Thursday 19 October 2017

On Blu-ray - David Hare reports on Michael Curtiz' THE SEA WOLF (USA, 1941) "One of the year’s best rediscoveries and discs"

John Garfield, Ida Lupino, The Sea Wolf
Two couples.  George Leach (John Garfield) with the sole female onboard Jack London's scavenger ship, the "Ghost", Ruth Brewster (Ida Lupino). Below the other major couple, captain “Wolf” Larsen, played with commanding intelligence by Eddie G Robinson, and his interlocutor Humphrey van Weyden played by Brit newcomer to Hollywood Alexander Knox.

Alexander Knox, Edward G Robinson, The Sea Wolf
The latter sequence comes up around 47 minutes into Michael Curtiz’ movie of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf from 1941, now restored to its original release date length of 100 minutes for the first time since 1947. And it handsomely delivers most of the meat in London’s novel with an intelligent if slightly bowdlerized screen adaptation by Robert Rossen. There is one very clumsy edit at the 46-minute mark in a crucial scene from half profile two shot to fully seated two shot seen in the second screen which flags at least one of apparently several big cuts Warners made pre-release to any overtly political dialogue that might have been inferred to refer directly to fascism and events in Europe at the very peak of Hollywood’s still self-imposed silence on the dictatorships, even after Britain declared war, so keen was it to protect its markets.

That all came to an end soon after this picture was released with Pearl Harbor. Rossen’s adaptation at first struck me as somewhat vignettish, as though he were parsing Jack London’s prose into a sequence of layouts and reveals. Lineally if you will. Curtiz in 1941 was in full mastery of the studio machinery, and he seems to have taken complete visual control of these sequential vignettes for each scene of the act, along with the fantastic score from Korngold (his best I now believe) with its sophisticated use of leitmotifs to cue characters and incident. (my favorite leitmotif, the harmonica arpeggio for "freedom.")

Thus Curtiz tends to begin each of the screenplay’s and score’s “marks” as it were with wide two, three or group shots and pushes Sol Polito’s camera into a dolly to close-in and personalize the dialogue and exchange. Initially this looked to me like not much more than crepuscular stylistic ornamentation but in fact it’s a steady use of camera grammar in position, framing, lighting and changing POV that serves the material to a Tee.

The censorship of a lot of the fascist related dialogue at Warners’ directions to Rossen is regrettable but the images leave no doubt about Jack London’s textual ideas in visual form. The Wolf’s library with its impressive ubermencsh collection of everything important in early 20th century thought from Darwin to Nietszche is dovetailed into a superb reading by Alexander Knox of his big scene, standing in for the author with line readings of such grace, subtlety and near selflessness that compel us to listen to him while we watch Eddie, a master class in actor and reactor.

Apart from the sheer pleasure of seeing such a sequence realized so perfectly and with such force it’s a complete blast to watch two such totally different actors in style come together like this at the peak of their game.

The new Warner Archive Blu-ray comes to us from a just recently discovered 35mm nitrate original full length fine grain which was thought missing for the last 40 plus years. Warner has held off ever reissuing The Sea Wolf because the only sources for missing material from the existing 1947 86 minute recut were 16mm dupes. The image is literally pearlescent with absolutely glowing whites, blacks and contrast, and with a slightly dusky edge to gray that only nitrate could produce.

One of the year’s best rediscoveries and discs.

1 comment:

  1. The script for SEA WOLF is an interesting process of evolution. The Jack London novel, like the Bram Stoker "Dracula", has a major problem which all the adaptations (about twenty to date) skate around. I go into this in my Curtiz bio "The Man Who Ate Films."

    When I was teaching, I wanted an adaptation to use as an exercise and thought "The Sea Wolf" with the Curtiz film to use as an example would be a great choice. If you compare the script and the book there is only one point where they have to conform - the meeting between Larsen and Van Weyden and that's what I used with the group re-staging the Rossen script. Don't know how much they learned but I found out a whole lot about staging and adaptation.


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