Directed by Michael Curtiz, The Breaking Point stars John Garfield as Harry Morgan, a sport-fishing boat captain who’s taken to smuggling black-market cargo between Mexico and California because his business is on the skids. He’s got a family to provide for and takes the risk to keep up payments on his boat, which he needs for his business. The sleazy lawyer who gets him involved in the scheme is played by Wallace Ford, while Patricia Neal is the seductress/femme fatale pursuing the happily married captain.
The Breaking Point was based on Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, which just six years earlier had been subjected to a not very faithful (but quite successful) Howard Hawks adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. That film was actually reedited to beef up the romance on screen between the two.
It’s a solid film gris with a left-wing take on the perils of capitalism. One of the points of interest is that the ending could mean the story will go either way for Garfield’s character—you are left unsure. Garfield, who was the de Niro or Pacino of his era, puts in a really strong performance.
Curtiz was the guy who actually discovered Garfield, who would go on to do only one more film, He Ran All the Way, before his early death. Curtiz worked all over the place, so never really quite gets his due. Originally from Austria, he was associated for many years with Warner Bros. Curtiz also directed Casablanca and The Sea Wolf, so there’s some great cinematography. There are a lot of location shots and scenes filmed on the sea. Ted D. McCord was behind the camera, having previously shot Treasure of the Sierra Madre and many more after a start in the silent era. McCord also shot Young Man with a Horn for Curtiz the same year.
The film seems to have been quite influential. It was one of Sam Peckinpah’s favourites, for example. Incidentally, for a film of its time featuring a Black character, a family friend, who is treated respectfully.
The screenplay was by Ranald MacDougal, who also wrote Mildred Pierce, another collaboration with Curtiz—they worked together on almost all of his noirish stuff. His other scripts include the science fiction film The World, The Flesh and The Devil, We’re No Angels and Cleopatra.
Both adaptations are worth seeing, but while the Hawks version is best for the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall (who met on set), this one is the more satisfying watch. It’s not my favourite Curtiz film by any stretch, but it’s rock-solid filmmaking all the way round.
Garfield was not super-political but his wife was, leaving him open to accusations in the McCarthy era. He refused to testify before HUAC, leading to this being Garfield’s final Warner Bros film. The studio also didn’t do any promotion for it, leading to the movie falling into obscurity for a few decades, despite some good reviews. Of the studio heads, Jack Warner was the most paranoid about Communists and so did his best to bury it. It has since been rediscovered and is now seen as one of the best noirs to come out of that period.
Allegedly it was Garfield’s own favourite amongst the films he made, and Martin Scorsese was behind its restoration so is obviously also a fan. According to Patricia Neal, Hemingway himself told him that it was his favourite amongst films made from his work. Hemingway also reported said the 1946 version of The Killers also his favourite.
The Criterion release is a 2K digital restoration, and is accompanied by a new interview with Curtiz biographer Alan K. Rode; a piece on Garfield by his daughter, actor and acting instructor Julie Garfield; a video essay on Curtiz’s filmmaking methods by Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou; excepts from a 1962 episode of the Today show on Ernest Hemingway’s Key West home that includes items related to the source novel, and the trailer, plus an essay on the film by film critic Stephanie Zacharek.