Ranking: #70/111

Director: Michael Curtiz (Hungary/USA) 

Genre: Crime Film Noir

Based on a searing story from Ernest Hemingway, turned into a powerful screenplay that ripples with narrative tension, Breaking Point is one of the finest works of Film Noir in cinema.

Hemingway’s novel To Have and Have Not is the real inspiration behind this pulsating film. The novel is set in Key West, Florida and Cuba traces the misfortunes of a fishing boat captain, Harry Morgan, who gets caught up in illegal smuggling when overwhelming economic pressures, arising from the Great Depression, threaten his livelihood.

Curtiz doesn’t just adapt the novel for the big screen: he transforms its material into a living work of cinematic art. Seldom has a film evoked the power of economic pressures to corrupt the course of a person’s life with such a visceral plausibility (I’m on the hook,” Morgan declares in an understatement). It’s about the plight of the working man who’s caught up in a situation that’s too hot to handle with his limited means. Morgan’s downfall is traced in stages, each one worse than the one before. John Garfield is magnificent as Morgan and leads a powerful cast who all delivered persuasive performances.

Through a sly, dodgy lawyer, Duncan, Morgan gets involved in smuggling eight Chinese migrants from Mexico into California in his boat. After losing some money, in a deal gone wrong, he then gets blackmailed into helping some gangsters to escape after a heist. These are heartless men and they ruthlessly kill Morgan’s partner, a black man called Wesley Park (sensitively played by Juano Hernandez). They force the shocked Morgan at gunpoint to help them escape. Eventually, a shoot-out erupts on the boat and the gangsters are killed, while Morgan is critically wounded.

It’s the saddest of sad endings when Curtiz shows Wesley’s son wandering and waiting on the quay for his father to appear. It’s a heart-breaking moment for the viewer as the boy is left fatherless, not knowing what has happened to his father.

The director has sustained the narrative tension from start to finish, while underpinning the plot with the economic drivers behind Morgan’s desperate and bad choice to join forces with illegal smugglers and crooks who cause his downfall. The story seems prescient for its time by highlighting the problem of illegal migration into the United States, a huge social and political issue to this day.

A sub-plot involves the love story between Morgan and his wife, Lucy. The screen chemistry between the two actors is strong, while the love between them is genuine and wholesome, a redeeming part of the story.

The themes are rich and still relevant today – not just people smuggling but also the pressure exerted by economic downturn on ordinary people who can’t make ends meet for their families.

The dialogue, too, is scintillating, with several tough-talking characters in the cast.

I loved every moment of this movie: it has a great script and lots of action, shot with a lively, actively involved camera, which has produced cinematographic and visual dynamism. It has well-sustained tension, thematic interest and emotive power.

A blockbuster of American cinema from 1950 has risen through the artistry of Michael Curtiz to the level of a timeless movie which still evokes the spirit of Ernest Hemingway.