Twilight Time releases a restored Blu-ray® of
John Huston’s essential Moby Dick (1956)
In the film, Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962), there is a beach scene with an alluring ingénue telling James Stewart that she began reading Moby Dick but gave it up because, “who wants to read a story about a fish.” Watching Hobbs at a tender age, I didn’t get the joke and asked my father who gave me a quick tutorial about Melville’s novel, whales and whaling. We subsequently visited New Bedford, Mass.—the 19th century whaling hub that opens Melville’s narrative—and visited the Whaling Museum. I was hooked. At the time, dinosaurs mesmerized me, but as none were readily available, whales became a surrogate fixation.
I was further transfixed after reading a schoolboy version of Melville’s tome and repeatedly watching John Huston’s Moby Dick on local television. Along with the brilliant acting and dialogue, I savored the wonderfully staged at-sea action sequences that were accompanied by composer Philip Sainton’s brilliant music score. Similar to the case of Leonard Bernstein and On the Waterfront (1954), Moby Dick was Sainton’s only film score. He began composing the score for A King in New York (1957) but gave it up as a bad job. Perhaps he, like Bernstein, couldn’t tolerate his music being truncated by a filmmaker even if his name was Charlie Chaplin.
Gregory Peck has historically received short shrift for his performance as Ahab. His turn is invariably tabbed as a classic instance of miscasting. It’s a bum rap. While Robert Ryan undoubtedly could have done more with the role, Huston required a bankable star to carry an expensive film that lacked a female lead. He’d long dreamed of having his father play the role, but Walter Huston died in 1950. When Peck, adorned in top hat and whalebone leg, baritones his leviathan revenge quest with “God haunt us all if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!” Ahab comes to life. John Barrymore created the original cinematic Ahab in The Sea Beast (1926) and Moby Dick (1930). I’ve always been curious to watch Michael Curtiz’s Dämon des Meeres (1931) with director William Dieterle as Ahab. The film was made for German audiences and shot at night on the same Warner sets that Lloyd Bacon used with Barrymore in Moby Dick during the day.
I asked Peck about Moby Dick when he hosted a San Diego fund raiser for his hometown La Jolla Playhouse that he founded with Dorothy McGuire and Mel Ferrer in 1947. He told me the scene when he was attached to the fake whale in the studio tank and beckoning to the crew was physically debilitating: “John Huston kept me under water way too long and I almost drowned.” Conversely, Huston wrote in his memoir that Peck insisted on doing multiple aqueous takes while fastened to the rotating whale drum in order to get it right. The world premiere of Moby Dick was appropriately held in New Bedford. Here’s a clip with Peck riding in a town parade before the screening. (Warning- turn down the inappropriate music)
When asked what the most important personal attribute was for a successful film director, Huston’s response was: “sadism.” From making Robert Mitchum crawl on his bare knees across a Tobago coral reef during Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison to nearly twisting Bogart’s nose off while on location for The African Queen, Huston could be less than easygoing. Ray Bradbury, who co-wrote the Moby Dick screenplay, told me “John Huston was not a nice man.” Bradbury would relate his odyssey of being alternately charmed and tormented by Huston during Moby Dick to anyone within earshot. For his part, Huston claimed a timid Bradbury was so sensitive to car travel that he was “nearly crying” until the director’s chauffeur slowed to ten miles per hour on the highway. The director discarded several Moby scripts from different writers including one from long time collaborator Anthony Veiller. He phoned Bradbury after reading his Saturday Evening Post short story “The Fog Horn” (the basis for 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms) and intoned, “Ray, how would you like to hunt the white whale with me?” Despite their differences, the creative synergy between both men was fully realized with the sublime results on screen.
Beginning with Richard Basehart’s voiceover of “Call me Ishmael, “ a good deal of Melville’s Moby-Dick prose is repurposed in the screenplay. The lyrical dialogue tethers the film to its 19th century New England setting and allows the viewer to forget it is an ensemble of mostly British and Irish actors playing Massachusetts whalers. The supporting cast of Leo Genn as Starbuck, Harry Andrews, Bernard Miles, Noel Purcell, Mervyn Johns, Joesph Tomelty and James Robertson Justice is superb. In addition to Basehart there is Huston’s Austrian pal Friedrich von Ledebur as Queequeg, Orson Welles as Father Mapple and angular Royal Dano whose prognostication of doom instills the appropriate foreboding to the Pequod’s fatal voyage.
Huston employed Stephen Grimes, a young Disney animator in London, to sketch all of the whale sequences. The sketches were used to determine which scenes would be shot on soundstages, in a studio tank with a cyclorama or on the open ocean. Huston’s cinematographer Oswald Morris claimed Technicolor was “eating out of our hands” after the success of Moulin Rouge (1952). The pioneer color-on-film company supported Huston’s Ahab-like quest to make Moby Dick visually resemble a period whaling picture card. Inspired by a washed out version of Olivier’s Richard III that was processed for British television, Morris conceived the unique color in Moby Dick by using the negative and positive of the same print with light circling the images and combining the color with black & white. After considerable trial and error, Morris had the color desaturated with filter bands. He showed this test to Huston who said, “Kid, I believe that’s it. “
Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray of Moby Dick is a beautiful transfer of Greg Kimble’s restoration. The disk includes a featurette with Kimble explaining his restoration process from original prints rather than the negative. Although it can be argued that the muted color scheme by Huston and Morris didn’t turn out so well; that’s a separate issue. Moby Dick looks as it was filmed and originally shown in theaters. How can anyone disagree with that?
Moby Dick was the most difficult movie Huston ever made. Leo Genn fell 20 feet into a whaleboat and was placed in a body cast, The lookouts aboard the ship in the rough seas off Ireland were nearly swept overboard. There were immense problems with weather, logistics and props as Huston fought a rearguard action against the studio bean counters attempting to cut corners on his epic. What he wraught is a magnificent adapation of the great American novel that holds up spectacularly well during an era when the commercial killing of marine mammals has become morally repugnant.
Moby Dick encapsulated my infatuation with whales and the sea. During my first deployment in the Navy, I was a lowly seaman assigned as the forward lookout. Bundled in foul weather gear with sea spray hitting me in the face as the ship undulated through the ocean, I imagined myself on the mast of the Pequod. When I ventured a “Thar she blows!” over the sound-powered phones, the chief of the watch informed me that I was “in the Navy, not “f!*#ing Hollywood!” It was another reminder that movies are often more fun than real life.