Expertly directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca, Mildred Pierce), 1950's The Breaking Point remains a classic noir buried during its release. As the second of three film adaptations of Ernest Hemingway's To Have and Have Not (the first being Howard Hawks' film, released only six years earlier), The Breaking Point follows former P.T. boat operator and current fishing guide Harry Morgan (the great John Garfield, in his second to last film role) as a family man forced into moral compromise via financial turmoil. In John's mind, he'll do anything to support his wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) and their two daughters, including deal with a shady lawyer (Wallace Ford) to smuggle Chinese immigrants into California using John's private boat. Lucy's solution is much more sensible: give up the boat and work for her father.
Stubborn as ever, John gets in over his head when the deal goes wrong and ends in manslaughter. Leaving the immigrants stranded and his loyal first mate Wesley Parker (Juano Hernandez) in Mexico, John heads back for America with Leona Charles (Patricia Neal), the flirtatious friend of a non-paying customer. He rarely returns her advances, but it's just one more complication that his life doesn't need: John's on the wrong side of the law, at least one man is dead, and he still runs the risk of losing his only means of income. The faithful Lucy is supportive as ever, desperate to keep their marriage intact and even works from home for extra money. But it's obvious that things are quickly collapsing for the Morgan family, which is exacerbated further when Harry agrees to a higher paying job from Duncan.
Though it almost borders on excess, The Breaking Point draws out a torrent of sympathy for the working-class Harry and Lucy Morgan, which allows us a far more accessible entry point into his moral backsliding as life wears them down. Plenty of obstacles are thrown Harry's way---post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, money trouble, and the nagging pain of knowing that his dream job just isn't cutting it---and as these problems trickle down to their marriage and family, we can't help but root for their continued survival. Their actions continually reminded us that Harry and Lucy are willing to do anything to right the ship, even though his solutions come with much greater personal risk.
It's a story that somewhat mirrors the personal life of star John Garfield, whose career was all but over in 1950 due to mounting pressure from the House Un-American Activities Committee for his wife's earlier ties to the Communist Party. This pressure also crippled promotion for The Breaking Point (despite a rare glowing review from The New York Times' Bosley Crowther); Warner Bros. was reluctant to advertise the film with his name attached, and the resulting stress from this fallout presumably led to Garfield's fatal heart attack in 1952. The Breaking Point's tragic narrative shows a good man's life spiraling downward due to circumstances that, in one form or another, are out of his control.
To Have and Have Not is a more well-known adaptation of Hemingway's novel, but The Breaking Point is undoubtedly the more faithful and engaging of the two; even Hemingway once famously quipped that it was the only good film version of his work. This is partially due to liberties taken with the source material (the sunny California location, not to mention more focus on Harry's family and the admirable casting of Hernandez in a sympathetic role), but its most obvious highlights are the pitch-perfect performances of all involved. Garfield and Thaxter make a convincing pair, Neal deftly portrays the ultimate femme fatale, and Hernandez' strong presence adds emotional weight to his scenes. Curtiz's direction is as fluid and unobtrusive as you'd expect from a seasoned director of almost 40 years, allowing the story and its characters to achieve maximum potency. Simply put: The Breaking Point is an expertly crafted film that's gone under the radar since 1950, ready to be (re)discovered by a new generation of film lovers.
Warner Archives' respectable 2001 DVD-R served as The Breaking Point's Region 1 home video debut, and Criterion's new Blu-ray provides a worthy upgrade that fans and newcomers will enjoy. Boasting a new 2K restoration, lossless audio, and a handful of efficient and entertaining extras (including a tribute from Julie Garfield, John's last surviving child), it's a striking and well-rounded package that gives The Breaking Point the support it rightfully deserves.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, this sparkling 1080p transfer of The Breaking Point is, unsurprisingly, miles ahead of Warner Archives' respectable 2001 DVD-R. Sourced from a new 2K digital restoration, there's a strong amount of detail and texture on display here, with an extremely crisp appearance and much more refined levels of contrast. It's also marginally brighter than the Warner disc, showing quite a bit more image detail without losing shadow depth or compromising black levels. Digital imperfections, such as compression artifacts and excessive noise reduction, don't seem to be an issue at all. Film grain is also nicely rendered; it's almost always evident, but rarely overpowering. Quite simply, this is a great presentation from a reliably good company that should easily impress die-hard fans and newcomers alike. Despite the relatively short six-year gap between releases, fans will appreciate the upgrade.
DISCLAIMER: The still images and screen captures on this page are decorative and do not represent the Blu-ray under review.
There's less to say about the PCM 1.0 track, aside from that it's perfectly adequate and sounds a little better than expected for a film that's almost 70 years old. Dialogue, sporadic music cues, and background effects are relatively crisp and clear without fighting for attention, while the overall experience even manages to showcase a few moments of modest depth at times. Overall, this lossless mono presentation is true to the source material and purists will enjoy the lack of surround gimmickry. As usual, optional English subtitles are included during the film only.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Criterion's menu is smooth and easy to navigate, with access to its timeline and extras. The disc is locked for Region A players only; it's packaged in a stocky keepcase with attractive double-sided artwork. The fold-out Insert
includes a new essay by film critic Stephanie Zacharek, production stills, a cast/crew list, and notes about the restoration.
Three recent interviews and appreciations form the bulk of these supplements. Critic Alan K. Rode
(21:16) speaks about Curtiz's early career in Europe, meeting Harry Warner and the journey to Hollywood, winning his first Oscar, directing six films a year, his relationship with John Garfield, The Breaking Point
's supporting cast, and more. Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou
(9:59), whose YouTube channel "Every Frame A Painting"
is a favorite, analyze some of Curtiz's techniques, the addition of domestic scenes, "fluid filmmaking", the Morgan house, and Harry's loss of control. Finally, Julie Garfield
(16:42), the only surviving child of John Garfield, discusses his turbulent childhood, first taste of acting, hopping a train to California, jail time and a near-fatal illness, joining The Group Theatre
, his wife's involvement with the Communist Party, signing a contract with Warner Bros., and other details from his brief but eventful life.
One vintage supplement is here as well: a short but enjoyable 1962 TV Clip from the long-running Today show (4:52) that showcases contents from Key West's still-running "Ernest Hemingway House", including several items related to To Have and Have Not. Finally, we get the film's enjoyably over-the-top Theatrical Trailer (2:17).
Michael Curtiz's The Breaking Point has aged even better than most films in his vast body of work, largely due to the excellent performances and Ernest Hemingway's source novel (previously adapted in Howard Hawks' To Have and Have Not). It's a gripping, intense, and thoroughly entertaining noir with great location footage, impeccable camera tricks, and plenty of razor-sharp dialogue. Criterion's new Blu-ray aims to replace Warner Archives' respectable 2001 DVD-R, and does so with a fantastic A/V presentation that's paired with a modest collection of short but enjoyable bonus features. Highly Recommended to established fans; newcomers should consider it a solid blind buy as well.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes, and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.