion on August 8th. The 2K digital restoration is positively splendid, with bonus materials including a segment from John Garfield’s daughter Julie on her famous dad. Julie has noted that her father’s performance in The Breaking Point is one of her favorites, and I’d readily concur it’s an outstanding one (even though my favorite Garfield film remains 1948’s Force of Evil).
John Garfield was scheduled to ink a two-year contract with his former studio (Warners) after his own production company, Enterprise, failed to gain ground within the industry (the notion of a film star running his own company was anathema to the majors at the time). Breaking Point was the inaugural film in the deal, which went sour when the actor started to attract the notice of the House Un-American Activities Committee, convinced that Julie was a Communist (Garfield’s wife had been a party member, but he wasn’t). John would complete only one more movie—the underrated 1951 noir He Ran All the Way—before his untimely death in 1952, yet his cinematic legacy lives on, with The Breaking Point a most fitting capper.