BR: Moby Dick (1956)

May 22, 2017 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: November 15, 2016

Genre:  Drama / Adventure

Synopsis: Robust, grim adaptation of Herman Melville’s novel in which mad Capt. Ahab marshals his crew to hunt the white whale that claimed his leg.

Special Features: Audio commentary by film historians Julie Kirgo, Paul Seydor, and Nick Redman / Isolated Mono Music Track / Restoration Featurette: “A Bleached Whale – Recreating the Unique Color of Moby Dick” (5:40) / Posters, Lobby cards and Production Stills Gallery / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




Reportedly shot in 1954 and released two years later after a tumultuous production history, John Huston’s film of Herman Melville’s classic 1851 novel may have been poo-pooed by critics, with great disapproval levied on Gregory Peck, but time has been very kind to the film, aging into a beautifully dour, crazily exciting drama that boasts one of Peck’s best screen performances as a villain, and Orson Welles’ own fine moment – a cameo as Father Mapple that stops the film cold with a powerful sermon before the sailors head off to sea in search of whales.

The reason for the film’s fine aging stems from what historian Julie Kirgo sees as a perfect representation of Huston as a boundary breaking filmmaker: shooting on location, using practical sets and effects, playing with colour film processing, selecting powerful angles to emphasize tension, conflict, and mounting madness of characters; selecting a classical film composer to score his one and only film, and choreographing sequences in a kinetic style that makes this 1956 production oddly modern.

Melville’s tale of a young, wide-eyed adventurer joining a commercial whaling hunt and being almost swallowed whole by a captain’s mad quest to kill the beast that scarred his face and claimed his leg may have seemed like box office poison to studios and the film’s eventual backers, but as a drama that traces the effects of obsession on a trapped, loyal crew, this is a magnificent endeavour.

Peck may have been criticized as being too young and cast against his likable screen persona, but his Captain Ahab snarls, glowers, grinds his teeth, and with massive mouthfuls of prose cribbed and crafted by Huston and newcomer Ray Bradbury, his madness becomes almost eloquent, especially in a beautifully paced monologue in which would-be assassin Starbuck (superb Leo Genn) is poised to raise a pistol and end the crew’s looming nightmare, but loses his will under Ahab’s tempered magnetism.

Ahab bears similar traits to modern day cult leaders, offering them a better future through team work, sacrifice for the good of a common noble goal, using peer pressure to isolate rebels, and ultimately convince fence sitters to join in on the mad quest.

As green-eared Ishmael, Richard Basehart (Titanic, The Satan Bug) is too old (the actor was 2 years older than Peck!) but Basehart manages to sell the lad’s naivete through voice and an energetic physical performance, and his deepening friendship with gloomy, doomed headhunter Queequeg, played bizarrely, yet memorably, by Austrian thespian Friederich von Ledebur (who would also appear in Huston’s The Roots of Heaven and John Guillermin’s The Blue Max).

The main cast is surrounded by fine British character actors, including the great Harry Andrews as first mate Stubb, Bernard Miles (Great Expectations, The Man Who Knew Too Much) as the pliable Manxman, and Royal Dano (Something Wicked This Way Comes) in a scene-stealing moment in which he foretells the doom that will claim all but one from Ahab’s suicide mission.

Huston’s film isn’t all negativity: the ship’s sailing from port is a visually and sonically rhythmic montage that’s on par with the equally exciting maiden voyage of The HMS Bounty in Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), as are the whale chases (integrating a real hunt by a Portuguese team), the boiling down of blubber in revolting detail, and a sea storm that almost sends the crew to the ocean’s bottom.

The optimism and energy of his team is soon contrasted by Ahab’s twitchy decision to change course and dump a profitable catch for a suicide mission to kill a single creature, and when the men encounter Moby Dick, the excellent models (for its time) convey a nemesis whose bulk is as vicious and obsessive as Ahab. James Robertson Justice (who co-starred with Peck in Captain Horatio Hornblower and David and Bathsheba) plays Capt. Boomer, who pushes himself on his own mad pursuit of Ahab when the latter refuses to help search for his missing son, and that cruelty is punctuated by Ahab’s final, grisly yet poetic fate.

As Twilight Time’s commentators – Kirgo, producer Nick Redman, and fellow historian Paul Seydor – detail in the exhaustive discussion, Welles and cinematographer Oswald Morris (Moulin Rouge, Our Man in Havana,The Dark Crystal) devised a scheme to shoot the movie full frame, but strike special widescreen prints in which the colour was desaturated to resemble period folk paintings, but all home video editions – tape, and the first DVD from MGM – were full frame transfers with boosted colour.

KINO’s 2015 DVD and TT’s 2016 Blu sport the same 1.66:1 aspect ratio preferred by Huston, but it’s TT’s disc that offers the new restoration in which archival prints were used as reference points to create a faithful colour reproduction of the original 1.66:1 release prints. It does take a bit of time to acclimatize, but the look adds to the film’s bleakness and manic anti-hero Ahab, whom we want to see fight the whale regardless of what it entails for his crew; poor souls motivated by Spanish coin nailed to a mast.

Morris’ cinematographic team included Freddie Francis (The Innocents, The Elephant Man) for second unit and Arthur Ibbetson (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Bounty) as camera operator, and reportedly folded into the crew were uncredited Kevin McClory (co-author of Thunderball) and Jack Clayton (The Innocents, and future director of Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes).

TT’s disc sports a fine transfer, although adding to the film’s unique colour scheme and Huston’s sometimes steep compositions is what seems like a faster shutter speed, especially in the film’s early scenes in the tavern with Ishmael. (This oddness is also present in the KINO DVD, which sports a similarly subdued colour palette.)

Editor Russell Lloyd may be a classic unsung hero of modern montage, having cut many of Huston’s films, including the taut car chases in the director’s equally grim espionage thriller The MacKintosh Man (1973). Lloyd’s later films weren’t as memorable – The Lady Vanishes (1979), uncredited work on Caligula (1979), and the epic dud Absolute Beginners (1986), but is work with Huston deserves study.

Huston would similarly call upon Welles for another small role, again stealing scenes from the cast as the rotund, tabloid ‘journalist’ in The Roots of Heaven (1958).

Critics may have felt Peck unsuitable for villains, but they missed the actors skill in transcending makeup, prosthetics, and wardrobe. Peck’s fine as the much older madman, and a good 20 years later he would deliver a deliciously evil performance as scumbag Dr. Joseph Mengele in Ira Levin’s Nazi sleazefest, The Boys from Brazil (1978), a majestic bowl of rotting fruit. It’s perhaps fitting that Peck’s final role was as Father Mapple in Franc Roddam’s 3 hour 1998 TV version of Melville’s tale.

In addition to TT’s excellent commentary track, Sainton’s score has been isolated in mono on a separate track with a few source cues, and restorationist Greg Kimble narrates a featurette on the film’s look which is eloquently set to a more recent stereo re-recording of the score’s main themes. (More info on the 8 month restoration is detailed at Twilight Time’s main site.) A stills gallery is packed with examples of the film’s original and 1976 reissue art.

Many of Herman Melville’s works have been adapted for the small and big screen, with Moby Dick adapted for TV around the world in 1954, 1972, 1977, 1998, 2005, and 2007, and on film in 1926, 1930, 1956, 1978, 2000, and 2013 (so far).



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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