Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The Breaking Point (1950)

Directed by Michael Curtis; produced by Jerry Wald

A navy veteran (John Garfield), running a boat-charter company, finds himself in ever-deepening financial waters. Business is slow, too slow to allow him to keep up the payments on his boat, and even household expenses are proving a strain on his bank balance. Tempted by the promise of a swift return on his investment, he agrees - against his morals and reasoning - to co-operate in a human-trafficking scheme, which of course is just the beginning of his troubles.

This is the second of three cinematic adaptations of Ernest Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not, this one and the first (a Humphrey Bogart movie released under the story’s title) being so different in plot and characters as to be unrecognizable as coming from the same source. (I experienced the this phenomenon again watching different versions of films purportedly coming from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, each film being very distinct in plot.) The Bogart film is more actionful and, simply put, more fun. Garfield’s version is more dramatic and realistic.

Interestingly, I could see Bogart filling this role, too, though Garfield is a bit more domesticated than Bogart’s characters usually are. Garfield’s home life is a normal one, with a wife (Phyllis Thaxter) and two daughters. His relationship with his employee is a friendly one.

His actions and motivations are likewise reasonable: becoming involved in crime may not be something all of us would do, but, under the right circumstances, many of us would at least consider it. The protagonist's unease through the entire operation - and afterward - is convincing. The viewer understands that this is a decent man who just wants to do his job, something he normally enjoys, and live a comfortable life with his family.

A second complication in Garfield’s life is a femme fatale (Patricia Neal). This character was the least satisfactory element in the story, and really need not have been in it at all. Neal gave a very good performance, but seemed almost an artificial problem, thrown in to cause marital strife. Though we suspect the movie will not end well for Garfield, we are nonetheless in suspense over how badly he will fare and how he will minimise the damage of his decisions. There is no such tension with regard to his relationship with Neal.

The Breaking Point is a good movie about an ordinary man driven to desperate measures and trying to deal with them in a manner with which many of us could sympathise. Garfield, who may have been seen early on by studio bosses as a mere handsome face, became more than that during his relatively short career. His countenance here is a bit weathered, and his build has the extra pounds one naturally gains as one ages (though he does look rather older than his 37 years; his heart was never robust, and probably aged him somewhat.) He carries the film, and is its centre. Good drama, decent suspense and an ending that is not quite free of uncertainty (and with a heart-breaking final image), make The Breaking Point a worthy viewing experience.

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