The Sea Wolf (1941)
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Produced by Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner, Henry Blanke
Screenplay by Robert Rossen, based on the novel by Jack London
Music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Cinematography by Sol Polito
Warner Archive Blu-ray (1:40)
The recent Blu-ray release of The Sea Wolf deserves at the very least a parade down the streets of Hollywood, or the 21st century equivalent: a potpourri of tweets, shares, postings, and good old fashioned word-of-mouth praise. Not only have the fine folks at Warner Archive given us a beautiful 4K scan of the film, they’ve also restored 14 minutes of missing footage cut from the film’s 1947 re-release. And let’s not forget that this release also provides us with yet another example of the greatness of director Michael Curtiz.
Based on Jack London’s famous 1904 novel, Robert Rossen’s screenplay presents not only a brilliant, multilayered examination of a character who on the surface seems primarily cruel and sadistic, Rossen also manages to weave in at least three (I would argue four) other characters just as interesting. The film pulls you in from the first frame as we witness a man running in desperation through the foggy streets of San Francisco in 1900. This man, George Leach (John Garfield), is fleeing from the police, seeking work on a ship, any ship leaving as soon as possible.
Ruth Brewster (Ida Lupino) is also eluding the authorities, having just escaped from a women’s prison. Brewster finds a lone stranger named Van Weyden (Alexander Knox) waiting for his passenger ship, a man she implores to act as her lover for as long as it takes for the police to pass her by.
Despite several warnings from the locals, Leach finds work on board the Ghost, a hellish pirate ship masquerading as a seal-hunting vessel. (Brewster and Van Weyden also find themselves aboard the Ghost, but I won’t tell you how.) The ship’s crew is filled with rogues and cutthroats, destitute characters we’ve seen many times before as either stereotypes or parodies, but here they’re deadly serious outcasts without hope, having no other place that will accept them. Although we know these are actors, one look at their faces makes us believe that each of these men carry stories that would repulse and disgust you.
Allow me next to introduce you to the captain of the Ghost, Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson), a brutal, intimidating commander in complete control of the universe of his ship. Larsen has no time for formalities or rules (other than his own) or even a shred of common decency. He throws Leach into menial labor, forces Van Weyden (who as a writer, has no seafaring experience whatsoever) to be his cabin boy, and barely tolerates the presence of Brewster, who has become deathly ill from exposure. Her only hope of recovery lies in the hands of Prescott (Gene Lockhart), the drunken ship’s doctor.
Larsen’s depth of character emerges through an open page from one of the books lining his cabin, the famous Milton quote, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Van Weyden stumbles into Larsen’s cabin to discover this and other works of literature, volumes that certainly couldn’t belong to such a brutish skipper, yet they do. Van Weyden can’t understand how a mind as sadistic and hateful as Larsen’s can also embrace works of contemplative, high-level thought. To his credit, Larsen has long sought another man on board worthy of his intellect, someone with whom he can converse, but soon realizes that Van Weyden has only read about such things; he’s never lived them as Larsen has. Larsen labels Van Weyden as a man too privileged to have ever gotten his hands dirty in the depths of depravity that constitutes the human condition.
We’re almost certain that Curtiz is setting us up for a major showdown between the two men, ratcheting up the tension and conflict until something explodes. There’s a battle being fought here, but it’s not going to be a conventional fight of man against man, philosophy against philosophy; other elements – and people – will be involved. We watch as secrets are uncovered, men are betrayed. This, however, doesn’t stop Larsen and Van Weyden from being totally transparent with each other. During one magnificent scene, Van Weyden finds the courage to tell Larsen the truth about himself, describing the evil nature of the captain’s soul. As his monologue continues, we see a light from a porthole across the cabin reflected on Van Weyden’s face, illumination rising and falling as if the writer’s fate vacillates moment by moment between life and death.
As much as we believe that neither Larsen nor Van Weyden will yield an inch, we witness an amazing (and heart wrenching) transformation take place in Dr. Prescott. We feel the weight of the doctor’s defeat and humiliation. He’s a drunk, but he still has his pride (and a suit of clothes that represents it) that he’s still a professional man worthy of his title. Once he has successfully treated Brewster and brought about her recovery (which probably surprised the good doctor as much as anyone), Prescott demands of Larsen that the crew give him their respect. Larsen’s reaction to that demand and what happens immediately afterward is one of those moments so astounding in power and conviction it’s hard to believe you’re actually witnessing it. Here is Larsen being challenged with no intervening forces to stop that challenge, certainly no force within himself. There’s only one way it can be stopped, but not until the challenge is completely finished and the damage is forever done. If I’m being vague, it’s because I don’t want to give away this amazing moment. Once you’ve seen it, you won’t forget it or Lockhart’s performance.
In saving Brewster, Prescott has also transformed her. We learn what her life was like up to this point and see how her brush with death has changed her outlook. Although she’s absent for much of the film’s first hour, and Leach only appears sporadically (mostly to mouth off and get slapped around by Larsen), it’s no surprise that they’re going to join up to plan their escape and perhaps more. As with Van Weyden, their characters are well-drawn and developed, amazingly so in a film with so many good characters brought to life by excellent performances. But in the end, it’s Robinson’s film. His portrayal of Larsen with his constant headaches (which must have influenced those of James Cagney’s character Cody Jarrett in 1949’s White Heat) and plotting mind show why Robinson – despite never winning an Academy Award or even being nominated* – is such a great actor. Robinson made a living playing evil characters and Larsen is one of the vilest in classic cinema, if not all of cinema. Was Larsen meant to represent fascist dictators or simply act as the story’s villain? It’s really a moot point. Robinson puts everything on the screen and shows, as he did in so many other films, that raw power comes with a price.
The career of Michael Curtiz is thankfully being reconsidered lately, thanks to the new biography by Alan K. Rode, Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film (2017) from University Press of Kentucky. With a long and distinguished career in Europe before coming to America in 1926, Curtiz’s filmography is nothing less than jaw-dropping. His classics (Captain Blood, Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Yankee Doodle Dandy, and many, many others) speak for themselves but many films like The Sea Wolf are waiting to be explored by new audiences and enjoyed again by those who’ve already experienced his work. Curtiz could handle any genre and in The Sea Wolf you could argue that he combines sea adventure, film noir and horror all in one, and does so expertly.
I realize I’ve said nothing about the magnificent battle scenes, the Sol Polito cinematography, the presence of both Barry Fitzgerald and Howard Da Silva, and the amazing Erich Wolfgang Korngold score, all of which are tremendous. The entire film is a delight not to be missed.
Photos: Blu-ray.com, Doctor Macro
*Robinson was posthumously awarded an Oscar for lifetime achievement in 1973.