Saturday, May 5, 2018

The Sea Wolf

During the month of Michael Curtiz movies, one that I recorded because I hadn't seen it in ages is The Sea Wolf.

The action begins in San Francisco in 1900. George Leach (John Garfield) is a man on the run from the law who is looking for a way to escape the city. Being a port city, getting a job on a ship going to sea seems like an obvious way to escape. A guy alongside George at the bar offers him a job on a ship, but George sees the bartender slip him a mickey. Still, George takes the job!

Meanwhile, Ruth (Ida Lupino) is on the run from the law and gets on a different ship, along with the writer Julius (Alexander Knox). That ship runs into the ferry, leading to people getting thrown overboard. Ruth and Julius are recovered, on the same ship where George is working.

Not that either of them would want it that way. The captain "Wolf" Larsen (Edward G. Robinson) is running a sealing boat, and the plan is to go to sea, catch those seals, and only then return to San Francisco. And it's not as if they're going to be in the normal shipping lanes. Making matters worse is that Wolf is a no-nonsense taskmaster as captain.

Actually, that's a bit of an understatement. OK, more than a bit of understatement. Wolf believes the bit from Milton's Paradise Lost that it's "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven", and boy is he reigning in Hell! The thing is, pretty much everybody on board is there because they're escaping a criminal past, so the alternative to not taking orders from Wolf is obviously pretty bad. The one guy who might think about a bit of rebellion is the doctor Prescott (Gene Lockhart), but he'd be happy with a bit of respect.

Ultimately, George decides to lead a rebellion, although the ship's cook Cooky (Barry Fitzgerald) is an all-watching eye who finds being a stool pigeon for Wolf is the least bad option. How the hell is anybody going to escape this ship?

The Sea Wolf is a well-made movie with good acting performances, particularly from Knox and Robinson. Knox is an actor you'd probably best remember from Wilson in 1944, since Knox's portrayal of the president probably should have brought him an Academy Award, he was that far above every other performance that year. Knox for whatever reason never really got plum roles after Wilson, which is a shame because he already shows here how much potential he has. Robinson's performance should come as no surprise. He plays a man who, although brutal, is probably also going mad, I'd guess from a brain tumor of some sort since he's got some condition that causes temporary blindness. It's a difficult role to make anything but a caricature, and Robinson does it with aplomb.

The print of The Sea Wolf that TCM ran was about 87 minutes. I was wondering what would happen since I saw that the Blu-ray is 100 minutes. It turns out that when The Sea Wolf was re-released in the late 1940s, about 13 minutes of footage were cut. That footage was only rediscovered in the last few years, and a restored print was made. That restoration got its Blu-ray release earlier this year, but I'd assume that the terms of the release prevent TCM from running that print for some period of time. I don't know what footage was cut, but even the cut version is quite good.

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