The Academy Awards are this Sunday, and normally I would be publishing a lengthy piece on my favorite films of the year at the end of the week. (With Maciej publishing the day before.) But this year, quite frankly, I forgot. And I could also make the argument I did not love any films released in 2022, though I’ll mention two below, that I’m excited to revisit.
Having returned to the academic world of Cinema Studies, the discipline in which I received my BA 18 years ago, I found myself in a constant process of cinematic discovery, beginning with my preparations last summer. So today I am sharing my favorite of those discoveries, a film I consider landmark, the Michael Curtiz/John Garfield collaboration, The Breaking Point.
Other films I’ve seen this year that I solidly recommend: Born to Dance (1936), Golden Eighties (1986), He Ran All the Way (1951), Gun Crazy (1950), The Pawnbroker (1964), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Please Murder Me (1956), Red Rock West (1993), Chameleon Street (1989), Seconds (1966), Tàr (2022), The Quiet Girl (2022).
“The Group trained him, the movies made him, the Blacklist killed him.”
-Abraham Polonsky on John Garfield, 1975
John Garfield experienced two high profile artistic divorces in his short, brilliant acting career.
The first came in 1937. Disillusioned by rejection, having been promised the Broadway lead in Clifford Odets’ boxing drama Golden Boy, only to see it taken from him by director Harold Clurman due to the actor possessing “neither the pathos, nor the variety…to sustain the role,” (Clurman 1975) Garfield left the iconic Group Theater for Hollywood. The decision was not well-received by his comrades on the stage, including being met by what Clurman described as the “wrath” of Lee J. Cobb.
Some of his companions told him that he was still immature as an actor and that he owed it to himself to continue to develop with the Group before venturing in the wide-open spaces of the screen. Some thought it fitting to tell him how monotonous and mannered he had been in Having Wonderful Time. Others simply told him how low it was to leave a production like Golden Boy – which excelled through its ensemble – in the middle of a run. (Clurman 1975)
In 1946, after a moderately successful run in the Hollywood studio system at Warner Bros., Garfield was determined to craft a Hollywood career “on his own terms.” (Butler 2022) A method actor by training, he sought creative control over his projects, looking for roles that explored the American character and reflected similar political motivations to those of the Group in the 1930s, a company that ascended in artistic relevance during the Depression, producing plays about striking laborers (Waiting for Lefty) and working-class families struggling to realize their limited version of “the American dream” (Awake and Sing!). He told Mary Morris of PM Magazine, “I want to make pictures with a point – zing, spit, fire.” (Nott 2003) Garfield and his production partner Bob Roberts “made an agreement with Enterprise Studios, a new company producing its own films and also acquiring others for distribution through United Artists. They secured $1 million loan from Bank of America.” (Sklar 1992) Their first project, the boxing drama Body and Soul, redressed the earlier artistic slight, allowing Garfield to finally lace up his gloves and step into the ring. (And Clurman be damned, his performance brimmed with both pathos and variety.)
The finest of the films Garfield made after his studio exodus was The Breaking Point, an adaptation of Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not, directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) in 1950. It was said to be Hemingway’s favorite adaptation of his own work, and that is understandable. The Breaking Point is unambiguous, direct, angry, passionate, touching. It is a film about a man returning from war, returning from heroics, only to find himself aimlessly searching for a new (male) identity in a new America, while also trying to provide for his loving wife and children at any cost.
As this column is an attempt to get you to see the film, I’ll say little else about it. The film is available to rent for $2.99 through Apple and Amazon. The film is also embedded below, courtesy of Internet Archive. But I would like to make a request. For the film’s 97-minute running time, turn out the lights in your living room or apartment. Turn your phone off. Put the laptop away, unless you’re watching the film on that device. Take this film in and allow it to take your somewhere you’ve never been.
If you see the film, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to email me: email@example.com.