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Reviews » Blu-ray Reviews » The Sea Wolf (Blu-ray)
The Sea Wolf (Blu-ray)
Warner Bros. // Unrated // October 10, 2017 // Region A
List Price: $21.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted October 30, 2017 | E-mail the Author
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Restored to its original 100-minute running time, The Sea Wolf is a harrowing seafaring drama, a socio-political allegory adapted from Jack London's 1903 novel by future director Robert Rossen. The movie was reissued in 1947, occupying the bottom-half of a double-bill reissue with The Sea Hawk (1940). To make for a more manageable program (i.e., more runs per day, and thus more income), The Sea Hawk was trimmed from 127 to 109 minutes, while the 100-minute Sea Wolf was cut to 87 minutes.

Details are murky, but for most of the last 70 years, only the short version of The Sea Wolf was available. Eventually a 16mm print of the complete version, once owned by star John Garfield, was located, but Warner Bros. held out hoping to find better elements of the missing scenes. That patience presumably paid off, because Warner Archive's new Blu-ray reintegrates the long-lost footage seamlessly. I'd seen the movie last about 20 years ago and couldn't tell what I'd missed but it sure played better. It's a tautly-woven story even at 100 minutes.

One can't help but wonder if the long wait was, at least in the ‘50s and ‘60s, partly due to the film's politics, and the fate of many of those involved. Screenwriter Robert Rossen, stars John Garfield, Edward G. Robinson, and Alexander Knox, as well as supporting actor Howard Da Silva all became victims of the Communist witch hunt of the 1950s, the pressures of the Blacklist effectively killing Garfield.

Regardless, the picture and the new, stunning transfer is certain to impress both those familiar with the shorter cut as well as those new to the picture.

In turn of the century San Francisco, George Leach (Garfield), wanted by the police, signs up as cabin boy aboard the Ghost, a notorious seal-hunting windjammer captained by the tyrannical Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson). Just out to sea, its crew of hardened lowlifes rescue prosperous fiction writer Humphrey van Weyden (Knox) and escaped reformatory convict Ruth Webster (Ida Lupino) after their ferryboat collides with another ship and sinks.

Ruth is near death from hyperthermia, and the ship's pathetic alcoholic doctor, Prescott (Gene Lockhart) is too drunk and lacking the confidence to help her, but Larsen refuses to return to port. The erudite van Weyden, clearly "soft" and unfit for other duties, replaces rebellious Leach as cabin boy, and forced to share quarters with Cooky (Barry Fitzgerald), Larsen's gleeful lackey and informant.

The Sea Wolf's soft-peddled themes still resonate. Well-to-do intellectual van Weyden would be fodder for Larsen's sadism were it not that the captain, a literate, self-taught and self-made man, takes an interest in the luckless writer. Larsen is eager for van Weyden to find justification for the captain's ruthlessness. Larsen believes he exemplifies Milton's writings in Paradise Lost, specifically the famous passage "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven." The Ghost where Larsen reigns is a self-contained universe whose crew are pre-doomed to a life of solitary poverty and perpetual misery, where men who can't fight one another while blindly obeying their fascist captain don't deserve to live. He predicts early on that van Weyden will himself be transformed by the environment, that his moral code simply does not apply aboard Larsen's vessel.

Larsen lords over his men not so much out of physical strength but by an Ahab-like force of personality. In Moby Dick Ahab swayed his crew with fever-pitched evangelism, while Larsen uses humiliation and a mob mentality, singling out one man at a time for cruelty and encouraging the other sailors to mercilessly turn on him. It's here where The Sea Wolf most uncomfortably reminds viewers of current events, where Trump and others on the far right single out reporters and minorities for humiliation and actively encourage physical assault and worse.

The Sea Wolf reflects the same big studio know-how that gave birth to other Warner Bros. classics of the era, such as The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca. Contract talent fit into roles perfectly and universally, including relative newcomer Alexander Knox, who'd turn up wasted in countless ‘60s British films (such as You Only Live Twice, uncredited) playing bureaucrats, while Barry Fitzgerald, everyone's favorite loveable Irishman in movies like Going My Way and The Quiet Man is genuinely frightening here. Meanwhile, underutilized Stanley Ridges, so drab in his best-remembered role in the Universal non-shocker Black Friday (1940) is another revelation as a shanghaied sailor. Except for some evocative but dated miniatures of the ships at ship, Warner's production design, cinematography, music (here by Erich Wolfgang Korngold) are peerless.

Video & Audio

In black-and-white, The Sea Wolf, projected on a big home theater screens, has the clarity and inky blackness of a nitrate print, a real feast for the eyes. The DTS-HD Master Audio (2.0 mono, with optional English subtitles) is notably clean and clear also.

Extra Features

Supplements include a trailer and a February 3, 1950 Screen Director's Playhouse radio adaptation.

Parting Thoughts

An intelligent thriller still incredibly tense and exciting, The Sea Wolf is a DVD Talk Collector Series title.







Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian largely absent from reviewing these days while he restores a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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