Home viewing: ‘The Breaking Point’

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John Garfield and Phyllis Thaxter in 'The Breaking Point'
The Criterion Collection

When Jack Warner previewed The Breaking Point in the summer of 1950, he knew he had a hit on his hands. And with good reason: The director was Michael Curtiz, Warner Bros.’ top man with hits like Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Mildred Pierce. The star was John Garfield, a New York method actor with a handful of moody, noir-soaked post-war performances under his belt. The femme fatale was Patricia Neal, an icy hot blond who sent shivers of electricity through every scene. The script was drawn from Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, and screenwriter Ranald MacDougall somehow managed literary fidelity while improving upon the original. The movie was a classic ready for its close-up.

But when Garfield’s name turned up in Red Channels: The Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television, all bets were off. Warner buried the movie and kept it from rerelease. Garfield was essentially blacklisted and put under heavy strain from both the government and a Hollywood establishment trying to make good. The stress was too much, and on May 21, 1952, Garfield’s weakened heart gave out. He was 39.

Garfield was no communist. He was, in his words, “A Democrat by politics, a liberal by inclination, and a loyal citizen of this country by every act of my life.” It didn’t matter, Garfield’s wife, Roberta Seidman, had been a member of the party years prior (she had hopes of getting workers better working conditions), and everyone knew Garfield was staunchly anti-racist. That was enough to make people smell pinko back then. And considering The Breaking Point features one of the most even-handed relationships between a black and a white man (Juano Hernández and Garfield respectively), it’s no coincidence that this was the movie Warner buried to appease a center-right public.

Thankfully, nothing ever truly disappears, and on July 25 and 26, TCM will broadcast The Breaking Point as part of the ongoing Noir Alley weekly series — appointment television at its best.

Hemingway was one of the few who did see the movie on its initial run, and loved it, telling anyone who asked that it was the best adaptation of any of his work. Probably because The Breaking Point is an honest depiction of working men and the endless array of traps waiting to trip them up. And probably because Warner Bros.’ previous adaptation of the novel, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, kept the title and the boat and pitched the rest.

Or maybe it was because Hemingway was friends with Neal, who excels here as femme fatale Leona Charles. She’s great, but Phyllis Thaxter, playing Harry’s wife, Lucy, practically steals the show. Her scenes are the best in the movie, and some of the best domestic scenes in cinema history. You don’t often see a husband and wife on equal footing like this, nor do you see it this sexually charged.

The Breaking Point could have been big, but it wasn’t. It was tossed out with the garbage along with Garfield’s corpse. History can be cruel like that. But a good work is a good work, and, on a long enough timeline, the cream will always rise to the top.