Lone Wolf Sullivan is a writer, songwriter, and studio musician.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Moby Dick (1956) * * *

"Call me Ishmael" declares the itinerant whaler played by Richard Basehart as the opening credits fade. Though slightly intimidated by the sermon delivered by Father Mapple (Orson Welles) who warns that those who challenge the sea are in danger of losing their souls, Ishmael nonetheless signs on to the Pequod, a whaling ship captained by the brooding, one-legged Ahab (Gregory Peck).

Father Mapple: Delight is to him who coming to lay him down can say, "O Father, mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world's. Yet this is nothing. I leave eternity to Thee. For what is man, that he should live out the lifetime of his God?"

In New Bedford, Connecticut in 1841, a group of seamen board the Pequod, captained by Ahab. They know they're out to harpoon whales, but they don't realize that Ahab once lost a leg to the magnificent White Whale Moby Dick. Staying in the seaport only long enough to set the wildness and restlessness of his crew and to understand the commerce and pious sentiments that go with the land, the Pequod departs on a three-year voyage. Ahab gets his ship onto the ocean and his harpooners onto a whale soon enough to make it certain that this is the tale. And here it stays, through long watches, terrible torments of the mind, calms and storms, until the White Whale is finally fastened and the climax unfolds. The story is observed and narrated by a common seaman who identifies himself only as Ishmael. Ahab's curious and all-consuming quest is to confront the unknown--to prove that God cannot treat him like the Jonah of Father Mapple's unforgettable sermon, to "strike through the mask" of the God that torments man.

Crewmembers include reliable, courageous and wise first mate Starbuck (Leo Genn), the humorous Flask (Seamus Kelly), enthusiastic and jolly Stubb (Harry Andrew), grotesque harpooner Queequeg (Friedrich von Ledebur), and merchant seaman Ishmael. The whale hunts are invigorating and very exciting, the narration excellent, and the Quaker-spiced dialogue is terrrific. Stubb says, "Did ye not hear Mr. Starbuck? Pull, ye sheepheads!"

Starbuck: (to Stubb and Flask) It is an evil voyage, I tell thee. If Ahab has his way, neither thee nor me, nor any member of this ship's company will ever see home again.
Stubb: Aw, come on, Mr. Starbuck, you're just plain gloomy. Moby Dick may be big, but he ain't that big.
Starbuck: I do not fear Moby Dick--I fear the wrath of God.
Captain Ahab: Captain Gardner, I seek the white whale, your own son's murderer. I am losing time... Goodbye, and fare thee well, I say. God help you, Captain Gardiner.
Captain Gardiner: God forgive you, Captain Ahab.
Pip: That ain't no whale; that a great white god.
Ishmael: Queequeg, such behavior isn't Christian. In fact, it's downright pagan and heathenish.
Captain Ahab: I'll follow him around the Horn, and around the Norway maelstrom, and around perdition's flames before I give him up.
Starbuck, first mate: It is our task in life to kill whales, to furnish oil for the lamps of the world. If we perform that task well and faithfully, we do a service to mankind that pleases Almighty God. Ahab would deny all that. He has taken us from the rich harvest we were reaping to satisfy his lust for vengeance. He is twisting that which is holy into something dark and purposeless. He is a Champion of Darkness. Ahab's red flag challenges the heavens.
Starbuck: It's late; you should turn in.
Captain Ahab: Sleep? That bed is a coffin, and those are winding sheets. I do not sleep, I die.
Ishmael: (narration) He did not feel the wind, or smell the salt air. He only stood, staring at the horizon, with the marks of some inner crucifixion and woe deep in his face.

Charismatic Captain Ahab is a single-minded sailor who fights reason, nature, and God himself in his hunt for the White Whale that chewed his leg off. He'll risk anything to get back at the animal that maimed him--including himself and every member of his crew. This drama has strong, realistic incidents: the killing of one whale to show the danger, the dedication of the crew, the omens of Queequeg, the typhoon, and the sea fights with Moby Dick. There is a great scene of Ahab nailing a Spanish doubloon to the mast and explaining that the first crewman to spot a White Whale called Moby Dick will be rewarded with it. When Starbuck asks if Moby Dick was the whale that took his leg, Ahab says, "It tore my soul and body until they bled into each other." Ahab shows Starbuck a logbook containing the knowledge of many old whalers, which notes times and places various types of whales were sighted. Although Starbuck realizes the logbook can be used to track down whales "in record time," thus increasing the ship's profits, Ahab explains that their "bigger business," that of killing Moby Dick must be their priority. Reckoning by the logbook, Ahab expects that the whale will be in the area of Bikini Island in April and plans to meet him there. In another scene with Starbuck on the bridge, Ahab explains his obsession.

