Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Director's Spotlight #3.7: John Huston's Moby Dick

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. Next, 1956’s Moby Dick.
Grade: 48 (C)
The moral of today’s story, folks, is that when you have a director who excels with small stories that move at break-neck pace, you don’t ask him to adapt a 900-page behemoth. John Huston spent the first decade of his career making one great movie after another, almost always with the benefit of a tight, controlled production and a great location to work with. His longest movies tended to run at around two hours, and never more than needed. He was not, then, the ideal choice to take on a big-budget adaptation of Herman Melville’s seminal classic Moby Dick, a novel known for its size and scope as much as for its “bunch of guys hunting a whale” plotline.
Ishmael (Richard Baseheart) is a wandering sailor in Massachusetts. He and his new friend, the Polynesian harpooner Queequeg (Friedrich von Ledebur), sign aboard the Pequod, a whaling vessel, despite the warnings from a mysterious man named Elijah (Royal Dano), who warns that the ship’s captain is dangerous.  Ishmael soon learns that Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) is a tyrannical man obsessed with hunting Moby Dick, a white whale that took his leg and scarred him. Ahab’s obsession overtakes any other concerns the men may have, and soon it will lead to their doom.
It sounds like a potentially rousing adventure story, helped by being yet another chance for Huston to explore his pet themes: doomed alliances, failed quests, looks at man’s doomed battle against nature, the dark side of capitalism, and man’s struggles with and battles against faith. The problem is that Melville’s novel features numerous passages involving the particulars of whaling, and other stuff that’s inherently unadaptable for a film. The solution, as most filmmakers see it, is to strip those passages, but they have far greater importance to the story than just as side passages. They help create a complete world and add the novel’s great ambition. Take them away, and it’s a much thinner story.
This wouldn’t necessarily be terrible, had the right filmmaker and cast been given the material. Huston, however, is all wrong. The director famously said to his co-writer Ray Bradbury that he had “never managed to finish the damn thing”; a director admitting he had never finished the source material is not a good sign. Furthermore, Huston and Bradbury chose to preserve much of the novel’s original prose. This isn’t always terrible (some of the character interactions are interesting), but Ishmael’s narration, while no doubt essential to the novel, feels over-expository and flat in the film. Even more telling, Huston included a scene involving the whaling community’s parish for Orson Welles to deliver a sermon as Father Mapple; no doubt a striking scene that added to the novel’s ambition, it makes for weak drama and it stops an already slow film in its tracks. It’s clear that Huston and Bradbury didn’t know what to cut.
The film plays against Huston’s strengths, taking a still-complicated story that’s almost inevitably slow-moving (not Huston’s forte) and dealing with expensive sets and props that never manage to quite work. Some of the set-pieces are thrilling, but everything in between feels too talky and lacking Huston’s usual momentum. His wry sense of humor is also gone, buried beneath the gargantuan budget and the difficulty of the novel. The result is one of Huston’s few truly dull films, a slow moving film full of wasted moments and purpose. The project wouldn’t be the only big-budget film Huston took on, but it certainly set the tone for further monstrosities as 1966’s elephantine The Bible: In the Beginning, a project that saw Huston taking on a similarly unfilmable work (at least as a whole).
Huston’s usual strength in casting fails him as well: some of the supporting actors thrive (Leo Genn as Starbuck), but an ineffectual Baseheart as Ishmael gives the film a weak center. Worse, Gregory Peck is comically miscast as Captain Ahab, the megalomaniacal, obsessed whaler. Peck was a great actor, but he’s almost eternally noble (see: To Kill a Mockingbird), and casting him as a man raging against God and nature is doomed to failure. Huston reportedly took interest in the film as a way to feature his father, Walter Huston, as Ahab, but the actor died before filming began. The studio needed a big star in the role, and they pushed Peck, despite the director’s misgivings (not to mention Peck’s, as he believed Huston should play the part himself). Both the actor and the director give it their all, but they can’t save a project so damnably ill-suited to their talents. It’s an unfilmable project, the director’s own white whale on a quest doomed to fail.

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