Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. USA, . , . Screenplay by , based on the novel by . Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by . Production Design by , . Film Editing by . Academy Awards 1958. Golden Globe Awards 1958.
Director John Sturges and screenwriter Peter Viertel attempt to adapt Ernest Hemingway’s clipped, efficient writing to visual form and only occasionally achieve effective results. Spencer Tracy is miscast as a Cuban fisherman (named Santiago!) who gets a bite on his fishing line that he knows is a real mother of a marlin. Determined not to let the creature go, Tracy holds on for dear life for days, staying on the water at his own peril. When he successfully makes his catch after an incredible struggle, he must deal with more compromises as he tries to bring the magnificent fish home. The allegory is basic but has an elegance to it on the page, masculine ambition that is stubbornly blind to compromise until the realities of life eat away at one’s dreams, but literalizing the tale on screen makes it feel pedantic. The combination of images taken on location (shot with haunting beauty by James Wong Howe) are awkwardly combined with poorly achieved process shots that are obviously Tracy in front of fake background, while Viertel’s inclusion of what is probably the best example of unnecessary on-screen narration makes it feel like an informational video for language learners. All these drawbacks make it sound like it’s not worth seeing, but there’s such elegance to the parts that work that it ought to be seen if only as a fascinating experiment, the result of a struggle between arthouse cinema and studio requirements. Perhaps had it been made in a different time and/or a different place, it would have had the guts to really commit to its themes of isolation and obsession that the best images in the film really conjure up.