Moby Dick

Moby Dick. Moulin Productions 1956.
Moby Dick. Moulin Productions 1956.

Before watching the movie:

The most intriguing big name here is the writer: Ray Bradbury. Gregory Peck rarely gets mentioned outside of To Kill a Mockingbird anymore, I’m sure director John Huston has a following among deep film buffs, and of course Melville’s novel is a (somewhat sloppy) masterpiece, but Bradbury gets my attention. When I think of Bradbury, I think of his sci-fi concepts. I never think of his words, only his ideas. In a medium dominated by actors and directors, using someone else’s ideas and doubtless many of his words, I’m curious to see if I can spot any of Bradbury coming through.

Note should be made that this is once again from my late great aunt’s collection.

After watching the movie:

“Ishmael” gets up a wandering spirit and decides to put out to sea on a whaling boat. He then wanders out of his own story, because the vengeful Captain Ahab makes a much more interesting lead character. Ahab lost his leg to a legendary albino whale years ago, and has pledged his captaincy to taking the whale’s life. He cultivates his burning passion for death to Moby Dick among the crew with charisma and ritual, winning all except his level-headed First Mate Mr. Starbuck. Diverting the voyage from a magnificent bounty into doldrums and danger for the single-minded pursuit of the legendary monster, Ahab’s unswerving course brings the entire crew toward fate.

It’s been a long time since I read the book, and I rushed through the last half of it, but the film does a commendable job of paring down the doorstopper to just under two hours. This is not entirely to the detriment of Ishmael and Queequeg’s story (which Melville himself forgot for most of the book), but does leave it with a few odd leaps, like Queequeg deciding to bind his path with Ishmael’s apparently just because they shared a room and both want to join a whaling crew. It’s even tougher to determine Bradbury’s hand on the script than I expected, since the title sequence gives Huston equal credit for writing it.

The artful language of the book is quite present in the dialogue almost throughout. Some of the parts that feel more tampered with have a less poetic feel, but every word out of Ahab’s mouth seems to come straight off the page, giving him a larger than life feel more at home on the stage than the screen. However, there’s so much crisscrossing metaphor and allegory going on that it doesn’t seem out of line. At times, Peck brings a literary humanity to the part, especially near the end, as Ahab reaches his breaking point. Leo Genn’s Starbuck is a different character than I recall picturing, but I like this interpretation better (and it’s probably more accurate anyway).

I don’t like to comment on the technical nature of the manner I see these films normally, but it may be a factor in how I saw it this time. This film’s color design is unique, and I have an impression of what it was trying to do, but I’m not sure if I saw what was intended, or a bad transfer. The muted colors are an interesting contrast to everything else that was being made in the 50s (and 60s and 70s), but there was a quality to the image that was dim and muddy, to the point that I switched my television’s settings to vivid mode so I could more comfortably make out what was being shown. Was that the fault of the colorist, the DVD master, or an overlooked setting on my television that got changed without my notice? There are so many different steps along the way I can’t say for certain where the blame lies. I noticed the colors got more vivid and defined when the ship reached the summery southern hemisphere, so perhaps it was intentional. I must reserve judgement at the moment.

It’s impossible (or at least unwise) to shake the literary feel of this story, but the result is a film that feels like a stage play more fully realized than the stage could do justice for. A meaty film that leaves behind some hiccups of the source and adds a few of its own, with effects that work well and lead actors that elevate the words to their rightful place.

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