Stars – Richard Baseheart, Gregory Peck, Orson Welles, Leo Genn, Harry Andrews, Friedrich von Ledebur
Director – John Huston
Released by Twilight Time
Limited edition of 3,000 units
Available at Screenarchives.com and Twilighttimemovies.com
Reviewed by Steven Ruskin
The indelible image in John Huston’s version of Moby Dick, for me is not the whale, nor Captain Ahab. It is Orson Welles delivering a sermon for the ages from a unique pulpit. This takes place very early on in the picture. We’ve seen Richard Baseheart traipsing across the countryside asking us to call him Ishmael. He has a dink at the local tavern and joins in singing the sea shanties and other songs. He’d met the strange tattoo covered Queequeg and the two have pledged to set out on a whaling vessel, Captain Ahab’s Pequod. Director John Huston gives us precious little time on land. He’s not at all concerned with setting up this New England whaling town set on the seaside. When we first go inside the church Huston pans along the walls so we can see the various plaques well enough to read them. Someone was lost at sea. There is a list of crew members who disappeared with a ship. But the vast majority of the deaths were cased by whales. After we are settled in with a good look at the congregation Welles as Father Maple makes his entrance. He strides down a hallway and unfurls a rope ladder, much like the ones you’d see on the sides of ships. He easily ambles up the rope and takes the pulpit. Unlike any other pulpit you’ve ever seen this one is built like the prow of a ship. He looks out over his audience as if he is scanning the seas. He often refers to his congregation as mates. He intones a serious sermon but refrains from a bombastic tone. Welles modulates his reading so well. As you watch him coax these mellifluous pronunciations out of the words you can’t help but think he is sending this next ship The Pequod out for its final voyage. It is a benediction for unmitigated disaster. Another plaque will soon join the others on the wall.
The quality of Orson Welles’ performance is so fitting so a number of reasons. The chief one being the fact that the acting is the best part of the film that unfolds. Though we go though the motions of setting sail and a few other things to keep the boat all ship shape we never get a real strong sense of being at sea. Instead it is the attitudes of the sailors on board that convey the strange devotion to the arduous task of going whaling often for years at a time. When we first see Gregory Peck as Ahab with his stove pipe hat and beard you can’t help but think of him as Abraham Lincoln with a peg leg. His acting is fine. His line readings have character but Peck is not fearsome enough and that hurts his portrayal. Much of the dialogue and interaction between the crew has this larger than life quality to it. It often feels like lines from a book being read, albeit read well. The talk is too mannered for things to feel comfortable. Perhaps this was the intention. Others film have this kind of dialogue but they flow much better. Many times during the film when events have turned dire for the crew Peck gathers them around the ship’s mast and delivers a powerful motivational speech often caped off by a hearty drink. His sharing of a beer or whatever the brew is feels very forced. Still there are many performances that stand out. Harry Andrews with his funny looking cap plays the quintessential New England sailor to the hilt. He is full of bravado and exudes an earthy camaraderie with all on board. Leon Genn as Starbuck does an able job trying to keep order. At one point when it is clear Ahab will go after this white whale forsaking all hopes of making money on the voyage his character suggests mutiny to a few others. Friedrich von Ledebur as the mysterious Queeqoeg looks and behaves almost otherworldly. Baseheart holds steady as the lone witness to all of this. He gets across that he so wants to believe in Captain Ahab. He is yearning for a successful and mythic voyage.
Lastly a thought or two about that whale. It is in a word – terrible. We mostly see the side of the creature. Due to the photographic process used by DP Oswald Morris any texture the skin may have had is washed out. The signature move of a whale with that huge tail slapping down on the sea or maybe a small boat is never exploited. We just see it way in the distance or chugging along like a rounded barge. It is never seen underwater where we’d be able to get a good look at the massive beast. That may be intentional. For the interaction with the men in the ocean at the end miniatures are used. The man who did the special effects August Lohman worked on films like The Bowery Boys Meet the Monsters. The Bowery Boys films are great fun but not where you’d look to find an F/X person to build the mighty Moby Dick. At one point in the film we see this rigidly constructed mouth with rows of teeth on either side come down like a gangplank or the underside or a large puppet. By 1956 special effects were much more capable of handling giant monsters than this film took advantage of. Eiji Tsuburaya’s work with miniatures in Godzilla (Gojira 1954) was spectacular. The giant ants constructed for Them! (1954) got the job done nicely. Perhaps the most incredible work done in the field was by Ray Harryhausen. What he did with Mighty Joe Young (1949) and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953) was just jaw dropping. The Beast even had some scenes done in the water. What really boggles the mind is that he was a good friend of the co-writer of Moby Dick, Ray Bradbury. Looking back we can see that Ray was exceedingly busy then. Perhaps he was asked and preferred to generate his own projects. In short the whale could have looked a whole lot better.
For getting the Herman Melville story told the more recent version in 1998 with Patrick Stewart as Ahab succeeds better. Gregory Peck even played the part of Father Maple in that one. If one has seen it you can’t help but consider Ron Howard’s film In The Heart of The Sea (2015). In that one we see Herman Melville researching the actual story that inspired him to write Moby Dick. Though I am not a fan of CGI the whale featured there looked outrageously good. Huston’s Moby Dick may not be entirely successful but it is one you have to see. It reaches beyond its grasp in a number of areas but much remains that is worthwhile.
Video – 1.66:1
A lot of work went into recreating the look of the film that was intended by DP Oswald Morris and director John Huston. They wanted to recreate the style of artwork from the actual Moby Dick area that depicted whales and massive ships at sea. It has a very washed out denatured texture. Colors are largely denuded. There are times when the contrast is so tweaked that it feels like an old school videotape. Images appear very flat. For realizing the intentions of the artists involved this new blu-ray presentation gets major kudos. Many years later in 1971 cinemaphotographer Vilmos Zsigmond used an experimental “flashing” technique to create a palate for McCabe and Mrs. Miller. For my taste that worked and this one falls short. About twenty years after Moby Dick Oswald Morris shot The Man Who Would be King for Huston. It is a glorious looking adventure that presents a wide variety of locations in breathtaking colors and textures. The two worked together a lot. (the images in this review were not taken from the blu-ray)
Audio – DTS-HD MA 1.0 wit subtitles offered in English SDH
Dialogue comes across strong. Voice-overs area easily understandable.
Extras – Twilight Time’s signature Isolated Score Track / Commentary with film historians Julie Kirgo, Paul Seydor, and Nick Redman / A Bleached Whale: Recreating the Unique Color of Moby Dick / Posters, lobby cards & production stills / Original theatrical trailer
The feature that details how the color scheme was realized is fascinating. Make sure you check out the poster and lobby card file that includes two every early versions of the tale.
With the 1956 version you can see how prominent the whale and action elements are in the advertising.
On a scale of Poor, Fair, Good, Excellent, Classic:
Blu-Ray – Excellent
Movie – Good or Excellent depending on how you like your White Whales done.