Friday, March 5, 2010

The Sea Wolf (Warners, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was the 1941 Warner Bros. version of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, with future director Robert Rossen as screenwriter and Michael Curtiz directing a cast that included Edward G. Robinson as “Wolf” Larsen, tyrannical captain of the seal-hunting schooner Ghost; Alexander Knox as Humphrey Van Weyden, the rather effeminate writer Larsen rescues from a shipwreck, puts to work as a cabin boy and has intellectual discussions with once Van Weyden stumbles on Larsen’s book collection (it includes works by Milton, Darwin, Nietzsche, Poe and other writers with intellectual cachet) and realizes Larsen isn’t just a tyrannical ship’s captain but also a man with some knowledge of culture; John Garfield as George Leach (a character Rossen added to the story), a fugitive from justice who in the opening scene pours out the drugged drink Larsen’s recruiter was about to give him and says, “You don’t need to slip me a Mickey to get me on your boat”; and Ida Lupino as Maude Brewster, a.k.a. Ruth Webster, another fugitive from justice, an escaped convict who had been on a ferryboat with Van Weyden and had tried to get him to hide her from the police (he had refused) when a large steamship rammed the ferry in the San Francisco fog. (For a while so many ships seem to be involved in this movie that it gets a bit confusing to figure out which is which and which one’s going to be the focus of the story.)

This is generally considered to be the best movie version of this oft-filmed story (Michael Druxman’s 1970’s book Make It Again, Sam lists eight versions— including a quirky 1950 adaptation called Barricade which moved the action from a ship to a gold mine whose crazy owner was using slave labor and imprisoning his own workforce — and there’ve been at least two more since; lists 13 entries for The Sea Wolf, though two are TV-movies and two are TV series, and not all of the stand-alone films on the list may be based on London’s novel), thanks largely to the impeccable atmosphere. Set in San Francisco in 1900 — and centered around a sailing ship at a time when such vessels were already long obsolete (one reason Wolf is so pathologically jealous of his brother, Death Larsen, also a captain, seems to be just simple jealousy that Death’s ship is a steamer) — The Sea Wolf takes full advantage of San Francisco’s fabled fogs, which seem to follow Wolf’s ship, the Ghost, around even when it sets out to sea, ostensibly to hunt seals but actually to seek out Death Larsen and hijack his seal cargo — Death Larsen being to Wolf what Moby Dick was to Ahab.

Curtiz and his superb cinematographer, Sol Polito, create a marvelously sinister visual “look” for the film and managed to maintain the atmosphere throughout. (There seems to be some uncertainty as to the running time; lists 100 minutes for the original theatrical version, 90 minutes for the home video and 87 minutes for this TCM version.) The musical score adds to this film’s appeal; surprisingly, instead of using Max Steiner (who did most of Curtiz’s big movies) Warners assigned it to Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who writes a quite dissonant and sophisticated score that plays almost continuously throughout the film — just as Jack Warner liked it — and showed he could compose for a quite different sort of sea story than the Errol Flynn spectaculars. Also crucial to the success of this film is a marvelous supporting cast, notably Barry Fitzgerald as the ship’s cook, whom Wolf forces overboard and tows from a rope until a shark attacks and eats the cook’s leg, whereupon Wolf has him hauled back on board (for once Fitzgerald gets to play a role that isn’t an avuncular Irishman with all the shamrock schtick in place — and he does so well, giving his put-upon victim real pathos); Howard da Silva as one of the crew members (he doesn’t have much screen time but he makes every moment tell); and Gene Lockhart as Dr. Prescott, an alcoholic burn-out who remembers what a great doctor he was when his hands didn’t shake.

The leads are also good, but a bit more problematic; Edward G. Robinson turns in a fine performance on its own terms but he doesn’t match Jack London’s description of Wolf Larsen as a tall, blond Aryan god, and as he snarls and slaps his way through his role one can’t help but think, “Ah, Little Caesar at sea.” John Garfield is a tough screen presence but other movies he made during this period — even ones like Out of the Fog which weren’t as good overall — better showed off his Method acting chops (Garfield was the first Method actor to become a movie star and it frequently comes across in the relatively underacted nature of his performances — especially when he played gangsters, which he did with a sort of cool desperation quite at odds with the bravura of Robinson and Cagney at the same studio and the same time), and Ida Lupino is well suited for her part as a piece of human flotsam — only she spends a good deal of the movie below deck, deathly ill, and when she does speak quite a lot of her British accent remains. (Later on she did such a good job of losing it that it actually cost her a part as an Englishwoman.)

It would be interesting to see the one previous sound version of The Sea Wolf — a Fox production from 1930 starring Milton Sills, who no doubt came closer to London’s physical description of Wolf (and who, judging from the one film of his I have seen — the 1924 silent version of The Sea Hawk — comes off as tall, handsome and quite a powerful screen presence; while a lot of silent leading men were rather beefy types who wouldn’t seem sexy today, Sills was hot enough he holds his own in both the looks and acting departments against Errol Flynn, who starred in the sound version) — and at times during this one I wish Warners had cast Humphrey Bogart as Wolf, not only because Bogart was a more sensitive actor (certainly the relationship between Wolf and Van Weyden recalls that between Leslie Howard’s effete poet and Bogart’s Dillinger-esque gangster in The Petrified Forest, made at Warners four years earlier) but because he could have managed the transitions between Larsen the intellectual manqué and Larsen the villainous brute more effectively than Robinson, who seems to be thinking to himself as he’s acting, “O.K., now I speak … now I snarl.”

Robinson’s anti-fascist credentials probably attracted him to this part — 1941 critics almost inevitably compared Wolf Larsen to Hitler in his megalomania and his dementia (especially since Rossen’s script specifically makes Larsen a Nietzschean who embraces as his personal motto the cry of Milton’s Satan, “Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven”) — and it’s possible that the Warners casting department looked back on Charles Laughton’s performance as Captain Bligh in the 1935 Mutiny on the Bounty for MGM and thought, “Laughton’s short and stocky — if he can play a tyrant of the sea, so can Eddie Robinson!” (At that The Sea Wolf strikes one as odd in the sheer pointlessness of Wolf Larsen’s voyage; at least Bligh got his crew to Tahiti and picked up the breadfruit trees before the mutiny.) This was also the film that, according to associate producer Henry Blanke, Rossen took 20 weeks to write his script — and during that time Jack Warner ran across a clipping that said Jack London had written the original novel in just two weeks and asked why it was taking Rossen 10 times as long to adapt the story as it had taken London to write it in the first place. According to, The Sea Wolf was yet another episode in the bizarre self-destruction of George Raft’s film career — he was offered the Garfield role and turned it down because it was too small — thereby adding this to High Sierra, The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity on the list of films Raft turned down for stupid or petty reasons and thereby helped boost the careers of the actors who finally did make them: Bogart in High Sierra and Falcon, Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity.