Friday, April 6, 2018

The Breaking Point (1950)

"A man alone ain't got no chance."
Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not has been filmed several times, most notably as eponymous movie with Bogart and Bacall. Howard Hawks had bought the film rights to the book and bet Hemingway that he could make a good movie out of his “bunch of junk” novel. He scrapped pretty much everything in the book except the title, a main character called Harry Morgan and a couple of fishing boats. The resulting movie had next to nothing to do with the source material. It was a patriotic rewrite and turned a Depression-era tale with strong Socialist undertones into a patriotic wartime thriller and a romantic glamorous adventure story. It’s mostly concerned with the sexual sparks between Bogart and Bacall. The tone of bitter disillusionment that fuels the novel is completely absent.

Hawks and his fun spin on the book notwithstanding, The Breaking Point is the better film. It's an almost straight adaptation of the novel. A few plot points have been changed, but the desperate core of Hemingway’s original is kept intact. Moved to present day (50s era) California, the film is now a story about post-war disillusionment, not Depression-era hardship. Point is about real people with real problems, living in a gritty desperate world. 
All the characters struggle with their lives. They’ve all taken heavy batterings. Their lives didn't live up to their dreams and they're desperate to make a change. 

Down-on-his-luck Harry Morgan (John Garfield) is a charter fishing boat captain who can barely keep his head above the water financially taking on fishing charters. He just about manages to make enough money to support his wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) and their two children, and has trouble keeping up the payments on his boat. Lucy continually begs him to give up the boat business and manage her father’s lettuce farm. 

Harry - together with his first mate Wesley Park (Juano Hernandez) - gets a charter to carry aging playboy Hannagan and his sexy mistress Leona (Patricia Neal) to Mexico, but once there Hanagan gambles his money away, skips town and stiffs Harry who’s now stranded. On top of that Harry is saddled with Leona who’s taken a shine to him. Down to his last buck, he makes a deal with sleazy shyster lawyer F.R. Duncan (a brilliant Wallace Ford in a supporting role) to smuggle a bunch of Chinese illegal immigrants into California. The deal goes south and ends in the death of Mr. Sing, the human smuggler. When Harry comes back home, the Coast Guard has already got a whiff of his illegal shenanigans and impounds his boat. Duncan bails him out and - as he can’t keep up the payments on his boat - he then agrees to do an even dodgier job for him, being the “getaway driver” for a gang of race track robbers. Now he’s in way over his head. Wesley is callously gunned down by the gangsters before they force Harry to help them escape to a nearby island.

The great John Garfield is the classic anguished Noir hero whose life spirals down the drain when he’s caught in a web outside his control. Harry is as an essentially good man who wants to live an honest life but struggles with his job, his marriage and his financial responsibilities. He’s a hard worker but still doesn’t get ahead. 

The driving force of Noir stories is often the urge to escape. From the past, from the law, from social constraints, from poverty or from oneself. We don't find that here. In contrast to other Noir heroes, Harry doesn’t want to break free of his obligations. He’s happily married and wants to do the right thing, it’s just that he’s forced by impending financial disaster into some dodgy business dealings. Out of devotion to his family - something seldom found in Noir -  he makes bad decisions. He’s hounded by creditors, cheated by a client and egged on into shady schemes by Duncan until he reaches his breaking Point and sees no way out. Fighting the good fight is wrought with futility.

Harry represents the thousands of returning servicemen who didn't fit into the postwar prosperity bubble. “Ever since I took that uniform off, I’m not exactly great.” There’s a whole world of postwar disillusionment is in that one throwaway line.

After the War Harry’s plan had been to be the owner of a whole fleet of fishing boats. That was his American Dream. Like many servicemen, he came home from the War to pick up where he had left off but had to realize the country had moved on and all he got was a pat on the back and the thanks of a Grateful Nation. Now the former PT boat captain and war hero has to contend with harsh realities and dashed dreams. He can’t make a go of life and he’s not 8 feet tall as he once thought.
His wife reminds him that providing for his family is the greatest war he ever fought to which he replies: “It’s war all right and I’m scared.” He feels trapped, not because he doesn’t love his family but because he loves them so much. He doesn’t want to fail them.

Harry’s entire identity and sense of self-worth is inextricably linked with his fishing boat. Only out on the sea does he feel in control of his life and fate. 
“You know how it is, early in the morning, on the water? Everything’s quiet…a long way off. And you feel great. But then you come ashore, and it starts. In no time at all, you’re up to your ears in trouble, and you don’t know where it all began.”
This is every Noir sucker’s perpetual signature tune.

