“You know how it is early in the morning on the water? Everything’s quiet except for the seagulls a long way off. You feel great. Then you come ashore, and it starts. In no time at all, you’re up to your ears in trouble.”

Harry Morgan (John Garfield) is a California boat captain, but his business isn’t doing too great. Harry struggles to support his family on his meager charter earnings.

The Breaking Point Criterion cover
(Image via The Criterion Collection)

When a not-too-honest lawyer named Duncan (Wallace Ford) approaches Harry about smuggling people into the U.S., Harry is torn. He has always been an upstanding, hard-working citizen and is, in fact, a war hero… but in desperation to bring in more money for his family, Harry decides to begin working with Duncan.

Meanwhile, Harry also strikes up an odd friendship with Leona Charles (Patricia Neal), who seems not to care that Harry is already married to Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter).

Will Harry be able to get his life back on track, or will he fall deeper into Duncan and Leona’s world of crime and infidelity?

The Breaking Point was directed by Michael Curtiz from a screenplay by Ranald MacDougall.

This film is based on Ernest Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, which was also adapted in 1944 (directed by Howard Hawks) and 1958 (directed by Don Siegel). As told to John Garfield’s daughter by Patricia Neal, this was the only Hemingway adaptation that Hemingway liked!

The Breaking Point is part domestic drama, part post-war drama, and part crime drama/noir. It successfully blends these threads and builds in intensity as it progresses — becoming wild, violent, and wholly engrossing.

Like the film itself, John Garfield’s character of Harry is a man with many facets, and I really enjoyed Garfield’s performance. He’s a caring father, but also a stubborn, tough guy; he’s a decorated veteran, but also a struggling entrepreneur grappling with hopelessness about the future. The viewer can sympathize with him, but he’s cruel and intimidating when he needs to be, too.

The Breaking Point still
(Image via IMDb)

Beyond its successfully grim and gripping storytelling and its compelling lead character, there are a lot of small things to love about The Breaking Point. It’s gorgeously photographed. I also loved that Leona’s way of flirting with Harry was to tell him that he had a weak chin.

The Breaking Point is a near-perfect book-to-film adaptation, a wonderfully crafted film, and features a fantastic performance by John Garfield (a new favorite for me, as a fan of the actor). I consider it a must-watch!

Available on DVD and Blu from The Criterion Collection