Director/Coscreenwriter: John Huston
By Roderick Heath
This is an entry in The John Huston Blogathon hosted by Adam Zanzie of Icebox Movies.
Whenever the subject of profoundly underrated movies comes up, John Huston’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s legendary novel is one I think of immediately. Melville’s colossal work, with its multifaceted symbols and thickets of Victorian prose, is impossible to condense entirely as a film, and yet Huston managed the ungodly job of reducing that tome to two vigorous, sensual, incantatory hours of cinema. If lead actor Gregory Peck’s performance as Captain Ahab was a bit less studied, I’d put it ahead of Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) as my personal choice for Huston’s masterpiece. Stylistically, it explored new territory in attempting to fuse the traditional effects of classic Hollywood filmmaking with a fresh hue of realism and metaphysical grandeur. Huston sat himself at the crossroads between cinema and literature, and in his greatest works, negotiated a rare alchemy. His simultaneous respect for the source text and the expressiveness of his camera are in fine balance throughout most of Moby Dick, and it’s a film that seems both authentically historical and ahead of its time.
Huston wrote the script with Ray Bradbury—now there’s an unexpected partnership for you—and maintained his practise of sticking as close to the letter of a text as possible, which, in the case of Melville’s work, demands adjustment to the sonorous musicality and archaism of the dialogue. It is, of course, adaptation, and yet Huston’s fascination for characters whose private madness manifests as obsessive, self-destructive, but officially aspirational quest, the most consistent of his themes in the first part of his long and ragged career, is immediately personal. He had travelled from the modest symbol of the Maltese Falcon through to the gold dust of the Sierra Madre, the revolution of We Were Strangers (1949), the heist of The Asphalt Jungle (1950), the art of Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge (1952), and later, the psychoanalysis of Freud (1962) and the preaching of Wise Blood (1979). The object of this quest evolved from mere corrosive greed to something deeper, an unquenchable need to control the world through some lens, in his protagonists. Like Lautrec and Treasure’s Fred C. Dobbs, Captain Ahab’s a man degraded in worldly condition who nonetheless tries to prove himself equal to gods in his own way.
Moby Dick came at a fraught time for Huston, who was entering the middle and still rather underregarded phase of his directing career, which extended more or less to 1972’s Fat City. Huston’s epochal run of collaborations with Humphrey Bogart had recently ended with the square flop of his leisurely, self-satirising comedy-thriller Beat the Devil (1954), which lost Bogart a lot of money. If the years to come saw Huston’s oeuvre lose the shape associated with many great directors, his efforts to expand the lexicon of mainstream cinema’s expressive techniques whilst maintaining reverence for good writing didn’t go anywhere.
When Ishmael (Richard Basehart) issues his famous introduction, Huston kicks off a subtly rapturous piece of filmmaking that accompanies his meditations on the mystic gravity of water: Ishmael appears in the frame silhouetted against the sky, and then proceeds downhill, following the paths of cataracts and streams until they lead him to the sea and New Bedford itself. When he arrives there, the patrons of the Spouter Inn, including genial innkeeper Peter Coffin (Joseph Tomelty) and fiercely friendly sailor Stubbs (Harry Andrews), induct Ishmael into the peculiar fellowship of whalers, and then glimpse the ivory-legged Ahab in a flash of lightning, limping by the inn. Huston builds up the presence of Ahab as a being of fear and force with tremendous skill, even though he doesn’t make a proper appearance until more than a half-hour into the film, through the relentless drum of his false leg on the deck of the Pequod and the reactions of other men to his twisted, foreboding form: “His looks tell more than any church sermon about the mortality of man,” Quaker agent Peleg (Mervyn Johns) advises Ishmael. When he finally does appear, he’s a gross fusion of the natural and unnatural, stalwart Yankee and shaman, fused with the bone of the whales he decimates and idolises in the most perverse of fashions.
