Wayback Wednesday: The Breaking Point (1950)

New week, new film! This week’s Wayback Wednesday takes a look at The Breaking Point (1950).

The Breaking Point (1950)

Starring: John Garfield, Patricia Neal, Phyllis Thaxter, Juano Hernandez, Wallace Ford, Edmon Fod
Directed By: Michael Curtiz

Synopsis: An otherwise moral captain of a charter boat becomes financially strapped and is drawn into illegal activities in order to keep up payments on his boat.

The Breaking Point is a fascinating film to witness in this modern era of filmmaking. From it’s direction to the script to the acting, this film feels like a time capsule and also a great lesson to filmmakers today.

What makes this film work so well today is that the script is ruthlessly efficient and inventive. You, much like the character Harry, don’t even realize you’re being hemmed into the point of no return until you are. The film sets us up with several key pieces of information (Harry is a former Marine, having money troubles, and has a skeezy friend) and then maneuvers those pieces into the plot, while never feeling like it’s bending the characters to it’s whim. Harry being jilted by one of his customers the night after being propositioned by his friend might seem convenient but with a director as sure as Curtiz, it felt like a deft changing of the tide, forcing his moral character to start making immoral decisions. As from there the tension and drama just builds. There’s no fat on this movie and even when the movie slows down to facilitate some show stopping scenes, it still feels buoyant. This movie also contains one of the best written and film confrontation scenes I have ever witnessed, when Harry’s wife comes to confront him and the woman who has set her sights on him (the delicious Patricia Neal). These women manage to talk about Harry, stake or not stake their prospective claims, and drag each other, all while not being literally. It was a dazzling thing to witness, and a scene I’m sure I’ll revisit when working on my scripts.

While the words dazzle regardless of era, the acting, while perfect for the film, presents a challenge for this modern viewer. It was fun watching them navigate the seedier aspects and Garfield in particular, manages to sell most of his character’s downward spiral. The problem comes from the fact that it’s so much about gesture and the words and not feeling. It’s too crisp and precise, leaving too much room for the audience to have to flip in the space where the emotion is not. Because of this precision, Wallace Ford’s over the top performance grates on the nerves because he is just so out of place.

The racial politics of this film were also really interesting to witness. The Breaking Point does feature a black man in a significant role and seems to be in a town that’s devoid of racism (it’s set in California). In many ways this role does hew close to the noble negro that’s prevalent in the 50s (see The Imitation of Life), but unlike those films, it ends with a whopper of a downer that made me appreciate the levels the film might be working on with regards to race. Everyone matters in this universe, but it doesn’t shy away from making a subtle observation.

The Breaking Point is one of the best Criterion transfers I have been able to see. The Blurry is just spectacular and shockingly non grainy for a movie shot on film. The sound quality is also top notch.