Starbuck: To be enraged with a dumb brute that acted out of blind instinct is blasphemous.
Captain Ahab: Speak not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. Look ye, Starbuck, all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. Some inscrutable yet reasoning thing puts forth the molding of their features. The white whale tasks me; he heaps me. Yet he is but a mask. 'Tis the thing behind the mask I chiefly hate; the malignant thing that has plagued mankind since time began; the thing that maws and mutilates our race, not killing us outright but letting us live on, with half a heart and half a lung.

The ship Rachel, which lost a longboat full of sailors in a bout with Moby Dick, sails nearby. Captain Gardiner (Francis De Wolff), whose twelve-year-old son is on the missing longboat, asks for the Pequod's help in finding the men, but Ahab refuses, unwilling to deter from his quest. The sailors of both ships are shocked by this breach of mariner etiquette, but Ahab entrances his men with a speech that revives the Pequod crew's fervor to catch the whale.

Killing Moby Dick is the entire motivation of the lean and violent drama that unfolds. Ahab's consuming passion for revenge on the beast that mutilated his body on a previous voyage and filled his soul with hate is the only inspiration conveyed to his zealous crew. And so all the deep, symbolic ponderings of human agony and fate that course through the length of this saga are all focused on this obsession. Ahab's dementia spreads throughout the crew members, who maniacally join their captain in his final, fatal attack on the elusive, enigmatic Moby Dick.

Captain Ahab: From hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee. Ye damned whale.

The sailors smell land, reminding Ishmael of Elijah's (Royal Dano) mysterious prophecy in New Bedford. Elijah, a frightening and eerie character, foretold that on the day their shipmates smell land where there is none, Ahab will go to his grave, then "rise within the hour" and beckon, after which "all, save one, will follow." The prophecy is fulfilled stunningly in the final scene that is one of the greatest in cinema history. It begins with the strange melancholy and calm of the "Symphony" scene, and then progresses quickly to the final chase. Seeing Moby Dick in the distance, Ahab and the crew row out to meet him. The sailors harpoon the whale, which pitches, causing the boats to overturn. Grabbing the harpoon ropes, Ahab climbs onto the whale's back and, with his spear, jabs at the whale. In retaliation, Moby Dick dives underwater and remains there. When the animal emerges, the drowned Ahab, entangled in the ropes, seems to beckon to the sailors as his arm flails in the sea. Stubb and the other sailors admit defeat, but Starbuck now feels compelled to kill the whale and orders them forward. Moby Dick, however, overturns the longboats and jumps over them, crushing the men with his tail. He then swims to the ship, crashing into it, beating it until it sinks.

Ishmael's brief reaction shot near the end when the whale rises and Ahab is calling on the attack is excellent in combining an expression of both exhilaration and dread. Ahab's destruction is more powerfully done than in the book. It's profound that he and the whale should be lashed together forever. The sight of Ahab drowned and chillingly "beckoning" to his crew to follow him is the most haunting moment in the film. MOBY DICK ends with the only survivor Ishmael holding onto Queequeg's floating coffin, who is ironically rescued by the ship Rachel, which has continued to search for its missing crew in the longboat.

Director John Huston's adaptation of Herman Melville's 1851 novel is a symbolic and allegorical masterpiece about one man's obsession with battling nature's most powerful creature makes beautiful use of Technicolor in bringing one of literature's most beloved works to life. Ray Bradbury wrote the screenplay for this first-rate adaptation of the book. This is the third time Melville's story has been put on the screen. There is no need for another, because it cannot be done better, more beautifully or excitingly again. Captain Ahab's obsession for revenge on Moby Dick isn't always believable, but the moments that click make the film more than worthwhile.

Gregory Peck gives Ahab a towering, gaunt appearance that is markedly Lincolnesque, and he holds that character's burning passions behind a usually mask-like facade. We could do with a little more tempest, a little more Joshua in the role. Mr. Peck spouts fire from his nostrils only when he is after the whale.

The cast also includes: James Robertson Justice (Captain Boomer), Bernard Miles (The Manxman), Noel Purcell (Ship's Carpenter), Edric Connor (Daggoo), Mervyn Johns (Peleg), Joseph Tomelty (Peter Coffin), Philip Stainton (Bildad), Tamba Allenby (Pip), Tom Clegg (Tashtego), Ted Howard (Perth), A.L. Bert Lloyd (Lead shantyman), Arthur Mullard, Joan Plowright (Starbuck's Wife), Iris Tree (Bible Woman), and Carol White (Young girl). Philip Sainton composed the original music. Ray Bradbury, John Huston, and Norman Corwin wrote the screenplay from Herman Melville's novel "Moby-Dick; or, The Whale". John Huston directed.

