The Breaking Point (1950)

Directed by Michael Curtiz

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Once again, crime doesn’t pay.  Harry Morgan (John Garfield) is a struggling fishing boat captain whose debts lead to criminal activity and a guilty conscience.  We meet him as a Leave it to Beaver-kind of character, a happy family man, a gooey loving husband, who always wears that cocked to the side adorable fishing hat.  He’s even got a black friend, Wesley,  which, for this time in America, certainly stood out.  And Wesley’s important, remember him.

As the story goes on, Harry experiences a Walter White-like descent.  He refuses to take up work being offered by his father-in-law as a farmhand and must therefore attempt to strike it rich in the boating industry.  From the get go we see that this isn’t going to work, mostly due to swindling customers and a shark-like lawyer whose endeavors spell the end for Harry.

This is a fascinating story because it’s all about risk and the consequences of things not working out.  Harry is a former soldier, only a few years past the war, and early in the film he reminisces about that time of his life as if nothing will ever be the same after.

We soon see why.  Though this takes place in the postwar era, a time typically associated with rising tides in the middle class, an increase in leisure and the baby boom, Harry reaps few of these benefits.  The prosperity and hope of the American Dream is nowhere to be found here.

The Breaking Point is reminiscent of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), in that way.  Both films are about the dark sides of the American Dream, ambition and the like.  In Wilder’s film, the Kirk Douglas protagonist suffers from his willingness to do anything to succeed.  In The Breaking Point, Harry’s downfall has some to do with his stubbornness but more to do with the simple lack of opportunity which was promised to so many people.

Harry’s journey includes a couple deadly boat trips, a bunch of gangsters, human trafficking, a femme fatale and a scheming lawyer.  Beyond the two boat trips which bookend the plot and which each are a bit of a disaster, much of the story concerns the flirtation between Harry and Leona (Patricia Neal).  She is the companion of a man Harry takes down to Mexico (from San Diego) for a fishing trip.  He’s a wealthy man who skips out on his tab and leaves Leona to look for a ride with Harry back to the States.

From there they develop what looks to be an affair but which never quite reaches that point.  Harry is at first insistent that nothing could come between him and his wife, but we see that facade crumble.  He soon turns to drinking when he loses his boat midway through the film, and there is a scene in which his wife Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter) meets Leona in a dive bar.  She trusts her husband but later styles her hair like Leona.  Harry loves it.

It’s an affair of the soul, I suppose.  Harry never sleeps with Leona, even though that implication hangs in the air.  Instead we watch him consider the idea, and we see Lucy react to such a threat in her own way.  The point is that Leona gets between the two of them, but not quite as much as Harry’s criminal activity.

I really like this film, but it doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the bulk of the story.  I like a good noir, a story about the downfalls of the American Dream and any kind of cynical portrait of America, such as this one.  These films, especially made in the 1950s, feel energetic in a way other films aren’t.  It’s like how a jaded teenager might put all of his/her passion into hating a certain band, show or movie.  There is a certain energy to such pessimism that optimism doesn’t always have, and Ace in the Hole and The Breaking Point both have that, maybe just because they were going against the grain with these films.

But the thing that stands out about this one is the final shot.  It shows a child, Wesley’s son, left alone when all other story threads, including the fate of his father, have been resolved.  It’s a bloody conclusion in which Wesley and many others die, and it ends with Harry on the edge of death, speaking with his wife who maintains her undying love for him, this despite the fact that she said she would leave him if he took part in the criminal activity which he does take part in.

It’s a happy ending to a story that was perhaps obligated to have one.  The final shot then might be a touch to remind you that this isn’t a happy story.  It’s a striking visual and haunting because the emotional impact of the moment undercuts most of the other characters.  I didn’t care about Harry and Lucy or the fates of anyone else.  All I cared was that Wesley’s son would never know what happened to his father.

Up Next: Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot (2018), Witness (1985)

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