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Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Moby Dick (1956)

Another great actor who was born 100 years ago is Gregory Peck, so for the next few weeks, along with movies about witches, I'll be looking at his films (when The Omen comes along, it will satisfy both). I've already written about many Peck films on this site, including Gentleman's Agreement, The Big Country, Cape Fear, Spellbound, To Kill a Mockingbird, Yellow Sky, The Guns of Navarone, and How the West Was Won,

To fill in some gaps, I'll be taking a look at films I haven't seen or at least not since I started this blog. I'll start with Moby Dick, directed by John Huston and starring Peck as Captain Ahab. It takes a real set of brass balls to make a movie out of a book like Melville's, but Huston and Peck are up to it. Although it lacks the enormity and profundity of the book, it's damn good.

Richard Basehart plays Ishmael, an itinerant man who is ready to go back to sea: "Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; ... that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people's hats off - then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can." He heads to New Bedford to sign up for a whaling ship. He meets Queequeg, a South-Sea islander, covered with tattoos (and played by a Austrian actor, Friedrich Von Ledebur) and they take jobs on the Pequod. It's over half an hour into the film that we meet Peck as Ahab, a man who is driven by vengeance--the white whale, Moby Dick, who took his leg, is marked for death.

A simplistic reading of the book sees the white whale as a metaphor as something that is unobtainable, perhaps God himself, and there are lines included in the film to support that, as when Peck tells his first mate, Starbuck, "I'd strike the sun if it insulted me." Starbuck (who would give his name to a coffee chain), played by Leo Genn, wants to relieve Ahab of his authority, as the man is clearly mad, but can not bring himself to do so.

The scenes aboard ship are well done, with Harry Andrews providing some humor as Stubb. The whaling scenes are pretty well done for 1956, as the cetaceans, even Moby Dick himself, don't look like the rubber they are. The final image, of a coffin popping to the surface of a sunken ship (indicating that the ship itself was a coffin) is perfectly done.

The script was written by, of all people, Ray Bradbury, who struggled with Huston the whole time (Bradbury admitted he hadn't been able to read the book). Huston initially wanted his father to play Ahab, but Walter died and he had to get an actor who could get financing. Peck was only 40 when he played the part, certainly not anyone's first idea, but I think he's terrific if too young. Peck was so versatile, able to play heroes and villains, the sanest of characters, like Atticus Finch, and the madest, like Ahab.

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