Sunday, January 4, 2009

Underrated - "The Sea Wolf"

During its heyday in the 1930s and ‘40s, the Warner Brothers studio was known for its edgy criminal films and serious melodramas. The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942) and Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) are its most famous films from this timeframe, but there were dozens of other beautifully crafted works as well including The Roaring Twenties (1939), High Sierra (1941), They Died With Their Boots On (1941) and Now, Voyager (1942).

A wonderful film that has remained under the radar is The Sea Wolf (1941), directed by Michael Curtiz. Born in Hungary, he would enjoy his greatest triumphs at Warner Brothers with an impressive lineup of films he directed from the Errol Flynn swashbucklers such as Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) to his best-known works such as Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Curtiz’s finest films were full of energy featuring memorable characters; The Sea Wolf is a prime example.

Based on Jack London’s 1904 novel, The Sea Wolf is a tale of Captain Wolf Larsen, an intense sea captain who is a walking set of contradictions. Tyrannical in his treatment of his crew and other human beings, he is also a reflective, educated individual who has read the works of Darwin and Milton. Larsen is proud of what he has accomplished, at one point recalling his accomplishments from an early age, rising from cabin boy to captain of his own ship. Given this power, he acts as he sees fit; when the legalities of his decisions are questioned by a new crew member Larsen tells him, “I’m obeying the law, the law of the sea.”

One of the film’s many assets is the quality work of the actors, none more so that Edward G. Robinson as Larsen. Robinson, who could chew up the scenery on occasion, reins it in here, as he gives the captain the necessary rough edges while at the same time dealing with matters onboard in a even-handed, if slightly harsh fashion. He can be quiet and reasonable at one moment and then cruel and childish the next, as in the scene where he asks the crew to refrain from making fun of the ship’s alcoholic doctor (Gene Lockhart, in a touching performance) and then immediately kicks him down a flight of steps. It is one of several moments that sums up Larsen’s complexities and it is handled with great assurance by Robinson. For me, this is arguably his best screen performance.

John Garfield has a small part as a con that joins the crew of the ship (named Ghost) to hide from the law. His character is a bit of a screen stereoptype – tough on the exterior, yet revealing his tenderness underneath – but Garfield manages to flesh out his character of George Leach quite nicely. Garfield, who would go on to bigger and better things, has a lot of charisma on display in this small role.

Ida Lupino is fine as another con on the run who is picked up at sea along with the writer Van Weyden. Lupino’s part is also small and she brings what she can to it. Alexander Knox, portraying Van Weyden, is thoughtful and quite serious. His best scene is one between Larsen and himself as he tells the captain the description of him for his next book. Knox’s character is nicely written, as he is a fish out of water and we as the audience can identify with his struggle to maintain his dignity amidst the rowdiness of the ship.

A pleasant surprise is Barry Fitzgerald, who seemed to show up in about one-third of the melodramas of the time. For me, Fitzgerald was too one-dimensional in many of his performances, relying on his thick Irish broque to lend emotion to his character, but here, he adopts a low-key approach and delivers an excellent performance. His character is quite mean-spirited (a bit of an alter-ego of the captain) and Fitzgerald is appropriately menacing with a devlish laugh. His scene with Van Weyden, when he reads the writer’s quotes about Larsen, is one of his best in the film.

The screenplay by Robert Rossen is first-rate and definitely one of the best of the many strengths of the film. Rossen would go on to be an excellent director later in his career with films such as All the King’s Men and The Hustler, but he was first and foremost an outstanding writer, having penned the screenplays for such Warners films as The Roaring Twenties , Blues in the Night (1941) and Edge of Darkness (1943).

His writing here is tough and to the point. Characters such as Larsen are allowed to dream for a while but those moments are brief, as the harsh reality of his existence returns. There are so many good lines here, as when Larsen tells the drunken doctor, “Sit down until you finish drinking your supper” or when Larsen tells Van Weyden, “I’ll choose my death as I chose my life. I did everything by myself.”

One of the best-written scenes takes place when Larsen enters his quarters and discovers Van Weyden reading his copy of “Paradise Lost.” This is a crucial scene, as we discover the conflicting nature of Larsen, as a man who loves reading classic works – if only to prove his intelligence to others – yet wonders if the insight gained from understanding these writings have made this endeavor worthwhile.

At one point in the scene, Larsen tells Van Weyden that he (Van Weyden) is fortunate as he has a family that loves him and would support him if times ever were bad:

You wouldn’t have to struggle for a living. You wouldn’t have to live in a world where your hand was turned against every man’s and every man’s against yours, even your own brother’s.

You seem to find it necessary to justify yourself, don’t you Captain Larsen?

My strength justifies me, Mr. Van Weyden. The fact that I can kill you or let you live as I choose. The fact that I control the destinies of all onboard the ship, the fact that it’s my will and my will alone that rules here. That’s justification enough.

That’s great screenwriting!

Much credit also belongs to other contributors to the film, including Sol Polito’s cinematography and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score. Polito, who could always be counted on to create the proper mood for a melodrama, as he did in dozens of films from I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) or Now, Voyager (1942), does so again here, as he uses shadows and fog to great effect. Light is at a minumum here, not only in the belly of the ship, but everywhere on board.

Korngold’s score is appropriately somber, although he does include a haunting love theme for the characters portrayed by Garfield and Lupino. Unlike some composers at the time who would write wall-to-wall scores, Korngold kept the music in the background for most of this film. This was one of the more subdued scores for the man who contributed brilliant music to other Warners films such as 1942’s Kings Row (one of the greatest film scores of all time, in my opinion), Juarez (1939) and The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Regarding Curtiz, he directs the film with a steady hand, using many closeups, which help heighten the underlying message of power and class. His direction is at times claustrophobic, a wise choice for scenes aboard a ragtag ship, but he also creates space at certain moments, as in the scene with the blood transfusion; as Curtiz films this, he lets each character – Larsen, Leach and the ship’s doctor – have his moment.

Warner Brothers, like other movie companies during the height of the studio system, made hundreds of solid films like The Sea Wolf. Other films may have won more awards, but honest, well-crafted, entertaining projects such as this deserve to be remembered just as much.

A final note: Apparently Jack Warner wanted to change the title of The Sea Wolf, as he felt it was too similar to his studio's film of the previous year, The Sea Hawk (also directed by Curtiz). Producer Henry Blanke resisted and London's title was retained.

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