Tried to make me go to Ahab

Bits of John Huston’s MOBY DICK had Fiona’s jaw hanging open. If you could only reach into the screen, peal Gregory Peck’s image off it and replace him with someone else — Walter Huston would be right if his son had made it earlier — John himself would have been excellent, and you can see Peck straining to give Hustonian line readings — and one can imagine other leading men of the period being terrific — Robert Ryan was born to it (see BILLY BUDD), Trevor Howard could have nailed it, Robert Mitchum would have done something really surprising. Sterling Hayden had already worked with Huston so I can’t understand why he wasn’t thought of. Peck is certainly trying, but it’s a matter of essence, not just skill or willingness. And Peck’s essence is stiffness. “They’ve given him a nose and a scar and a wooden leg and he still can’t do anything!” declared a friend. He works himself into a suitable pitch, he takes risks, and none of it is particularly convincing or effective.

Maybe some of it is physiognomic: they glued on a fresh nose, but they can’t conceal the sensuous lips, which tend to look petulant rather than fierce.

However, this lack at the film’s centre seems to energize Huston — his blocking becomes both ornate and muscular, the build-up given to Peck’s appearance as Ahab is tremendous, and Philip Sainton’s score really gives it the hard sell — tragic that he never scored another film (apparently he was scheduled to do A KING IN NEW YORK, but quit, perhaps not wishing to merely transcribe his director’s humming.

Ossie Morris’s b&w/colour hybrid cinematography is consistently striking, and the whole thing has a visceral, weighty quality that even survives the unavoidable model shots — editor Russell Lloyd became a regular Huston collaborator after skillfully intercutting real whales, life-sized replicas, men and boats at sea and in the studio tank, and model shots completed months after principal photography, flicking from one to the other with such energy that the reality shifts are almost seamless. FX wise, it’s a weird case of the whale being impressive without being convincing; this at least places it a notch higher than Bruce the shark in JAWS who is neither. I mean, you know it can’t have been easy, but your hat remains on your head.

Richard Basehart is good — not too interesting, which seems right for the cypher-like Ishmael. A younger actor might have been more “right,” but Basehart being the wrong type adds the right kind of interest. His speech also has a Huston-like quality, and in Joe Losey’s FINGER OF GUILT the same year, he delivers cinema’s first full-on Huston impersonation, anticipating Clint Eastwood in WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART and Daniel Day-Lewis in THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Best in show: Harry Andrews, who implausibly just seems to BE his hearty whaler character, and Leo Genn’s pensive Starbuck who can make underplaying hit hard.

An 8/10ths masterpiece. The Hollywood Gold Series Blu Ray delivers solid picture values (much better than the DVD used for these images).

MOBY DICK stars Atticus Finch, Ivan Karamazov, Sir Clifford Chatterley, Sir Lancelot Spratt, the 13th Earl of Gurney, Joe Gargery, Bob Cratchit, Tom Fury, Charles Foster Kane and the voice of the Lawgiver.

17 Responses to “Tried to make me go to Ahab”

  1. For the strangest adaptation of “Moby Dick” (and several other literary works), seek out “The Famous Adventures of Mister Magoo”.

    Drawing the most wrong conclusion possible from the success of “Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol”, UPA produced a series that rendered Great Works of Literature …
    — All in half-hour form (with the occasional multi-episode story)
    — All on low budgets and short turnaround
    — All sterilized and dumbed down, sometimes beyond recognition
    — All starring Magoo. He plays Ishmael, D’Artagnan, Cyrano, the Count of Monte Cristo, Puck, Noah, Victor Frankenstein, Gunga Din, and a few that almost make sense, like Don Quixote and Dr. Watson. The nearsighted schtick was limited to the intros, but the rest of the time you had Jim Backus trying to play straight through the Magoo voice.

  2. Ther was an earlier silent version which completely heterosexualizes Melville’s very gay story. Even though he sticks closer to the text there’s nothing gay about the Huston. No scene of Ishmael and Queequag going to bed together and gettin’ it on.

    Frederik Lederbur who plays Queequag turns up in Fellini’s “Juliet of the Spirits” of all things as a religious hallucination.

