"Where are the crew of the Pequod? There is not one face I know among thirty" -- Starbuck, Moby Dick
Herman Melville's "Moby Dick", his lavishly verbose classic about the consuming nature of obsession and mankind's powerlessness in controlling the high seas, seems like an ideal fit for big-screen adaptation under The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre director John Huston's hands. With a conflicted but ultimately triumphant partnership with sci-fi novelist Ray Bradbury as his screenwriter, he succeeds; this take on the story adheres to Melville's framework, from the isolation and contemplation of mutiny to the raw thrill of the whale hunt, in a visually-inventive and dramatically potent atmosphere. And it would've been damn near perfect in just about every respect, had the suits in charge made a smarter decision with how to suitably make use of Gregory Peck's magnetism.
Peck plays Ahab, the captain of the Pequod, a man driven purely by his obsessive hunt for "the white whale", a pearly sperm whale that took his leg whilst in the middle of a hunt. This story, the recount of Ishmael (played by an over-aged but excellent Richard Basehart), tells the story of how Ahab acquired a squawk of obedient shipmates to join him on his journey, first as a general whaling mission and then into a direly-driven hunt for one target in particular. Along the way, the story gravitates around the multiple uses of whale parts and how it instills glory in the whalers, all without taking away an ounce of the blood-boiling thrill behind it, and then over into the wavering sanity of the crew as their isolation at sea prolongs -- some in need of motivation, others in need of acting out in rage. As expected, the boiling point comes when they locate the idolized beast, the fruit to their manic strife.
Shot by Huston's recurring cinematographer Oswald Morris, who also filmed Moulin Rouge and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison for the director, Moby Dick employs an intentional sepia-toned, earthy look due to an innovative dye technique. It gives the entirety of the film a vintage tint that emphasizes a novel-like texture about its aesthetic, all while giving the Pequod's voyage an ethereal feel -- almost mythic. This starts in the cramped, musty bar where Ishmael meets the crew over penny-level servings of rum and leads in the church as Father Mapple preaches from his mast-shaped pulpit, which features a cameo from Orson Welles as he spouts cautionary fire and brimstone in an exquisite soliloquy. But the meat of this visual allure really grabs attention when the Pequod begins crashing through waves and chasing whales, following the crew through a dusty, organic haze, occasionally in painterly silvers and blues, that literally makes it look like the images are leaping from pages of parchment.
It's all glorious, the superb archetypal craftsmanship you'd come to expect from John Huston, until Gregory Peck makes his first appearance. Peg-legged and appearing more like a wooden Abraham Lincoln than a weathered sea captain, his portrayal of Ahab becomes what could be the quintessential argument proving that even the greatest of actors can be miscast in the wrong role. At age 38 and coming off of his gangbusters turnout for Roman Holiday, Warner Brothers shoehorned him into the spot in hopes that he'd drive an audience to the production. Peck does acclimate to the role as Moby Dick progresses, grappling the isolation and madness with a genuinely gripping ferocity, but his puffed-up posturing against the crew -- especially during the boisterous, stilted opening dialogue where he offers the Spanish gold to the man who first spots "the white whale" -- feels forced and out of place in the otherwise seamless backdrop.
Still, Peck's patchiness as Ahab, though it creates a somewhat uneven rhythm about Moby Dick since his deep-seeded obsession's one of its driving forces, can be overlooked as the story's themes and suspenseful thrust begin to crash through the waters amid this faithful retelling of Melville's work. Huston's experience in adventure, such as with Treasures of the Sierra Madre, couples with his admiration for the source material into an enthralling and approachable telling off the officious novel, creating authentic-feeling excitement through the crew's everyday hunt for their pray. But it's when the white whale breeches for the first time -- brought to life by a model that, though requiring endless repairs on-set, really grapples an authentic look -- that Huston's furiously-paced film truly embarks towards the quenching of a salty old captain's obsession, and in turn becoming a grand affair in the hands of one of cinema's classic directors.
A small -- well, actually, a large part -- of me was hoping that MGM was going to silently issue out a new disc for Moby Dick in their Literary Classics line of DVDs, which comes with a stock card attached to the front of the case that a) needs to be cropped in order to utilize the bookmark, or b) still needs to be cropped if the owner wishes to use it as a chapter listing-like inset in the case. But underneath the card, however, lies the exact same disc for John Huston's film from 2001. MGM's swung this tactic before with re-issuing literary adaptations, including a Cliff's Notes line of DVDs that included Moby Dick (and are still in-print). Therefore, if you already own Moby Dick in one fashion or another, there's absolutely no need to purchase this disc.
Video and Audio:
Some debate stirs about the proper aspect ratio for Moby Dick, with some stating that it's 1.33:1 as presented on this DVD and (most) others claiming that the true ratio actually sits at 1.66:1. Using precedent as a gauge for preference becomes a moot point; Huston and Oswald Harris' picture before Moby Dick, Beat the Devil, has a ratio of 1.37:1, while their subsequent project, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, stretches a wide 2.35:1. If I had to venture a guess based on this DVD's close framing, obviously having never seen the film theatrically, I'd be inclined to believe that the image has been cropped on either side to accommodate for full-frame televisions. But even without considering the aspect ratio, this transfer has quite a few other issues. Heavy edge enhancement can be spotted along most starkly-contrasted contours, while a plentiful level of blips, specks, discolorations, and other assorted flaws mar the properly-colored print. On top of that, the image can also be fairly hazy, lacking definition in a few sequences. Quite simply, it's time to give the well-deserving Moby Dick a new run through the clean-up and mastering process -- hopefully, when it does happen, with the 1.66:1 aspect ratio.
Audio comes in an equally unremarkable Dolby 2.0 stereo track, which also shows the film's age. Vocal delivery from Peck'a Ahab and his cohorts scrapes and grinds against the quadrants of the audio shelves, sounding thick and gritty enough but ultimately constrained. Similar can be said for the splashes of water and other varied sound effects, which suit the film's purpose but aren't especially satisfying. It's a mediocre sound presentation that buoyantly carries the music along, but it too could be clearer and cleaned of some of its vintage trappings.
Aside from the bookmark and a Trailer, nothing.
John Huston's Moby Dick, though it makes a few slight alterations for cinematic drive, still stands as the most faithful and exciting version of Herman Melville's story available, a marvel of gripping visuals and a mania-driven, evocative momentum in the expanses of the ocean's isolating environment. Though Gregory Peck's portrayal comes across as too young a soul for Ahab at the beginning, he slowly digs into the madness of the character as the Pequod comes closer and closer to the object of his obsession, crashing along at a brisk pace towards its chaotically cathartic finale. MGM's "Literary Classics Collection" DVD isn't a disc that's as easily recommendable, though it's really the only way available to watch this under-appreciated classic. The film itself earns this dusty, featureless disc a Recommendation just on cinematic merit (and an inexpensive price tag), but folks who already own it needn't bother.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site