Michael Curtiz‘s adaptation of Ernest Hemingway‘s To Have And Have Not doesn’t have the sizzling chemistry or the iconic dialogue of the Howard Hawks version, and takes similar liberties with the source material, but is more faithful in tone, with Hemingway himself naming it the best adaptation of his work. This beautiful release from Criterion feels especially timely – the film’s social commentary and claustrophobic sense of hopelessness feel acutely relevant today.
John Garfield gives what he considered his finest performance as Harry Morgan, a struggling fisherman who makes his living taking rich businessmen out on fishing excursions. When one of them cheats him of his money and abandons his girlfriend (Patricia Neal), Morgan is forced to take an illegal job ferrying Chinese immigrants across the border in order to pay his bills, and he finds himself being drawn deeper and deeper into illicit activities, until he finds himself completely out of his depth.
Garfield is full of pathos and self-loathing as the everyman trying to support his family while stubbornly sticking with his dream, no matter how dirty his hands get in the process. An incredibly natural actor (see also his performance in Force Of Evil), he gives a beautifully understated performance, never losing sight of his characters humanity, even as he makes more and more questionable decisions.
Neal is also incredibly cool and self assured as the not-quite-a-femme-fatale, with a more ephemeral chemistry with Garfield than the sizzling Humphrey Bogart / Lauren Bacall relationship. Initially stand-offish (her delivery of “I don’t think I like you” is superb) she ultimately turns into a playful but platonic foil for Morgan, even if his wife (Phyllis Thaxter) doesn’t believe it. Thaxter herself is heart-wrenching as the wife who both loves her husband and is the one trying to convince him to keep his feet on solid ground. Despite his flirtation with Neal’s character, Morgan is very much in love with his wife, making for an interesting dynamic – it’s not Neal who threatens their marriage, but Morgan’s desperate attempts to make money.
Juano Hernandez is effortlessly likable as Morgan’s unfailingly decent partner, and the corrupt lawyer played by Wallace Ford serves as his more malign influence – the two essentially serve as the angel and demon on Morgan’s shoulders. Ford is especially impressive, managing the difficult task of being somehow both obsequious and smug, and yet still elicits sympathy in his final scene.
Curtiz was one of Hollywood’s most prolific filmmakers, but he’s often written off as being something of a journeyman director, which sells short his abilities as an artist. He’s quoted as saying that he tried to “put all the art into my pictures I think the audience can stand” and demonstrates this here, with impressive use of framing, deep focus and depth of field, that never draws attention to itself. In an insightful video essay included on this Criterion release, Tony Zhou shines a light on Curtiz’s fluid style and economic storytelling, both of which are on full display here.
One of the best showcases of Curtiz’s abilities is the thrilling climactic shootout on the boat, a frantic sequence confined to one cramped location, that remains coherent and thrilling throughout. If it seems familiar that’s because John Huston lifted it wholesale from Hemingway’s novel for the climax of his own Key Largo. While the shootout seems to rehabilitate Morgan’s heroic status, and sees him reconciled with his loving family, the quietly devastating final shot undercuts any sense that this is a happy ending – it’s potentially the bleakest, most heartbreaking coda of any film of it’s era.
A film that was released with no fanfare due to Garfield’s supposed communist affiliations and subsequent blacklisting (which almost certainly contributed to his premature death two years later) The Breaking Point is a taut, harsh film, brimming with fatalism, and one of the most criminally underseen film noirs of all time. A true hidden gem.
- New interview with film historian Alan K. Rode
- New featurette with Julie Garfield speaking about her father, John Garfield
- New video essay by filmmakers Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos.
- Excerpts from a 1962 episode of the Today show featuring the Ernest Hemingway House in Key West, Florida.