Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Breaking Point (1950)

Anybody who’s a fan of movies from the studio era probably has a soft spot for Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not. It’s hard to beat for sheer entertainment, taking full advantage of its charismatic stars and a top-notch supporting cast. It’s also totally superficial. We know from the start that the good guys are going to win and that Bogart is going to walk off with Bacall. It’s a classic example of the way the studios would take a book and transform it into something almost unrecognizable. In the case of Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not, Hawks took the premise of a guy on a boat in the Carribean and dumped everything else.

Really, he had to, because the original novel is extremely unusual and brutally cynical. Actually, I think the book is pretty interesting, but its fragmented narrative and strange digressions pretty much defy all the conventions of commercial filmmaking. On top of that, it was wartime, and the studios were determined to keep everything upbeat and positive.

But by nineteen fifty things had changed. There was a strong undercurrent of cynicism running beneath Hollywood’s glamorous surface. People were making films that not only questioned the status quo, but suggested that we were living in a world where the deck was stacked against us. That’s pretty much the thrust of Hemingway’s novel. The book is about those who have money and those who don’t. And the conclusion that the main character reaches by the end is “A man don’t stand a chance.”

According to Eddie Muller, it was John Garfield who suggested doing a remake. Screenwriter Ranald MacDougall was brought on board to do the adaptation. Though he moved the story into the present and changed the location to Long Beach, it’s much closer to both to the letter and the spirit of the book than the Hawks version. Harry Morgan is a fisherman struggling to support his family and hang on to his boat. The story shows how he’s driven to ever more desperate measures to make money, finally agreeing to take part in a robbery.

Juano Hernandez and John Garfield

Juano Hernandez and John Garfield

Garfield’s gripping, lively performance is the heart of the movie. Harry starts out as a fairly easygoing guy who just wants to make a living, but as he feels the screws tighten we can feel him tighten up as well. Garfield had a gift for playing average guys, and did it without sentimentalizing his characters. He doesn’t ask for our sympathy, he just plays the role as honestly as he can.

Harry loves his wife, and he works hard to provide for her and the kids. Lucy Morgan loves her husband but she’s slowly getting ground down by the stress of making do with almost nothing. Phyllis Thaxter plays the part with admirable simplicity and sublety. The one character that’s borrowed from the Hawks version is the sexy drifter, who in this case tests Harry’s commitment to his wife. The role was probably created to make the movie more commercial, but Patricia Neal is so good that it’s hard to complain. She’s tough, smooth, cynical, and still vulnerable in a way that makes her seem human.

Those who are mostly familiar with Curtiz’ polished films of the forties might be surprised by the gritty intensity of The Breaking Point. It has the energy and the tension you can find in some of his thirties melodramas, but here the characters are more complex. Curtiz keeps his camera close to the actors, and MacDougall’s script allows them to dig into their roles. We have no trouble believing that they inhabit this world, that their lives are rooted in this small seaside town. Cinematographer Ted McCord is amazingly sensitive to the ways in which light can define a location and the subtle nuances of mood it creates. He makes a working class kitchen and a waterfront bar equally real and vivid. Whether he’s shooting on location or on a soundstage the images have the same attention to texture and the same vibrant immediacy.

At the end of the film Harry has survived a shootout with the robbers, but it looks like he’s going to lose his arm. Delirious, he rambles on about how “a man don’t stand a chance”, but calms down when his wife arrives. She convinces Harry to let the doctor amputate, and she’s with him as they carry him to the ambulance. Not the happiest of endings, but we feel a sense of hope. Then the camera pulls back and we’re left with the final startling image. Harry’s sometime partner Wesley was killed in the shootout. As Harry and his wife, the police and the doctors exit the frame, we’re left with a shot of Wesley’s young son standing by himself on the pier. This image of a child, alone and forgotten, is the film’s most powerful moment. It’s totally unexpected, and the movie is over before we can absorb it, but it lingers in the memory. Hollywood movies generally end with the promise that everything’s going to be all right. The Breaking Point does not, and it’s all the more powerful because of its honesty. It tells us that everything is not going to be all right.

The Tell-Tale Heart (1953)

TTH 2Back in the fifties, most cartoons were about funny animals doing crazy things. While some of them included humor directed at adults, animated shorts were intended to be family fare. Cartoon characters might fall off a building or get blown to smithereens, but nobody ever got hurt. The tone was always breezy, lighthearted, upbeat.

So UPA’s decision to produce a short based on Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart was a pretty startling move. But this wasn’t the first time the studio flouted the status quo. Though little known today, UPA was one of the most innovative studios in the history of animation, and it had a tremendous impact on the medium. Most importantly, the studio’s artists embraced a radical simplification of figures and backgrounds, and drew on the language of abstraction. They didn’t care about imitating life. Their goal was to create vivid, expressive images.

Poe’s story is a disturbing descent into the mind of a madman, who tells us how he came to murder the old man he had been living with. The opening paragraph gives us a vivid picture of the narrator’s state of mind.

TRUE! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily –how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

The tale is incredibly compact, with our narrator giving a harrowing account of the crime in about four pages. At just under eight minutes, the cartoon maintains the same single-minded focus. Screenwriters Bill Scott and Fred Grable do away with the obsessive precision of Poe’s language and go for a simpler, more direct approach. They also eliminate the killer’s explanations of his complex, conflicting emotions. In the film the narration is fairly straightforward, and James Mason’s delivery is both effective and affecting.

In the film, just as in Poe’s story, we experience everything from our narrator’s point of view. Director Ted Parmalee, designer Paul Julian and animator Pat Matthews conjure up a series of unnerving images that bring us right into the oppressive gloom of the old house. Drawing on both expressionism and surrealism, the style of the film makes us feel that we are indeed seeing all this through the eyes of a madman. Spiky shadows stretch across the floorboards. The moon decays and crumbles before our eyes. When the old man is murdered we see his face disappear in a violent swirl of yellow and black.

The film would not be as powerful or as disturbing without Boris Kremenliev’s eerie modern score. Kremenliev did very little work in film, which is a shame because the dissonant harmonies and jagged rhythms he uses for The Tell-Tale Heart complement the images perfectly. His style was completely in synch with the kind of music that was being performed in concert halls at the time, but it was a bold approach for a short that was being released by a major studio. While David Raksin and Bronislau Kaper had subtly woven new compositional techniques into their work, I don’t know of any Hollywood score up to that time that was so aggressively modern.

Though UPA existed as a company into the seventies, it really only maintained its position as an innovator from the late forties into the mid-fifties. But its influence on animation has been felt ever since.

If you want to know more about UPA, you can access the Wikipedia article by clicking here.

And if you want to watch The Tell-Tale Heart, click here.