The Breaking Point (1950)

The Breaking Point (1950) is a swell of a smart film noir drama that falls sweetly across the boundary between 1040s and 1950s cinema.

The movie stars John Garfield, who plays the otherwise moral captain of a charter boat who becomes financially strapped and is drawn into illegal activities in order to keep up payments on his boat.

Across the varieties of film noir, there are many flavours, and this includes the tragic drama that has elements of film noir, as here in The Breaking Point.

Although not complex, the story is interesting because of the realism brought to the characters, an exchange made in favour of dropping the more familiar and fantastical elements of film noir.

One of the most common themes and juxtapositions in film noir, is made between domestic life and the life of crime, or at least the life 'out there' in the city of danger.

In The Breaking Point, the domestic scenes are detailed, and it seems unclear as to how far John Garfield's character Captain Harry Morgan is drawn away from this and towards the dark side.

You'd think not at all. Harry Morgan (John Garfield) has a fondness for his kids, and his wife has a fondness for him, and most of the time he seems focused on that. The story that unfolds within him is however two-fold. There's that staple of classic film noir, which is the inability of the military man to return to society after service, and there is his own natural weakness.

Pictorially faithful to its surroundings, whether it be the sea or the harbours, or the ports or the domestic home, The Breaking Point is not a film noir of shadows and fog. The real shadows perhaps lurk within the man himself, 

Patricia Neal in The Breaking Point (1950)

Patricia Neal and John Garfield in
The Breaking Point (1950)

This careful realism may have been the reason why Earnest Hemingway called The Breaking Point the best film adaptation of any of his books. The director, Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz was certainly a  great filmmaker, and made over a hundred features, and that’s not even including the films he made in Europe, before emigrating to the United States in 1926. In addition to Casablanca, another great film noir piece he made was Mildred Pierce (1945).

What gives The Breaking Point its class is the detail. Harry Morgan, having just spent the last of his family’s living expenses on the fuel he needs for his boat, takes a look at his wedding picture, of him and his wife, Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter). The portrait, which contains all the optimism of the post-war era, with the groom in uniform, has now become upsetting around 1950 and Harry, reflecting on that picture says: “Ever since I took that uniform off,” he says, “I’m not exactly great.”

This is one of film noir’s real reasons for being, as much of it is a response to post-war disillusionment, and a way of addressing the anxiety of men adjusting to a new civilian, commercial, corporate and domestic world. Like many other men, Harry had a role to play during the war, and now, as husband and father, his responsibilities are wearing him down.

Stairwells of film noir in The Breaking Point (1950)

Of course, somewhere beneath it all he is still a tough guy, but this is not a world for tough guys, and because of his morals he is not exactly suited to the tough guy life.

Unusually, Harry's best friend is an Afro–Puerto Rican played by Juano Hernandez, and this stands virtually alone in all of film noir and in fact of the cinema of the era as an obvious rejection of American segregation. It's simply one of those rare moments in the world where race and colour is not an issue, and is a fantastic touch from Michael Curtiz. 

The first mistake we see Harry making is his agreeing to take a businessman on a fishing trip to Mexico. The businessman stiffs him and it’s money Harry can’t afford to lose, and to make up the difference, he reluctantly accepts an illegal job moving some Chinese migrants, arranged by a sleazy lawyer Duncan (played Wallace Ford). 

The other aspect is the foxy blonde mistress of this businessman, Leona Charles (played by Patricia Neal). She takes a liking to Harry, and even though he is devoted to Lucy, he barely stands a chance against her. A forthright, confident actor, Neal had recently been suspended from Warner Bros. for refusing to appear in a western, Sugarfoot, with Randolph Scott. Her reasoning, she said, was that the part “was just a part and not a role.” The Breaking Point, the first film she made after her suspension was lifted, gave her plenty to dig into. In her burnt-sugar voice, Leona subjects Harry to tiny, flirtatious insults that blossom into compliments. At one point, she tells him how much she likes the back of his neck, blowing on it as if dispersing dandelion tufts. Greater men have fallen for lesser witchcraft.

Flirting in and around The Breaking Point (1950)

But Leona doesn’t bring about Harry’s downfall. And if she tempts him, she also catches him up in a whirl of healthy erotic energy. “A man can be in love with his wife and still want something exciting to happen,” he tells her at one point, an admission of weakness that tells us how strong he really is. 

