Criterion Review: THE BREAKING POINT (1950)

Warner Brothers went back to the source for their second adaptation of “To Have And Have Not”

Throughout the 1940s and 50s, Hollywood just couldn’t get enough of Ernest Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not, in which a boat captain is forced to turn to smuggling (for varying financial or political reasons, depending on the adaptation). The first and most famous version in 1944 was a hit that ignited the legendary romance of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Directed by Howard Hawks, who didn’t like the book, it was rewritten drastically with Hemingway’s input, changing the setting, characters, and motivations into a passionate wartime love story, but decidedly unfaithful to the source material. 1948’s Key Largo, another Bogart-Bacall joint, didn’t set out the adapt the book, but borrowed its climax and Florida Keys setting.

Warner Brothers eventually warmed to the idea of a straight adaptation, which became The Breaking Point, with Michael Curtiz directing (and even that wasn’t the last time – Don Siegel’s The Gun Runners would follow from United Artists in 1958). It’s interesting that repeat collaborators Bogey and Curtiz would make different versions of the story, but not especially surprising considering both were top talents at Warners.

The Breaking Point features John Garfield as harried boatman Captain Harry Morgan, an honest family man who reluctantly turns to smuggling after a run of bad luck puts him in dire financial straits.

This coincides with his meeting and striking up a friendship with attractive client Leona Charles (Patricia Neal), who openly flirts with him and tries to lure him into an affair. He staunchly refuses, but the tension nevertheless puts a strain on his relationship with his wife. Meanwhile, Harry’s jobs become riskier as he gets coerced into more illicit activity with dangerous and untrustworthy criminals.

Key to The Breaking Point’s theme is the nature of corruption: moral breakdown can’t be compartmentalized. Harry’s willingness to engage in criminal activities, even out of necessity, affects other areas of his life. “Normal” Harry is an upstanding model citizen, but once he lets his guard down, it gives way to other vices: drunkenness, rudeness and anger, violence, and even giving a foothold to the temptation to cheat on his wife and put his family at risk.

The film functions mostly as a drama and morality fable, but it also delivers on an thrilling maritime sequence in which the disgraced captain finally realizes he’s in too deep.

The Package

The Breaking Point makes its Blu-ray debut this week in a new Criterion Collection featuring a 2K restoration and several extras. The package features standard Criterion clear-case and a fold-out booklet with writing by Stephanie Zacharek.

The picture quality is rich and elegant. The film occasionally has close-ups with striking detail like the one below, but such shots are uncommon — the overall look has a softer focus.

Special Features and Extras

Fluid Style: Michael Curtiz and The Breaking Point (9:59)
A really wonderful little featurette that analyzes Curtiz’s filmmaking, including a very informative breakdown of a scene, pointing out how information is relayed and introduced through subtext and visuals.

Helming a Masterpiece: Alan K. Rode on The Breaking Point (21:16)

Informative mini-doc that explores the director and stars, but most importantly describes how both John Garfield and the film suffered political persecution, and are worthy of modern critical reanalysis.

The Greatest Passion: Julie Garfield on John Garfield (16:41)

The actor’s daughter offers her commentary on her father’s story, and specifically his work on The Breaking Point. As with the prior featurette, the most interesting and tragic discussion centers around the red-scare persecution which ended his career and effectively his life as well.

Hemingway House “Today” Episode Excerpt (4:51)

Vintage TV snippet exploring some of Ernest Hemingway’s personal correspondences relating to To Have And Have Not.

Trailer (2:17)

A/V Out.

Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have slight compression inherent to file formats. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.

Get it at Amazon:
The Breaking Point- [Blu-ray] | [DVD]

Further Reading:

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