  3. The Barrymore Mobies are astonishing feats of bowdlerization. Saddening because he could have done a “straight” Ahab to die for, but of course he camps it up with gusto.

    Basehart and Lebedur DO bed down, but there’s no hint of hanky panky.

    Am curious about those Magoos.

  4. No mention of Ray Bradbury here, though he even wrote an entire book about his experience working on this film…

  5. I decided not to get into the script at all this time. “He gave Ray Bradbury a kind of nervous breakdown,” I was recently told by one who was there. Some of Bradbury’s additions are so purely Melvillian, I feel sure Herman would have wished he’d thought of them.

    Two other screenwriters also worked on it, which is less well known. And that’s not counting Welles, who tinkered with his own lines, and Huston, who tinkered with everything, always (exception: The Misfits).

  6. kevin mummery Says:

    I saw Moby Dick about 6 months after having seen Slaughterhouse Five, and as soon as Frederick Ledebur turned up as Queequeg every word that came out of his mouth was translated in my mind as “schlachthof funf”.

  7. He IS a very Germanic savage. But with a great makeup!

  8. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    Huston said that with Moby Dick he was drawn to the gnostic side of it…you know the whale is God living in a false world and Ahab is fighting God and trying to impose his reality and so on. So it’s part of his famously atheistic streak that runs through his movies, so Moby-Dick is I think crucial towards putting that across.

    It is still all things considered the best Moby-Dick on screen and an excellent production. But Moby-Dick is one of those books where “the best is not good enough” and obviously it needs someone who looks at it from a 21st cenury view.

  9. Interesting that Father Mapple’s sermon gave Huston some trouble, and Welles solved it for him by bringing it back to thye book. As with Wise Blood, Huston resisted the Christian implications of the text.

    I guess I don’t see that stuff as particularly viable in the 21st century so I stubborn throwback of a director might suit it best, but the gay subtext would need someone more modern: the homophobic, macho Huston was no kind of ideal match for that.

  10. Sudarshan Ramani Says:

    There’s a lot to unpack in Moby-Dick because it’s got this real environmental post-national thing. Ahab’s crew is really multi-cultural and international he has lascars and others, one of them a Parsee from India is someone Ahab pals with, you have Queequeg and Ishmael, you have an epic boat journey across the Pacific Ocean (and since this is the century of the Pacific it fits). And fundamentally, Moby-Dick is a cosmic story. It looks forward to Lovecraft. The ancient whale and “the great shroud of sea” that rolls on as it did thousands of years. Once climate change arrives, the shroud of the sea will cover us too and roll on till supernova. So I’d say it’s very contemporary and 21st Century, and of course you can go further with the homosexuality in the book. Moby-Dick is already a science-fiction and post-apocalyptic book in a lot of respects, and heck other Melville works do that, like take Carax’s POLA X which blends so many period elements in a way that really feels Melvillian and also apocalyptic. The Confidence-Man is of course of the minute Post-2016 in relevance.

    Huston, the guy who produced Sartre’s Huis-Clos for its American debut was seeing it from a post-war existentialist view and that was important in subverting the Hays Code and the Christian ideology of that time. But it might be less so today than back then.

  11. It still attains a pitch of jaw-dropping madness… and the production stories I’ve just been told add a whole other realm of the absurd.

  12. 1. Orson’s MOBY DICK REHEARSED!! (how much *actually* exists?)
    2. being no fan of Gregory Peck, i realised a while ago that in almost every single one of his movies he can be replaced to indisputable advantage by James Mason (the only exceptions being the westerns, i think – can’t bring myself to scour his filmography for others. )

  13. In theory, maybe ALL of MDR exists, but WHERE? Orson WAS prone to exaggerate how complete the shooting was on his projects, I guess.

    Yes, Peck is generally ripe for the Kevin Spacey digital replacement technique. You could sub in Widmark for the westerns, except for Yellow Sky, because he’s already in that one. Actually, I’ll grant Peck his role in The Big Country because it’s a western AND it requires a physically imposing guy who’s also a tower of rectitude.

  14. i’d rather watch a film with two widmarks than one peck

  15. Richard Widmark as evil twins!

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