Lucy doesn’t understand that his sense of self-worth is the reason he can’t take the job on the lettuce farm. It would mean spiritual defeat. It would mean he doesn’t cut it as a man and provider. It would mean giving up on his American Dream.

So he morally compromises. And once he starts down that road we all know that he has got to ride that trolley all the way to the end of the line and the last stop is the cemetery. He doesn’t even realize he’s pushing himself to the point of no return until it is too late.

It’s interesting to note that Harry’s willingness to engage in criminal activities, even out of necessity and “just this once”, affects other areas of his life. Once the denial mechanism has been disabled the flood gates open, and he gives in to drink, anger and (almost) cheating. Thus is the nature of corruption. It can’t be compartmentalized.

But it must be stressed that it is not fate that trips Harry up but his own poor choices. Twice he lets Duncan lure him into shady deals although he knows what kind of guy he is. And more than that, twice he doesn’t insist on the payment from his clients beforehand. His trouble could easily have been avoided had Harry demanded his money especially from Hannagan right away instead of waiting a few days. 

With Garfield, so often the story of his life and the story of his movie intertwine. Garfield was an inwardly sensitive man, full of inner turmoil. A precursor to the angry young men of the 50s and 60s, he was rebellious and alienated and his life spiraled out of control until he too reached his breaking point. Garfield was a real-life Noir hero. 
Garfield had been a big star in the early 40s, but his career was basically over in 1950. HUAC had opened hearings concerning Communist infiltration of the entertainment industry and Garfield had been named in the publication Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television as a Communist sympathizer. It was actually his wife who had ties to the Communist Party at some time, but it didn’t matter. He was in hot water with HUAC anyway. He supported liberal causes, had shown his support for the Hollywood Ten and refused to name names before the Committee. When the smoke had finally cleared, his career was effectively ended. Garfield was blacklisted and Warner Bros. was now reluctant to advertise The Breaking Point with his name attached. The movie was quietly buried and fell into undeserved obscurity for 50 years. 
Without his art Garfield was nothing and - most likely due to a combination of stress and a weak heart -  died of a heart attack at age 39.

The picture has an incredibly strong cast of actors down to the smallest role.
Phyllis Thaxter is perfect as Lucy, Morgan’s plain long-suffering and faithful wife who’s fighting to keep their marriage together. If this sounds like a thankless and cliched role, it isn’t at all. In Point we get to see something that goes against what we usually see in Noir: a happy home life. Harry’s and Lucy’s marriage is portrayed with real warmth, they truly care about each other. She is his anchor. There is a genuine love and respect between husband and wife. And there’s something more: a tremendous sexual attraction. They are passionate lovers and friends. Lucy is not a prudish, frigid and shrewish wife that’s just waiting to be cheated on. She fights for her man and does everything to emotionally support him. When Harry can’t find work, she takes a job sewing during all hours of the night to earn some extra dollars.

It was Garfield who insisted that the relationship between husband and wife was a strong focus in the story, as it mirrored very closely Garfield’s own marriage to his wife Robbe.
Morgan is nevertheless tempted by Leona, and of course Lucy gets jealous. Out of sheer desperation, she dyes her hair blonde and gets it cut in the same style as Leona, so she can lure her husband back from the glamorous temptress. It’s a heart-breaking scene that’s hard to watch. She’s insecure but Harry really doesn’t want her to be like Leona. He wants her to be Lucy.

In sharp contrast with Lucy there’s drifter and world-weary good-time girl Leona Charles. Neal - sporting an unfortunate hairstyle - comes perilously close to parody, she comes on so strong. She’s outrageously playful, sultry, provocative and bold. She’s one determined dame who does everything to lure Morgan into an affair and nearly succeeds. She survives solely on sex appeal, and she’s quite aware of it. She isn’t quite as cynical as she wants the world to believe. When Harry rejects her advances in the end she’s crushed because her desirability is in doubt. Which is all she has to offer and at some time it will fade.
But for all that there is an underlying emotional bond between the two because they’re kindred spirits. Neither is in control of their lives. It's not her though who brings about Harry's downfall, that is entirely of his own making.

