The Sea Wolf (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Robert Cashill
Produced by Hal B. Wallis and Henry Blanke; directed by Michael Curtiz; written by Robert Rossen, from the novel by Jack London; cinematography by Sol Polito; edited by George Amy; art direction by Anton Grot; music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold; starring Edward G. Robinson, Ida Lupino, John Garfield, Alexander Knox, Gene Lockhart, Barry Fitzgerald, Stanley Ridges, and Howard Da Silva. Blu-ray and DVD, B&W, 100 min., 1941. A Warner Archive release.
Cineaste doesn’t go in for “Holiday Gift Guides”—but if we did, we’d make The Sea Wolf the No. 1 pick for the cinephiles in your life. Here we have, in pristine quality, a true Golden Age classic restored to its original length (and impact) after seventy years, following numerous cuts made to squeeze it into double bills for a reissue. Alan K. Rode’s thorough new biography of its director, Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, notes that “The Sea Wolf remains a superior film despite the continued search” for the excised footage. The search has ended, and here it is in its Blu-ray and DVD debut, with those missing fourteen minutes back in place. (Hear all about that quest, which began with the discovery of co-star John Garfield’s personal 16mm print, on Dick Dinman’s DVD Classics Corner on the Air! podcast.)
Three silent versions and one talkie of Jack London’s 1904 novel preceded Warner Bros.’s take. Screenwriter Robert Rossen, later the writer/director of All the King’s Men (1949) and The Hustler (1961), preserved the main action, in which “Wolf” Larsen (studio stalwart Edward G. Robinson), the tyrannical captain of the schooner “Ghost,” does philosophical battle with the prosperous novelist Humphrey van Weyden (Canadian-born Alexander Knox, in his first major role), a shipwreck victim rescued from the Pacific. Rossen augmented the supporting characters of cabin boy George Leach (Garfield), who, trailing a checkered past, elected to serve aboard the “Ghost” (most of its crew are drunken reprobates shanghaied from San Francisco’s shady “Barbary Coast” district) and van Weyden’s fellow survivor, Ruth Brewster (Ida Lupino), an escaped convict.
Rossen updated the politics, with Larsen an undisguised and unrepentant fascist, lording it over his motley crew with his sneers, insults, and frequent sucker punches. “Soft as a woman” is his dismissal of van Weyden (a more effete stand-in for London), but he develops a warped kind of love for the writer, the only person who understands his recklessly self-made stature and fondness for books (Poe, Darwin, and particularly Milton’s Paradise Lost—“Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven!” he cackles). A Nazi “in everything but name,” Robinson called Larsen. For the right audience, however, the wiles of the plug-ugly captain—and by extension any authoritarian figure with the power of life and death over his subordinates and captives—can be quite seductive.
Lupino noted that the film “could pass as current history” and may very well have shrank from the gusto with which the great Robinson threw himself into the part, a Little Caesar of the high seas nagged by blinding headaches rather than conscience. She’s said to have hated the actor but was fond of Garfield, and their more “conventional” romance, tautly, touchingly enacted by two performers whose stock continues to rise, has quirks of its own. It’s formed when Lupino, deathly ill after her initial ordeal, receives a transfusion of his “convict’s blood,” and is only sealed when the two confess their passion through a stuck doorway as the “Ghost” takes on water late in the story. The movie ends with them in a kind of limbo, between the vessel’s destination of Japan and nowhere.
Curtiz sandwiched in The Sea Wolf between his last two films with Errol Flynn, Santa Fe Trail (1940) and Dive Bomber (1941). Gone is the opulence of their famed swashbucklers, replaced by noir shadows and an aura of haunt and decay anticipating the Val Lewton thrillers to come at RKO. Its economy is masterful. While there is exciting oceangoing action (enough to earn the film an Oscar nomination for Best Special Effects) a big climactic sequence is simply described by Robinson, pulling out the stops as only he could. Pacy and scrappy in the Warner Bros. tradition exemplified by Curtiz, the film also offers a terrific supporting crew of sea dogs, including Gene Lockhart as the Ghost’s drunken doctor and Barry Fitzgerald, cast against his future priestly type, as the ship’s lecherous cook.
When “Cooky” informs on his mates, he’s thrown into the shark-infested sea and taught a crippling lesson. The Sea Wolf’s crippling double billing with the Curtiz–Flynn collaboration The Sea Hawk (1940) occurred in 1947, as the House Un-American Activities Committee mobilized and the Hollywood Blacklist came into being, to the detriment of Robinson, Garfield, Knox, co-star Howard Da Silva, and Rossen. Its recovery all these years later is a kind of restitution.
A good commentary track would have helped unpack The Sea Wolf, a property that’s been filmed numerous times since, most recently in 2009. A 1993 TV version, with Charles Bronson as Larsen and Christopher Reeve as Van Weyden, was an okay stab at it, but this is definitive. In the absence of a supplementary track, the disc offers the amusing trailer, where a male patron looking for something to read hits on a pretty librarian, segueing into “The Lusty Chapters of Jack London’s Mightiest Novel…Crowding the Screen with Thrills You Never Believed Could be Filmed!” A welcome bonus is a 1950 Screen Director’s Playhouse radio broadcast of The Sea Wolf, with Robinson reprising Larsen and Paul Frees voicing Van Weyden. Afterward, Robinson and Curtiz banter for a few minutes, the latter in his inimitable Hungarian accent. “I’m putting directors on a shooting schedule and I don’t mean cameras!” Robinson growls. “I’ll giff you a good spanking!” Curtiz counters, and for once the sea wolf backs down.—Robert Cashill
Robert Cashill, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, is a Cineaste Editorial Board Member and the Film Editor of Popdose.
To purchase The Sea Wolf, click here.
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 1
Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine