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In his next to last movie, John Garfield starred in The Breaking Point (1950), a film based on Ernest Hemingway's novel To Have and Have Not and directed by Michael Curtiz. According to biographer Larry Swindell in Body and Soul: The Story of John Garfield, the original Hemingway title couldn't be used "because a few years earlier Warners had used the title, but almost none of the story, for the famous Bogart vehicle that introduced Lauren Bacall. ('If you want anything, just whistle')." Yet, The Breaking Point is a much more faithful adaptation of the Hemingway novel than the Howard Hawks interpretation with Bogart and Bacall.
In the Curtiz version, John Garfield plays Harry Morgan, the owner of a charter boat who is having trouble making enough money to support his wife and daughters. When he accepts a charter to take a man named Hannagan and his mistress to Mexico to do some fishing, his client skips out without paying, leaving Morgan with Hannagan's girlfriend Lenora (Patricia Neal), and a docking fee he can't pay. In order to make enough money to get home, Morgan reluctantly agrees to smuggle Chinese people into the United States, but the Coast Guard finds out about it and impounds his boat. The situation becomes increasingly desperate for Morgan as a gang of crooks blackmails him and kills his first mate, forcing him into a fateful confrontation.
In the mid-1940s, Garfield left Warners to start his own production company, but he returned to the studio for The Breaking Point, a film that reunited the actor with director Michael Curtiz. Garfield had previously worked with Curtiz in his movie debut, Four Daughters (1938) and the director's reputation for box office hits was confirmed by his work on Casablanca (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), and the holiday classic White Christmas (1954). In a pre-production conference on The Breaking Point with Curtiz and screenwriter Ranald MacDougall, Garfield recalled (in Swindell's biography), "I acted all the parts. If Mike [Curtiz] frowned, we'd do some talking, and maybe Randy would do some rewriting. Curtiz wanted to know my secret of being sexy. He decided it was time to get some honest sex into his pictures. I told him I learned everything from [stage and screen actor] Luther Adler, who was a master at making sure all the lights were turned out. I told Mike he should make Luther a technical adviser for all his pictures."
Shortly before filming began on The Breaking Point, an article appeared in the newspaper implying Garfield had a connection to the Communist party. Since he was already under contract for The Breaking Point, Garfield completed the picture, but his career took a downward turn after that. Although Garfield denied ever being a Communist, Swindell stated, "There was no more talk of a new contract offer from Warners, and ominously and suddenly, there were no offers at all. The telephone stopped ringing. Scripts stopped coming his way." Garfield only made one more film, He Ran All the Way (1951), before his death in 1952 from heart problems.
According to Swindell, The Breaking Point "was one of only a handful of studio-mill projects to emerge with honor in that lackluster year." Critics praised Garfield's performance, but since the film performed poorly at the box office, it was forgotten by the time Academy Award nominations were selected.
Director: Michael Curtiz
Producer: Jerry Wald
Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall. Based on the novel To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway.
Cinematography: Ted McCord
Art Direction: Edward Carrere
Music: Ray Heindorf
Cast: John Garfield (Harry Morgan), Patricia Neal (Lenora Charles), Phyllis Thaxter (Lucy Morgan), Juano Hernandez (Wesley Park), Wallace Ford (Duncan).
by Deborah L. Johnson