Whilst remaining keenly faithful to the book Huston stages Moby Dick as a succession of lengthy and intricate sequences, so that structurally his film is less novelistic than symphonic (the importance of Philip Sainton’s flavourful, frenzied score, amazingly enough his only work for the movies, is inestimable). After Ishmael’s arrival, he attends the sermon of Father Mapple (Orson Welles, in a splendidly judged piece of arch character acting), where Huston’s camera drifts up the centre aisle, passing by the singing congregants engaged in social ritual and religious contract, whilst the wall, sporting the memorial markers for the dozens of men lost at sea engaged in New Bedford’s business, tells its own version of the story of whaling. It’s a shot that welds the communal and the private, the historic, the physical and metaphysical, the emotional and the ironic all together. Mapple himself, preaching his ferocious version of the tale of Jonah and the whale (what sermon does he give every other week?), presents the first visual and thematic correlation between mystic and master, in climbing onto his pulpit fashioned like a ship’s prow. In much the same way, and with an equally fervent but more equivocal, bizarre fashion, Ahab preaches the sermon of the white whale and the necessity of destroying it to his bewitched crew, to annihilate “what mauls and mutilates our race.” Whilst Queequeg (Friedrich Ledebur) is defined as a heathen—in response to the pointed questions of Peleg’s fellow Quaker Bildad (Philip Stainton), he replies by hurling his harpoon with such deadly accuracy all objections are ceased—he and the other non-Caucasian men who form the ship’s trinity of harpooners are the first to recognise Ahab’s cabalistic god.
The first great sequence is the Pequod’s sailing day, a thrumming piece of cinema with precisely outlaid vignettes, from a congregant (Iris Tree) handing out bibles to the crewmen being ignored decisively by Queequeg; the silent chorus of widows and wives watching their menfolk prepare to disappear for three years; first mate Starbuck (Leo Genn) waving farewell to his wife (Joan Plowright) and children who keep a more distant vigil; Ishmael and Queequeg’s encounter with the ranting seer Elijah (Royal Dano); cabinboy Pip (Tamba Allenby) dancing and beating his tambourine under a flowing Stars and Stripes; the crew raising sails and leaving port whilst singing authentic shanties (taught to the cast by A. L. Bert Lloyd, who leads them on screen); and the final shout of “Around the world!” by the helmsman that echoes about the bay as the ship sails out of the harbour. This is one of the great scenes in cinema, in how it not only offers up precise, heartfelt, rousing detail, but also describes an entire organic world with such depth that it seems torn out of racial memor; the helmsman’s cry resounds with such a sense of space and solitude that the awe of communing with the ocean that the men are embarking upon is in itself a spiritual challenge. This also reveals what Huston had learnt from Don Siegel, who had cut together an embryonic version of the scene for Huston’s 1942 programmer Across the Pacific.
“Captains can’t break the law!” shouts Flask (Seamus Kelly), the Pequod’s hot-headed third mate in riposte to Starbuck’s suggestion that they can topple Ahab from his post: “They is the law, as far as I’m concerned!” But Starbuck, whose “courage was one of the great staples of the ship…there when required, and not to be foolishly wasted,” objects to Ahab’s deification and his quarrel in turn with the “thing behind the mask” that animates the forces of the world and Moby Dick in particular. He suspects Ahab means to tear down god in killing Moby Dick and determines to stop him, and yet Starbuck’s own objectifying Protestantism is blind to the force of nature itself: “Moby Dick’s no monster, he’s a whale! We don’t run from whales, we kill ‘em!” he barks at the Pequod’s crew, thus committing them to the same suicidal mission for which Ahab has already perished. Genn’s terrific performance is worth noting for the way he balances calm with a curious, deeper ardour, particularly in the scene where his nerve fails him and he can’t shoot a suddenly reflective Ahab. Huston’s most cunningly added flourish is to situate Ahab’s anticipated meeting with Moby Dick, plotted from a chart he’s compiled that allows him to follow the movements of whales, at Bikini Atoll, then infamous for being the location of American H-bomb tests: Ahab’s date with the white whale is humankind’s date with annihilation.
Huston’s efforts to infuse the industrialised cinema that had given him his break with a deeper, more fluent realism of look and feel had led him to shoot deep in Mexico and Africa, and for Moby Dick, it led him back to Ireland, where he would live off and on for the rest of his life. To stand in for the old Yankee whaling town of New Bedford, he utilised the historic town of Youghal, and he worked with his director of photography, Oswald Morris, to find a way of diffusing the hitherto overbright and cheery Technicolor so that the film would take on a more incisive, subtle palette. Huston had already experimented with colour effects in Moulin Rouge, and whatever the dramatic weaknesses of that film, it was a successful experiment in mise-en-scène. The look of Moby Dick, with its detailed, yet muted colour, possesses a quality that looks more modern than many ’50s films and yet also captures the look of period daguerreotypes and lithographs. The model work in the whaling scenes is inevitably dated, and Huston edited those scenes furiously to maintain the impression of terrific physicality and interspersed real footage of traditional whaling in the Azores.