When the novel was first published, reviewers and readers alike were puzzled by its density and offended by its religious and sexual allusions. "Moby Dick" is probably second only to "War and Peace" as a cultural byword for a long, difficult book that unnerves even the most studious readers with its web of digressions and literary and cultural references.

Of the three film versions of MOBY DICK made between 1926 and 1956, John Huston's is the only one which is faithful to the novel and uses its original ending. Previous film versions of MOBY DICK insisted on including romantic subplots and happy endings. In the 1930 version with John Barrymore, Ahab has a love interest and succeeds in killing Moby Dick, which resembles a floating mattress. There are many other different adaptations of "Moby Dick" in a variety of genres, including a 1998 TV miniseries with Patrick Stewart in the same role. Gregory Peck plays Father Mapple in this adaptation. The script is haphazardly faithful to Melville, with some bizarre changes such as the Pequod stuck in Antarctic ice, a lack of atmosphere, and rather anemic performances, with the exception of Patrick Stewart's fiery version of Ahab. Stewart treated Ahab as a mighty Shakespearean tragic figure, the way he always should have been done. A stage play production by Orson Welles, in which Rod Steiger played Captain Ahab, was funded by Welles' salary from his role in the 1956 movie.

John Huston's MOBY DICK remains admirably faithful to its source. Great science fiction author Ray Bradbury masterfully captures the allegorical elements in the Herman Melville original without sacrificing any of the film's entertainment value. Bradbury suffered his own "great white whale" in the form of director Huston, who sadistically ran roughshod over the sensitive author throughout the film. Cinematographer Oswald Morris' washed-out color scheme brilliantly underlines the foredoomed bleakness of the story. MOBY DICK's one shortcoming is its artificial whale-but try telling a real whale to stay within camera range and hit its marks. However, most of the time the whale looks convincingly real.

As Captain Ahab, the bearded, one-legged, insanely obsessed whaler, Gregory Peck has often been called miscast. The mild, level-headed Peck had many talents, but the emotional eruptions of Ahab seemed beyond him--even Peck himself felt he was a bad fit for the part after he finished playing it. Pauline Kael wrote that Peck looked like "a stock-company Lincoln." Yet Peck's quiet brooding works an intriguing variation on the fiery character. Peck holds Ahab's madness down under a brooding darkness and does maintain a "deranged dignity". He never lets the story become absurd.

John Huston, a director with a taste for location shooting, had his hands full with the difficult open-water filming in Ireland and the Canary Islands. "The catalogue of misadventures was unbelievable," he later wrote. Since Ahab is chasing the rare White Whale, three false whales had to be constructed, two of which were lost at sea. For all the miscues, the film is amazingly controlled, and especially beautiful to look at. The director wrote the script with Ray Bradbury, an inspired choice to adapt Herman Melville's epic novel. Huston fought with Ray Bradbury over the screenplay and the author was reduced to tears by the gruff director, so he wrote a book about the experience

MOBY DICK was probably shot in 1.66:1 aspect ratio. The DVD does not present the film in that ratio, yet it does not appear to be a pan & scan transfer. It looks very good and nothing appears to have been done to tamper with the color. This is most likely how it should look. The director fought with the studio over the color process used in MOBY DICK. It was intentional. He and cinematographer Oswald Morris were trying to capture a visual style that would be evocative of a period style of painting that would contribute to the mood of the story. They developed an unusual color process meant to suggest old whaling engravings. Shot in Eastmancolor but printed in Technicolor, a fourth black and white pass was added to the three Technicolor dyes to provide even more control, subduing colors some and greying out others. Seen in an original Technicolor print, the effect was like an illustration in an old book.

Some extras would have been welcome, but the DVD is more than worth owning by any fan of Melville, Huston or American film. Too bad this DVD was not issued in a widescreen format. It was originally released in widescreen, cropped to 1:66 or 1:85 like any other movie of the time, but MGM has given the film a fullscreen transfer, probably cropping a bit off on both sides. The image is good but has none of the delicate color feeling of the original. There seems to be an ongoing debate about whether or not this film was shot widescreen, and everyone on both sides will insist they are right. The LaserDisc version of this in the early 1990's was matted at 1.85:1, and it was from a better print with better display of the color tinting used especially for the movie.

The film was shot in Ireland and at Las Canteras beach, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain. This was originally a Warner Bros. release. However, this film as well as the pre-1950 Warner library ended up being sold to Associated Artists Productions, which later was sold to United Artists Television. This would eventually be the only film in the UATV package that would not end up with Turner Entertainment, and thus UA (via its parent company, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) continues to own the U.S. rights to this film today with MGM Home Entertainment holding the home video rights. The international rights are with various other companies.

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