Michael Curtiz, to all those who revere him, has far more than Casablanca (1942) on his resume. It’s stacked with classics including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Mildred Pierce (1945), White Christmas (1954) and even a less-heralded picture like The Breaking Point.
Those familiar with the original source material, from Ernest Hemingway, might also realize an earlier version of the story was made starring Humphrey Bogart opposite his future wife, Lauren Bacall, in her crackling debut.
Director Howard Hawks helmed To Have and Have Not (1944), which proved to be very loosely based on the eponymous material indeed. About the only elements comparable between the two renditions are the oceanic atmospherics with salty seafaring types and other undesirables mixed together liberally. Though donning a new name and casting a new star in John Garfield, it’s easy to make the case that The Breaking Point is a lot more authentic.
To Have and Have Not is a delight because it is such a cinematic creation with indelible characters filling up a world, not unlike Casablanca, ironically. But its successor unfurls qualities that feel less done up and artificial in a still delightfully atmospheric Hollywood fashion.
One could wager it begins with a location that’s very much a real place. In fact, it’s a place I have known quite well in my lifetime. I was first tipped off to its whereabouts when Garfield gives money to his daughters to go see a movie and tells them to be careful on Marine Ave.
As I only know one Marine Ave., I double checked the film’s shooting locations and looked ever more closely at the exteriors. All this confirmed the fact The Breaking Point was shot in and around Balboa Island in Newport Beach, California. I know the area well as I used to spend some summer days there as a kid. The exteriors are most obvious when our protagonist comes back from the bar, walking by the docks, and he’s already day drunk.
We have yet to describe any of the narrative but already we have something vastly different from its predecessor. The main character is a family man, a seaman, and simultaneously trying to drown his sorrows in alcohol. What adds insult to injury is the fact Harry Morgan (Garfield) was a highly commended Navy Seamen during the war. Except, ever since coming back from the war a hero, he’s never been a somebody and that’s hard to take for a proud human being.
All he knows is the sea and so he’s tried to make a go of it obdurately, working furiously to subsist off his boat but it seems like everyone is pushing his head underwater. Try as he might, he can never get ahead. He needs dough for the reasons we all do. To pay the bills. To put food on the table. To take care of his wife and daughters.
Soon Harry’s peddling a would-be fisherman and his gal pal (Patricia Neal) off the coast of Mexico. Of course, the shyster runs out without paying and leaves his girl behind. Harry’s been played for a sucker, stuck on the wrong side of the Mexican border, without any fare to get home. He’s kept his nose clean thus far but times are desperate. In a dive joint, he gets approached by a slimy undesirable, chomping on cigars and proposing a shady business proposition. Momentarily, our hero has been submerged back into the world of Bogart and Hawks.
He’s tasked with sneaking a group of Chinese passengers into American water illegally. However, following an altercation with his contractor (Victor Lee Seung), with Ms. Charles (Neal) and his mate Wesley (Juano Hernandez) aboard, he backs out leaving the Chinese behind. He’s escaped for now, his mores still intact.
But that doesn’t help him when he gets home. The Coast Guard soon confiscate his livelihood. His wife takes on work at home to try to compensate and he has one last chance to save his boat from being taken away from him in order to make ends meet. He feels compelled to take a second job bringing him back into cahoots with the same cruddy opportunist named Ducan, albeit reluctantly.
It’s in these dire straights where it becomes evident The Breaking Point is on the same moral plane as The Bicycle Thief (1946), where our protagonist is forced to make horrible decisions, all for the sake of his family. Should we blame him for the deadly finale that follows? It’s so difficult to enact decisive judgment.
Surely Patricia Neal has the flashy role because she’s the flirtatious blonde who’s never tied down and seems ready to get with anyone. But Phyllis Thaxter, even as she competes with the other woman, dying her hair in an attempt to win back her husband’s affection, has a softer more vulnerable tremor in her voice that feels so very transparent.
When we look into her eyes and see her get angry with her husband for not throwing in the towel and taking up a life on her father’s farm, the concern there is so very real. We understand it because it’s plaintive and deceptively unprepossessing. Because there are deep wells of beauty inside of her making the film’s romantic dynamics that much more intriguing.
John Garfield maintains the working-class persona he always seemed to flaunt so easily but here he’s surrounded by a family — two daughters and a loving wife, making his struggle all the more relatable.
He’s also a loving father bringing his daughters trinkets from his trips, cradling them in his arms affectionately, and slipping them change so they can go to the picture show again. The same goes for his wife. Even as they struggle and fight fairly regularly, over the kitchen table, there are other moments where he makes his love and faithfulness supremely evident. He compliments her looks and the new hairstyle she’s trying after the girls criticize it.
Because the one thing The Breaking Point is not is a story of infidelity. Sure, it comes close on multiple occasions with Neal playing the tantalizing siren but Garfield unreservedly loves his wife. He’s honest with her in that sense, even as he keeps other secrets on the side. He thinks it’s a way to protect his family and his friends. The waters of the film are undoubtedly choppy, even perilous; that’s partially what makes the solid rock of the marriage at its core all the more refreshing.
Any relationship with a firm foundation is predicated on transparency. There’s no other way if you don’t want to harm your spouse and push them further and further away. I admire The Breaking Point deeply for this unflinching portrayal of marriage that, while not always polished, feels inherently real.
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