A couple of things brought this 1950 movie to mind before it popped up on “Sunday Night Noir” a few days ago.
The first was Jeff Bezos over-paying for MGM and its vast library. “Intellectual property” rights used to be more valuable than they are today, and there’s no reason why the chance to remake, spin off and otherwise mine any legacy studio’s back catalog couldn’t make that MGM deal pay off in ways other than the TV rights and James Bond spinoff possibilities (Amazon series on the early days of M, Q and/or Moneypenny?) we’ve heard mentioned.
“The Breaking Point” was the second version of Ernest Hemingway’s “To Have and Have Not.” There were three films based on that plot and characters from 1944, 1950 and 1958. Warners bought the rights from Hemingway and made damned sure they got their money’s worth.
Another reason “Breaking Point” was on my mind was in a shortcoming in the recent PBS “American Masters” on Ernest Hemingway. The series did next to nothing on Hemingway’s extensive dealings with Hollywood. Sixty years after his death and the movies and TV are still tackling his books and short stories, making and remaking them. And while he was happy to take the studios’ money during his lifetime, he griped constantly about what “they did” to his books.
The writing was watered down, censored — the violence, sex and sexual situations always sanitized for America’s protection.
One person he griped about this to was his fishing buddy, the man’s man action director Howard Hawks. A famous anecdote has the bluff Hawks (“Red River,” “Rio Bravo”) shutting “Papa” up with “I could make a fine film out of the worst thing you ever wrote.”
Hemingway was insulted, taken aback, and curious. “Which book is that?”
“That piece-of-s— ‘To Have and Have Not,'” Hawks growled. And thus was the first film made, thus did Bogie meet Bacall, as Hawks, the screenwriter and the studio turned a gritty, down-and-dirty novel into a dark and playful “Casablanca” in the WWII Caribbean. They ennobled the characters and the novel in ways that must have made Hemingway cringe.
When Warner Brothers tried to get a second film out of the book, Michael Curtiz & Co. kept a lot more of the sordid stuff, the amorality and racism in turning “To Have and Have Not” into “The Breaking Point,” a John Garfield vehicle about a down-on-his-luck charter boat captain getting mixed up in people smuggling into and out of Mexico.
This time his ethics are a lot greyer, his motives more desperate. Bogie looked more inconvenienced than in a panic over losing his boat, his dream and his livelihood. Garfield lets us see Harry Morgan sweat.
The “love interest” goes back to being a real femme fatale here, with Patricia Neal carrying a lot more baggage and forbidden allure than the gorgeous but younger Betty Bacall managed. We can believe Neal makes her way with her looks and sex and has slept her way into and out of more than one jam.
“I live in Number Seven. My friends just kick the door open.”
Morgan’s character is married, with responsibilities and a righteous, beatified wife (Phyllis Thaxter) whom he struggles to stay faithful to. Neal’s Leona Charles does not make that easy.
“Ya know, one of these days you’re gonna get your arm broke reachin’ for something that don’t belong to ya.”
The people smuggling involves dealings with Chinese crooks (Victor Sen Yung chief among them) to get Chinese refugees of uncertain criminal connection into the country, something Harry has no qualms about, but chickens out of doing when he’s double-crossed.
He doesn’t dwell on the violence or criminality he engages in to save his indebted boat, doesn’t shy away from taking meetings with a mob go-between (Wallace Ford). But he’s still looking out for his trusting, protective deck hand (Juano Hernandez here, less “cute” than the Walter Brennan version in the 1944 film).
“To Have and Have Not” was light and funny, with Bacall playing at being the woman of experience keeping Bogart on his heels, Hoagie Carmichael tickling the ivories as she sang (Neal also sings) and Brennan playing “colorful” to the max.
“The Breaking Point” has similarly sharp dialogue, but without the cute. “Breaking Point” is also plainly much more of a film noir take on the novel, which suits, considering Hemingway’s “The Killers” place as an oft-remade, morally ambiguous story firmly anchored in noir tropes and conventions.
In 1958, a third version of the novel, “The Gun Runners,” was filmed, just as desperate and violent, but simplistic and built around Audie Murphy. He was a decorated war hero and legendary figure to “The Greatest Generation,” but a cherubic, baby-voiced mediocrity on the screen. He had a long career in action and Westerns, with only his WWII autobiography “To Hell and Back” and John Huston’s “The Red Badge of Courage” standing out as watchable.
“The Breaking Point” holds up and reminds us of how Garfield always made “tough” guys conflicted, damaged and uncertain of their choices. And who can forget how Neal was earthy Southern “sex” and “sin” incarnate on the screen.
The film’s not great Hemingway. Few films based on his work are. It’s still pretty damned good. And it’s as close to this novel as we’re likely to ever get in an adaptation, no matter who owns the remake rights, now. An
MPA Rating: unrated, violence, infidelity, smoking, alcohol
Cast: John Garfield, Patricia Neal, Juano Hernandez, Phyllis Thaxter. Victor Sen Yung, Wallace Ford
Credits: Directed by Michael Curtiz, script by Ranald MacDougall, based on the novel “To
Have and Have Not” by Ernest Hemingway. A Warner Brothers release.
Running time: 1:37