Then we have memorable shyster, hustler and small-time crook Duncan. Popping up like a bad penny and oozing slime from every pore, he continually tempts Morgan with criminal "opportunities" to get himself in the clear. He’s always eager to compromise Harry for his own profit, exploiting him in his weakest moments and dishing out really bad advice about criminal activities: “Don’t fight it! Relax, let it happen!” 
But in the end he can’t take his own advice, he becomes “all unglued”. He understands the race track heist is way out of the league of a little crook like him, and he panics. He simply can’t relax and let it happen and catches a couple of bullets for his efforts.

And last, but certainly not least, there is Wesley Park (Juano Hernandez), Morgan’s trusted and faithful side-kick, helper and friend, a man of natural dignity who just happens to be black. He is the heart of the film and the conscience of the story. He never asks any questions and would go to hell and back for Harry. Their friendship is a very rare and matter-of-fact treatment of race for the era, simply because race is never an issue -- not even a subtext. The fact that Wesley is black is never emphasized. 
He’s a man with a functioning moral compass and understands the consequences of getting mixed up in a shady deals much better than Harry does. He stoically and stubbornly tries to steer Harry back on the path of righteousness, but his voice is a voice in the wilderness. For his loyalty he has to pay the ultimate price in the end. His utterly callous and casually dismissive murder by the gangsters is one of the most shocking scenes in the film.

In revenge Harry kills all four gangsters but gets seriously wounded himself. The Coast Guard comes to the rescue and a big crowd gathers when his boat comes back into the harbor.

In the end Harry barely survives and must have an arm amputated. He’d rather die than live without his arm, but Lucy convinces him to live, for himself and his family. His survival could be called a copout, a studio-imposed happy ending that blows to bits the relentlessly downward tone of the pictures. It isn’t that though as it simply affirms Harry’s occasional ramblings during the film: "A man alone ain't got no chance”. He needs friends and family. Accepting help brings him closer to spiritual healing. It’s an admission and acceptance that he can’t solve his problems alone. His carelessness already cost Wesley his life, there’s no use in him dying too.

For most films this scene would have been the ending. Not so here. The picture has just one last devastating surprise in store for the viewer. It hits the audience like an extra-heavy ton of bricks and is one of the bleakest images I’ve seen in any classic film.

Wesley’s little son Joseph comes to the pier to wait for his father who we know will never come back. He stands completely alone there, separated from the crowds, thoroughly ignored, despairing, while everyone gathers around Lucy and her children. No one offers to tell him what has happened. He’s left to discover the fate of his father alone.
It’s an utterly haunting final image. This is the only statement about race in the movie and for a 1950s film it is quite a bold one. It seems as if Wesley’s death was of no consequence to anybody and is just simply callously ignored. 

Most of all, the closing shot is a poignant reminder that the actions of one person have drastic consequences for others. Wesley’s death is Harry’s fault. Somebody else -  who deserves none of the suffering - has to pay the price for his stupidity. Joseph has to grow up without a father. 

The scene completely drowns out the “happy ending” between Harry and Lucy and is true Noir.


  1. Well this is odd. I could have sworn I left a comment. It's not like me to pass up a chance to talk about The Breaking Point with another fan.

    I never quite could warm up to To Have and Have Not despite the pleasant presence of Bogie and Bacall. If a movie doesn't work for you, it doesn't work. Everything about The Breaking Point works and we are lucky to have it.

    1. Hi Pat, sorry for the late reply, I was out traveling.

      I'm a fan of To Have and Have Not, but no doubt it does't have much more in common with Hemingway than the title.

  2. Excellent review. I've been intrigued by this one for a good while now after hearing good things about it. I love To Have and Have Not and really want to see this version to compare the two films. John Garfield was such a good actor and I look forward to being able to check out his performance in this one.

  3. There is nothing about this movie that works other than the protagonist's self pity, which makes him a man to despise. Harry is certainly not the hero, or a hero, in any way, making one mistake after another, compounded by poor personal judgment. We are supposed to pity him, when he needs good kick in the ass and a job. Hawks made Hemingway's lousy novel into a fun and sexy adventure; sort of Casablanca light. Hurray for Howard.

    1. I love To Have and Have Not but this is really a different picture. I think The Breaking Point works just fine.

      You are certainly right when you say that Harry has poor personal judgement. That's what I said too, it's his own poor choices that trip Harry up, not fate. But that he, like many others, struggled when he came back after the war is really not his fault. I really think it's a fascinating film, in no small measure due to the very good performances by everybody involved.

  4. You are celebrating commie country, so do it, just understand what that means.