You can't talk about the underrated film noir, The Breaking Point without talking about the first attempt at making the Hemingway novel a film, To Have and Have Not.
In preparations for this weeks Noir of the Week, I watched four of the movies supposedly based on the novel– considered unfilmable by the author. Michael Curtiz-directed The Breaking Point being the best of the bunch.
Bogart and Bacall in 1944's To Have and Have Not. Their first pairing is movie history, and watching it again is a nice experience. Chemistry between leads is a rare thing and they had it and then some. It's Casablanca in Martinique. It's directed by Howard Hawks. The screen play is by William Faulkner, but it's clear much of the dialog is improvised. I don't remember much from the book but I think it's safe to say that the movie had nearly nothing to do with the novel except the main character is called Harry Morgan and there's fishing boats involved.
Bogart is a tough-as-nails guy that owns a fishing boat he works with Eddie. When Bogie isn't on his boat he's hanging around a Hotel lobby/bar that's filled with seedy characters yet seems exotic and glamorous. Hoagy Carmichael (not to be confused with Sam in Rick's Cafe Americain) does music routines with a wooden matchstick in his teeth. Walter Brennan's Eddie is a drunk comic character you're never sure will spill the beans or forget some of his boss' shady activities. His “Have you ever been bit by a dead bee?” line is almost as memorable as Bacall teaching Bogart how to whistle.
I'm not going to say I didn't enjoy revisiting the film again (I did), but after a strong start I only just realized the film doesn't seem to know where it's going about a third of the way through. The ending is probably the worst. The shootout at the end of Key Largo – if Internet rumors are true– was originally supposed to be used for the end of To Have and Have Not. Instead To Have and Have Not ends about as abruptly as any classic movie I've seen.
Less than a decade later, the story was used again for The Breaking Point with John Garfield and Patricia Neal. The story's moved to California. The location isn't the only thing changed. Gone is the the Warner Bros glossy look, Nazis, the French Resistance, and exotic hotels of To Have and Have Not. The film is gritty. The characters – including a excellent performance by Phyllis Thaxter as the boat captain's wife-- all seem to be struggling with life. Garfield (the former war hero fisherman), Patricia Neal (the home wrecker), and Thaxter (concerned housewife) all struggle with the reality of their situations. Their lives didn't live up to their dreams and they're desperate to make a change. Garfield plays the right age (I think some of his last films he seemed at least 10-years too old for the parts) and even seemed to have gained some weight for the role.
If the financial and personal struggles of a fishing boat owner don't live up to your idea of “film noir”, Garfield (as Harry Morgan) becomes part of a heist. Morgan's sold on the plan only because he's desperate for cash. Sweaty, shifty lawyer F.R. Duncan (played by Wallace Ford) sells him on the idea only when Morgan finds he can't make it any other way.
Patricia Neal is Leona Charles. She's the good-time girl trying to wise up. In To Have and Have Not, I suppose would have been the part played by Dolores Moran. Moran had nearly nothing to do in To Have and Have Not but look good (and she does). I've never found Neal all that attractive but she does have this flirty charm in The Breaking Point that no doubt could hook any man. And she nearly does reel in Morgan.
Morgan's wife is so jealous of her, she dyes her hair blonde and gets it cut in the same style as Leona. When she reveals her new haircut to her husband it's hard to watch. Harry tries to not be upset, she's trying to not look desperate. The film has lots of moments like that.
Juano Hernandez shines in his small part. Hernandez is, as Bosley Crowther writing in the New York Times, “quietly magnificent as Harry Morgan's helper and friend.” Gone is the fun role played by Brennan. Hernandez is sober and the heart of the film, it turns out, in the end.
Film historian Alan Rode commented on the film for a recent screening in L.A. The following is clipped from the outstanding L.A. Times article:“I think it is the best adaptation of any of Hemingway’s works,”said film noir historian Alan K. Rode. “In fact, Hemingway told Patricia Neal, who was in the movie, that this was [his favorite] movie made of any of his books.”
“The Breaking Point,” said Rode, was the brainchild of writer Ranald MacDougall, who sold the idea of doing a more faithful adaptation of Hemingway's book to Warner Bros.’ producer Jerry Wald. The project also served as the return of actor John Garfield to Warner Bros. Garfield had become a star at Warner Bros. in 1938 with “Four Daughters” and was one of the studio’s top talents until he left to form his own production company, which made one hit film, the 1947 classic boxing drama, “Body and Soul.” But his career was treading water after that. “The Breaking Point” was to be his first film of a two-picture deal with the studio. And Oscar winner Michael Curtiz of “Casablanca” fame,who had directed Garfield in “Four Daughters” and other films,came on board.
“The Breaking Point,” said Rode, was the brainchild of writer Ranald MacDougall, who sold the idea of doing a more faithful adaptation of Hemingway's book to Warner Bros.’ producer Jerry Wald. The project also served as the return of actor John Garfield to Warner Bros.
Garfield had become a star at Warner Bros. in 1938 with “Four Daughters” and was one of the studio’s top talents until he left to form his own production company, which made one hit film, the 1947 classic boxing drama, “Body and Soul.” But his career was treading water after that.
Warner Bros. planned to give “The Breaking Point” a huge buildup leading to its release in early October. But during the summer of that year, “Red Channels,” a pamphlet that named actors, writers,musicians, broadcast journalists and others who were considered Communist or had Communist leanings or knew “subversives,” came out.
Though he was not political, Garfield’s wife was, and his name was on the list.
"All the movie moguls were scared, and none were more scared ...of the hysterical atmosphere of anti-communism than Jack L. Warner," noted Rode. "He completely pulled the plug on the movie and put almost no money into promotion. The picture was released, got good reviews and it was absolutely buried. Garfield’s contract for another picture was canceled by Jack Warner.”
Garfield would make one more picture, 1951’s “He Ran All the Way,” before he died of a heart attack in 1952 at the age of 39.
Only recently has the movie been shown on TCM and become available on DVD. Hopefully the film's revival will continue and it becomes more well known. It's so good.
Now the rest.
The Gun Runners was released eight years after The Breaking Point. It's a strange one. The film's a combination of both To Have and Have Not and The Breaking Point. Dialog and small scenes are actually lifted from both. Real-life war hero Audie Murphy plays the boat captain this time. His acting skills are nearly non-existent. He's surrounded by 50's-pinup models playing his wife and the femme fatale, and Everett Sloane reviving the Walter Brennan-bit. The film– directed by Don Siegel – actually works just fine if you can get past the lead actor. Eddie Albert, Jack Elam and John Qualen are strong in this B-movie that now takes place in the Florida Keys!
Wetbacks (1956). Starring Lloyd Bridges, Nancy Gates, Barton MacLane, and John Hoyt. It's more of a rip off of To Have and Have Not and The Breaking Point than an actual remake. The film takes on a semi-documentary feel and, despite the title – is more about the folks illegally helping Mexicans get into the country then actually having anything bad to say about Mexican immigrants. Whatever. It's a loud messy film. With a title like that I doubt we'll ever see the film restored anytime soon. Not a huge loss.
The Breaking Point wins for best version (but To Have and Have Not is great in its own way, but a feeble swing at Hemingway). The Breaking Point -lean and hungry -- is a film that's hard to watch (watching a guy struggle with his profession, his marriage, financial troubles may not be your idea of movie escapism) but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be. The ending – while To Have and Have Not doesn't really have one – is fantastic.