One great pleasure of the film is the remarkable depth of actors who dot the landscape, sometimes in the smallest of roles, like Bernard Miles as a Manxman crewman, and Francis de Wolff as the captain of fellow whaling ship the Rachel, glimpsed only in distant long shots and yet still affecting in pleading with Ahab to aid him in searching for his missing son. Basehart was a bit too ripe to be playing Ishmael—at 40, he was two years older than Peck—but it’s certain Huston cast him for his open, yet weathered looks and rich baritone, which makes for a stirring voiceover. The whole cast, even German actor Ledebur as Queequeg, seem chosen with such care they almost seem born for their roles.
It’s an irony then that the most commonly cited weakness of the film is Peck’s performance, which, though by no means bad, is not quite right either. Peck was and is associated with onscreen humanity and decency, and lacks the innate sense of wildness and unswerving authority necessary for Ahab. Peck is more acutely stylised in his performance, straining his mid-century naturalism to approximate the outlandish “supreme lord and dictator.” Huston had originally wanted his own father Walter to play the part when he first came up with the project, and Welles had wanted to make a version himself; both Welles and John Huston himself, as Peck later said, would have made more ideal Ahabs. Nonetheless, Peck, with his lanky uprightness and air of physical force struggling to accustom itself to the weight of his false leg and the scar that has cleft his face, embodies Ahab as the Yankee golden boy regressed into primitivist spell-casting. His eyes flash in threat and ardour as he explains his motives, his voice swings from low menace to bellowing fury, whipping his men into bloodlust. He eyes Ishmael with strange intent when pronouncing “body” in addressing Ishmael (to Ishmael’s quivering fixation), as if detecting the strange charge between him and “same body” friend Queequeg and appealing to flesh and soul in turning his crew into a cult to hunt down the whale.
In the second extraordinary sequence, the Pequod, stuck becalmed at Bikini, becomes the scene of devolution, as Queequeg, convinced by his soothsaying bones that he’s going to die, sits immobile after paying the carpenter to build him a coffin, and the crew, sweltering in a tropical evening, the moon as hot as a sun, begins to fray. The chipping of the carpenter’s labours and Pip commencing an eerie song and dance provide a strange rhythmic music for the action as Ishmael appeals to his friend to come around, and a bored crew member, testing Queequeg’s resolve, slices long bloody lines in his chest. Huston’s editing here, and the use of sound, is brilliant in creating a stygian mood, and builds to a remarkable, silent tussle as Ishmael tries to save his friend from mutilation, only to be set upon and threatened with murder himself before Queequeg comes around to save him, and the cry of “Thar she blows!” finally breaks the spell. Moby Dick appears like “a great white god,” as Pip describes him, jumping clean over the longboats hunting him, and the Pequod gives chase, ploughing through a storm at Ahab’s behest—he even threatens Starbuck with a lance when he tries to cut rigging. Ahab play-acts a masterstroke of theatre when St. Elmo’s Fire illuminates the ship, taking the last step towards shamanism in snatching fire from the sky and “put(ting) out the last fear.”
All that’s left is for the final, consuming battle with Moby Dick, in which Ahab finishes up straddling his nemesis’s back and stabbing him with fury whilst screaming his curses, before drowning and beckoning in death to his crew. The whale furiously bashes the hull of the Pequod in and crushes the puny humans who taunt him with animalistic rage before succumbing to Ahab’s harpoon wounds. It’s the most ambitious scene of action Huston ever attempted, and it’s brilliantly staged, even if the special effects now look ropy. In compensation, Huston’s cutting manages to be both coherent and yet full of sound and fury, signifying quite a lot indeed, as the great whale’s teeth rake the waters and his tail smashes down on the helpless men, leaving Ishmael to drift clinging to Queequeg’s coffin until rescue by the Rachel, the sole escapee from this annihilating hour. It’s a deeply affecting end to a film ripe for reevaluation, and Huston himself, a man who constantly tried and often failed to keep one foot in a world of macho excess and another in artistic sensitivity, pushed both impulses to a limit in Moby Dick.