Lucy, for her part, knows her husband is wavering, and she’s smart enough to be jealous: the scene in which she acknowledges her worries is a marvel, underscoring both her human frailty and her generosity. Thaxter ought to have been better known as an actress, but she packs a career’s worth of perceptiveness into this one performance.

Juano Hernández and Patricia Neal
The Breaking Point (1950)

The picture Curtiz and his splendid cast made together — shot, gorgeously, by journeyman cinematographer Ted McCord, who somehow captured the quietly mournful quality of bright, cloudless California—was released on September 30, 1950, and got terrific reviews from critics. Even professional windbag Bosley Crowther, of the New York Times, called Garfield “tops” in the leading role.

Marital joy is rarely seen in film noir, see The Breaking Point (1950) for an incredible exception.
John Garfield and Phyliis Thaxter

John Garfield was an American actor who became known for his roles in film noir movies during the 1940s. He was known for his intense, brooding screen presence and his ability to convey a sense of simmering danger and desperation. 

Here are some of the notable film noir movies in which he appeared:

"The Postman Always Rings Twice" (1946): In this classic film noir, Garfield plays a drifter named Frank Chambers who becomes involved in a torrid love affair with a married woman (played by Lana Turner). Their illicit romance leads to murder and a complex web of deceit and betrayal.

"Force of Evil" (1948): Garfield plays Joe Morse, a corrupt lawyer who works for a powerful mob boss in New York City. As he becomes increasingly embroiled in the criminal underworld, he begins to question his own morality and struggles to find a way out.

"Body and Soul" (1947): Garfield delivers a powerful performance as Charley Davis, a talented boxer who rises to the top of his profession but becomes corrupted by greed and ambition. The film explores the seedy underbelly of the boxing world and the moral compromises that can come with success.

"Out of the Fog" (1941): In this early film noir, Garfield plays a small-time hood named Harold Goff who terrorizes a quiet fishing village. When a local fisherman stands up to him, Goff begins a campaign of intimidation and violence that leads to a deadly showdown.

Overall, John Garfield's performances in film noir movies were marked by a sense of gritty realism and emotional depth. He brought a sense of vulnerability and complexity to his roles, making him one of the most memorable actors of the genre.

Just a few months before , Garfield’s name had been one of the 151 listed in the anti-Communist pamphlet Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, perhaps partly because of his connection to the artistically liberal Group Theatre, but also because his wife, Roberta Seidman, had briefly been a member of the party. Inclusion on that list meant death for an actor’s career, and Warner Bros. did little to promote The Breaking Point, almost certainly because of Garfield’s involvement. The picture faded from the landscape. Garfield made one more film, He Ran All the Way (1951). On May 21, 1952, at age thirty-nine, he died of a heart attack.

The depiction of masculinity in American culture after World War II was heavily influenced by the social and cultural changes that took place during and after the war. This period saw a shift in the traditional roles of men and women, as women entered the workforce in large numbers and men returned home from the war, seeking to reclaim their place as providers and protectors.

Heist in The Breaking Point (1950)

One prominent image of masculinity in post-World War II American culture was that of the breadwinner. Men were expected to be the primary earners and providers for their families, and success in the workplace was seen as a measure of their worth as men. 

This emphasis on economic success and material wealth was reflected in popular media, such as advertising and Hollywood films, which often portrayed men as powerful, confident, and in control.

At the same time, there was also a cultural emphasis on physical strength and athleticism as markers of masculinity. This was evident in the rise of sports as a major form of entertainment in American culture, as well as in the popularity of bodybuilding and fitness culture. Men were expected to be physically fit, strong, and capable of protecting their families and communities.

However, this idealized image of masculinity was also accompanied by a cultural fear of weakness and vulnerability. Men were expected to be emotionally stoic, independent, and self-sufficient, and any expression of vulnerability or emotional need was seen as a sign of weakness or femininity. This cultural expectation was reinforced by media representations of men as tough and resilient, able to endure physical and emotional pain without showing weakness.

Sea noir in The Breaking Point (1950)

Overall, the depiction of masculinity in American culture post-World War II was complex, reflecting both the traditional gender roles of the past and the changing social and cultural landscape of the present. 

While men were still expected to be strong providers and protectors, there was also a growing cultural awareness of the importance of emotional and psychological well-being, as well as the need for more nuanced and diverse representations of masculinity in popular culture.

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