For those in this world unfamiliar with who John Huston actually was, the easiest way to get a snapshot is to watch Clint Eastwood's "White Hunter, Black Heart." Loosely based on the filming of "The African Queen", the film expertly allows Eastwood the freedom to show a man obsessed in all aspects of life, a man larger than life, but a man shrouded still in much mystery. The career of John Huston himself is one of the cornerstones of Hollywood history built around a nearly six decade career spanning nearly 40 films; taking into account the mystique of Huston himself, it's not too oddly fitting in the middle of his career he tackled a big screen adaptation of "Moby Dick." A tale built around the written word's most obsessive character, Ahab, in 1956 perhaps only two men could possibly be up for the task of nearly 1000 page epic to life in just under two hours: John Huston and Orson Welles
Let's address the two elephants in the room first: yes, as a pure adaptation, the late 90's TV adaptation featuring Patrick Stewart as Ahab is arguably a more consistent, successful product. Secondly, it's no secret the Ahab of this version, Gregory Peck hated his performance in the film. That said, for any fan of Herman Melville's timeless epic, John Huston's adaptation deserves at minimum a viewing, if not a place on the DVD shelf. The film's weakest point is not Peck's performance by any means, it is instead a script that for sheer time purposes sheds most of the weight of Melville's novel. It's been sometime since I read the classic myself, but having seen the later 90's version in the last decade, revisiting this 1956, briskly paced version, I can't deny a lot of subtext is lost in the translation. Still, the screenplay, the product of the late, great Ray Bradbury manages to provide Huston with a thrilling backbone to captivate audiences for nearly two hours.
From a performance standpoint, Peck commands the screen, only overshadowed by the brief but iconic seven-minute acting clinic put on by Orson Welles himself, as Father Mapple. Peck's performance is far removed from his work three years prior in "Roman Holiday" and tonally opposite what he would commit to celluloid in "Cape Fear" five years later; while the iconic voice is bringing Melville's Ahab to life, Peck's physical performance is unsettling and otherworldly at times. His abrupt turns to his crew keep the scene on edge when Ahab is introduced hammering a Spanish Doubloon to a mast; we as the viewer know nothing will happen yet, but there's a sense Ahab is ready to snap at a moment's notice thank to Peck's intensity. The supporting cast do admirably to share the screen with Peck and Richard Basehart is a more than serviceable Ishmael, despite being two years older than Peck.
What makes "Moby Dick" truly iconic is Huston's direction and Oswald Morris' cinematography. Huston keeps the film going full steam ahead and there isn't a single moment where the story drags; Huston's action directing is as impressive as his quieter character moments and Morris' cinematography gives the film an ethereal look at times. Still, there's always going to be the nagging feeling that Huston could have done more. Whether personal choice or studio mandate, I personally will always wonder what Huston could have done with another hour to bring Melville's words and themes to life. Some may choose for these reason alone to write off this adaptation, however, this "Moby Dick" is a product of its time for all the right reasons, not quite a timeless masterpiece, but an iconic curiosity that will never truly fade away.
The 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is perhaps the first time "Moby Dick" has been brought to life on home video as it was originally intended. That said, the overall quality of this transfer is a mixed bag. There's a decent amount of grain to be spied at times and color levels vary from sequence to sequence. While some of this is likely Morris' cinematography, there is a faded quality to the print at times, that makes me wonder if any presentation will match anything resembling the original 1956 theatrical exhibition.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio is genuinely clean and clear; only moments of silence betray some damage to the audio track in the form of a faint hiss. Dialogue is distortion free and the classic 50s-era score comes through as richly as possible. English subtitles are included.
Definitely not the definitive "Moby Dick," John Huston's 1956 adaptation is an excellent companion to the 90s version, which has its own list of shortcomings. For the fan of Melville's novel, I'd argue Hollywood still hasn't nailed it 100%. Regardless, this "Moby Dick" serves its intended purpose well: it gets the basic story to audiences, is stylish and engaging, and contains a must see performance for all Gregory Peck fans. The only real shame is the so-so transfer. Recommended.