by Robert Horton
The Breaking Point, a noirish 1950 Hemingway adaptation, received a deluxe DVD/Blu-ray release this month, courtesy the Criterion Collection. An interesting film in its own right, it’s also part of the very entertaining cinematic afterlife of Hemingway’s allegedly “worst” novel (which is not his worst novel). So I take the release as an excuse to write about this afterlife, and the literary original.
To Have and Have Not is a curious book. Ernest Hemingway, already a celebrated figure in American letters, assembled the novel by taking two two short stories and expanding on their main character, a Key West charter-boat captain named Harry Morgan. The book, published in 1937, begins with the two stories and then launches into another plot, so it has a built-in episodic structure. In the longest section, Morgan—left high and dry by someone who commissioned his boat and then skipped out on paying—reluctantly takes a job ferrying a group of bank robbers out to a rendezvous point at sea. This structure can (and has) been criticized as a clunky stapling-together of different pieces, but its radical shifts and disjointedness actually fit Hemingway’s modernist inclinations. Even in the longest section, we’re occasionally jerked out of Morgan’s point of view and into the mind of somebody else—a startling technique, especially when the interior monologue flips to Morgan’s wife Marie, who has her own vivid view on their economically humble lives.
The novel was written during a time when Hemingway was frequently in Spain, covering and participating in the Spanish Civil War, where the leftist Republicans were fighting against Franco’s fascist forces. Some think this may have influenced the political flavor of To Have and Have Not, which is captured by its title—there are people in the novel who have, and others, like Harry Morgan, who decidedly have not. In some ways the most remarkable portion of the book is in its final chapters, when Hemingway boldly pauses the suspenseful forward motion of the bank robbers’ escape and focuses on some of the wealthy visitors to Key West, whom he sketches in devastating detail—they sound like the kind of people he had come to know as a celebrated writer.
Hemingway’s skepticism kept him from embracing any political philosophy (although To Have and Have Not comes close). Unless, that is, there is a political philosophy contained in the words that Harry speaks after he is shot and delirious, when he talks about how a man isn’t any good alone. There is an echt-Hemingway philosophy of survival, or of life, in this passage after Harry is shot on his boat at sea:
“He lay on his back and tried to breathe steadily. The launch rolled in the Gulf Stream swell and Harry Morgan lay on his back in the cockpit. At first he tried to brace himself against the roll with his good hand. Then he lay quietly and took it.”
That’s the end of a chapter, and indeed the point where we leave Morgan’s story for many pages. But there you have Hemingway in a very small number of words—at first Harry tried to brace himself, “Then he lay quietly and took it.” Life and death, and an attitude toward both.
To the extent that people still consider the Hemingway oeuvre—and they should—To Have and Have Not is a lesser-regarded novel. But it’s much more interesting that its reputation suggests. The book has some splendid descriptions of the sea, and of Key West, which is described in terse but very specific detail, and the unusual shifts in perspective are sometimes thrilling.
In film circles, the book is known for its adaptations, but also for a famous anecdote that rags on it. Howard Hawks told critic Joseph McBride that he was fishing with Hemingway and told the author he could make a good movie out of Hemingway’s worst book. When Hemingway asked what his worst book was, Hawks allegedly said, “That piece of junk called To Have and Have Not.” What Hawks did with the book, in his 1944 film classic, was to toss out most of the novel. But he took the character of Harry Morgan and the Gulf location and make a wonderful movie out of it.
This movie you know—or you should. “You know how to whistle, don’t you Steve?”, and all that. It is both blissful Hollywood entertainment and a dazzling Hawks study of how people treat each other and learn to figure out who’s good (“good” doesn’t mean sober or honest, but professional and competent). It has very little of the novel, as Hawks and two credited screenwriters—William Faulkner and Jules Furthman—jettisoned the Depression for a WWII setting.
The movie is not set in Key West but in Martinique. This allows for some World War II action to enter the picture, between the Axis powers and the Vichy French on one side and the Free French on the other. It’s probably influenced by the success of Casablanca the year before, and of course shares that film’s star, Humphrey Bogart. Bogart plays Morgan, and the first section of the movie does use bits of the novel, especially the part about a guy stiffing Morgan for the price of a long charter at sea. Hawks turned the film into another of his studies of people who live by certain codes, and who understand each other’s speech patterns and who recognize others who are good enough to live by these codes.
The film was a big hit, despite being unfaithful to the book, except perhaps in spirit. Maybe that’s why in 1950 someone decided to adapt the novel again, understandably leaving aside a title that had become associated more with the Bogart movie than with Hemingway. This was The Breaking Point, starring John Garfield as Morgan, and sticking a little closer to Hemingway’s plot about a doomed agreement between Morgan and the robbers. Other things are pretty heavily sanitized, and the story is moved from Key West to Newport, California. As the film opens, we see that Harry Morgan has money trouble he can’t seem to shake, and that the system is rigged against guys like him. In short, we know immediately this is a film noir.
Later the film catches the mood of Hemingway when Morgan’s professional meets the gangsters who want to hire his boat. The women in Morgan’s world aren’t exactly from the novel, because the film is a little too clean for that, but they are intriguing: Phyllis Thaxter as Harry’s loyal but steely wife, and Patricia Neal as the flirty companion of the jackass who stiffed Morgan on his fee. A long scene featuring the three of them in a bar is refreshingly grown-up, even if the film has to skirt the lustier aspects of the book.
Ranald MacDougall, who is credited as a writer on Mildred Pierce and Raoul Walsh’s very eccentric western Possessed, did the adaptation; Michael Curtiz directs with his usual forceful visual schemes and a fragrant feel for the declining waterfront. As for Garfield, he feels closer to Hemingway’s literary hero, a bit more second-rate and broken-down than Bogart is in the Hawks picture; you never really worry about Bogart, but with Garfield you suspect he could actually lose it all. (This was Garfield’s penultimate film before dying in 1952 at age 39, hounded by blacklist rumors.)
In the internet age, there’s a tendency to seize on each re-discovered semi-classic with a certain amount of hyperbole; a whole lotta good movies are suddenly great movies because someone is seeing them for the first time. So let’s be clear that The Breaking Point is a very fine, very atmospheric movie, and it doesn’t have to be a great movie to be worth celebrating. Because it’s not a great movie, but it remains intriguing. It has an unusual ending that refers to the character of Harry’s assistant, played by Juano Hernandez (a variation on the Walter Brennan character in To Have and Have Not). Race plays an interesting role with this character and in these final moments, much in the spirit of the late-1940s Hollywood recognition that race might be an important subject for a picture.
There’s one other take on the book, the 1958 Audie Murphy vehicle The Gun Runners, directed by Don Siegel. I haven’t seen that one in a long time, so it’ll have to wait for further comment from here (of course Scarecrow has it, in the Siegel section). In the meantime, look for The Breaking Point, re-visit the Hawks film (it does not age), and maybe take a look at the least-appreciated Hemingway novel, which is not a piece of junk at all.