Film content of this review republished from coverage of MGM's 2010 DVD release, which can be found here.
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 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-seated 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 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen, 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 breaches for the first time -- brought to life by a model that, though requiring endless repairs on-set, really nails 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.
Video and Audio:
The most recent domestic home-video release for Moby Dick came to the surface five years ago, in the form of a Literary Classics line from MGM that reused an older transfer -- the whole disc, in fact -- from nearly a decade prior. With that, it seemed like the chances were slim that John Huston's classic would ever see another treatment on physical media, let alone one that'd address the concerns one might have about the quality of the prior transfer, namely the debatable full-frame aspect ratio and the general condition of the print. Surprisingly, half a decade later, Kino Lorber shores up a DVD-only release of the film touting an HD master with, surprisingly, the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Beyond the fact that the mastering didn't arrive on Blu-ray, perhaps coming at a later date, there are both positive and negative elements of the transfer obtained by the label that keep it relegated to a modest recommendation.
The good news is that Moby Dick has indeed finally arrived on DVD in a 1.66:1-framed, 16x9-enhanced image, long discussed to be the intended aspect ratio of John Huston and cinematographer Oswald Morris's complex dye-transfer look, which has also experienced some alterations. Given my lack of experience with a theatrical presentation, it's difficult to attest to the accuracy of this coloring or framing, which clips off information typically from the top and bottom; however, it's worth noting that the visualization here does bring the sepia-hued appearance far closer to the desired "old, worn pictures in a book" aesthetic. In fact, this transfer might overcompensate for that at times, leaving the colors -- especially blues -- awfully muted, reaching near grayscale levels late in the film. Depth and clarity enjoy sporadic upticks in quality, relishing fine items in facial hair and woodgrain, in Queequeg's tattoes, and in the contours of the ship and the shaped spears, though other scenes remain relatively flat and hazy. The print itself isn't in the greatest shape, though, where visible scratches, blips, even a few full-image vertical lines show up, as well as a bulky appearance to the grain and some notable edge halos involving dark objects against lighter backgrounds. It's an improvement, but could still use some further refinement.
Check out the captures below (click on each for larger images), and gauge how you feel about it:
Familiarly, Moby Dick's Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track doesn't make much of a splash, revealing the strain and thinness of its vintage across the entire presentation. Bulkiness in the dialogue -- especially involving Peck's rumbling depth during his speeches -- renders some of the articulation less perceptible than I'd like, but those moments are infrequent between stressed yet discernible verbal clarity, mostly a non-issue with the narration. The sounds of crashing waves and thunderous whale slams are buoyant but coarse, ever showing the limitations of the soundtrack's age, yet subtler sounds of Ahab's peg leg and the stabs of spears into their targets occupy a fine mid-range presence. A subtle hiss can be pinpointed during the quieter scenes without music or splashing water, but it's subtle any moments where it crops up are rare. Could be better, could be worse. English subtitles are available.
Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, we've only got a Trailer (3:13, 16x9) in terms of extras for Moby Dick.
John Huston's mostly brilliant, frequently overlooked adaptation of Moby Dick gets a new domestic DVD release from Kino/Lorber, and the results are an admirable step forward for a film that's struggled over the past fifteen years on home-video. Huston's sepia-stained capturing of the Pequod's trials and tribulations in search of the white whale receives a widescreen reframing and some significant changes in color scheme, elevating the antiquated aesthetic that covers the director's orchestration of the physical and philosophical struggles with Ahab. Gregory Peck knocks the film a bit off-course at first, but his performance becomes more intense and gnarled alongside the character's thirst for revenge, smartly realized through the accessible, tightly-paced scripting that really knows the book's peaks. This new transfer hits its own rough patches, but it certainly goes in the right direction with this new master, earning this new standard-def treatment of a great film a temperate Recommendation.