Moby Dick (1956 USA)

moby dick 1956I declare war on all the remakes. To you teenyboppers wondering which version – this is the best. And if anyone is still smirking at the title they can leave this blog now or I will smite thee! (Don’t laugh) Supposedly Herman Melville’s masterpiece was impossible to turn into a film script. Supposedly director John Huston was too tyrannical and stubborn during the filming and spent a lot more time and budget than he was allowed to. Supposedly none of the actors playing the most crucial roles deliver good performances and don’t bring any justice to their characters as described in the book. I say tish and pish to all of these objections!

These are just a few of the coarse criticisms I’ve encountered about “Moby Dick”, but let me immediately assure you that this is all sheer nonsense coming from sour people who simply cannot accept that classic books sometimes can be turned into classic movies. Right from the phenomenal opening sequences, when narrator Richard Basemark appears over a hill, addresses the camera to say: “Call me Ishmael,” and then wanders onwards towards a little seaside town called New Bedford, you just know that this will be a masterful and continuously captivating motion picture. Added to the mix is stunning photography, an intelligent screenplay and dialogue that almost resembles poetry.

The story of “Moby Dick” is already widely known, I presume.(And no, it ain’t porn) The adventurous Ishmael and his newly found friend Queequeg sign to board a whaling ship named Pequod, of which the commander is the infamous, feared and heavily traumatized Captain Ahab. There’s good fortune to make in trading whale oil, but Captain Ahab also has a different reason to sail the Pequod around the world with all of its crew members on board. Ahab is hunting down a humongous and devilish white whale named Moby Dick. This insatiably monstrous whale was already responsible for the loss of Captain Ahab’s leg, and since then he has developed a deep hatred towards the animal.

gregory peckSo deep that his only last remaining mission in life is to kill the whale, even if that means sacrificing the ship, his own life and that of his crew members. The first mate Starbuck still attempts to revolt against the self-destructiveness of the Captain, but Ahab is so charismatic and powerful that the entire crew blindly follows him in his personal vendetta. “Moby Dick” is a landmark of a film, as far as yours truly is concerned, and there are countless of sequences that qualify as genuinely brilliant and unforgettable. The entire intro, for example, where Ishmael is subjected to a bizarre kind of initiation ritual in the small New Bradford pub where all sailors and whale hunters gather to drink and sing songs about the sea.

Or the truly fantastic cameo appearance of Orson Welles; portraying a local priest and reciting the biblical story of Jonah from a church-throne shaped like a ship. Talk about mesmerizing! He should have been a school teacher. Once the Pequod has left the New England harbor, the film is simply a never-ending series of exciting action sequences (the whale hunting footage! that typhoon!), with plenty of psychological interludes and truly baffling monologues and dialogue from the main protagonists. I thought Gregory Peck gave a staggering performance as the robust and obsessive Captain Ahab.

Admittedly he looks a bit young and smooth for the role, especially when he mentions at one point that he has been sailing around the world for over forty years, but his facial expressions and angry charisma are as good as genuine. The supportive performances in “Moby Dick” are all impeccable, notably Leo Genn as the deeply religious and concerned first mate, Starbuck, and Harry Andrews as the boisterous but always enthusiast second mate, Stubb. The fake whales and special effects are very impressive, especially considering the period of release, the colors and photography are dream-like and John Huston’s direction is righteously surefooted and tight. Huston was undeniably one of the greatest directors who ever lived and “Moby Dick” is one of the most perplexing films I have ever seen.



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