Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5
United Kingdom, 1956. Moulin Productions Inc.. Screenplay by Ray Bradbury, John Huston, based on the novel by Herman Melville. Cinematography by Oswald Morris. Produced by John Huston. Music by Philip Sainton. Production Design by Geoffrey Drake, Stephen Drake. Costume Design by Elizabeth Haffenden. Film Editing by Russell Lloyd.
Director John Huston set out to capture a white whale of his own when he took on the task of adapting Herman Melville’s 1851 modernist masterpiece, a seemingly unfilmable work of art whose plot is the jumping off point for a contemplative, philosophical epic about the history of whaling and the depths of the human soul. Focusing mainly on the points of the book that actually constitute a solid narrative, Huston still manages to evoke the soul of Melville’s novel with a haunting atmosphere wrought out by the exceptional cinematography by Oswald Morris, stripping the images of their bright colours to create the look of drawings and etchings of the period that actually creates a look that feels beyond the film’s own time. Sequences such as Orson Welles’ sermon, delivered atop a pulpit designed to look like the prow of a ship, place the film’s world somewhere halfway between a detailed recreation of the era and a kind of imagined romance of the past, its tale beginning when plucky young Ishmael (Richard Basehart) shows up in New Bedford looking to get work aboard a whaling ship. After making the acquaintance of the unusual but loyal Queequeg, Ishmael takes to life on the sea despite warnings that he is working for a mad captain, the peg-legged Ahab (Gregory Peck) who is obsessed with capturing the titular sea monster who took his limb. Peck’s casting in the role is the film’s major flaw, Huston was forced to put a box office name in the lead and does his best to get something resonant out of the 38 year-old actor, but there’s very little depth to him; as Ahab learns of Moby Dick sightings from other sailors, he turns his back on his ship’s true goal (collecting whale oil for profit) and leads his men into dangerous folly, and Peck can’t manage the obsessive folly that is required of him. The film’s assets far outweigh this issue, however, with Basehart, who was actually older than Peck, hitting all the right notes in the lead. You can see his loss of innocence in his eyes without him needing to indicate it, while the visual effects, which display the technical limits of the era, are at their most potent in the conclusion, with unforgettable final images of Peck upon his terrifying fate.