Dir. John Huston. Starring Gregory Peck, Richard Basehart, Leo Genn
It’s easier for me at least to identify single choices in form, structure, performance, and so on which torpedo a movie rather than elevate it. In Moby Dick, there’s an all-timer of a decision which elevates the movie to mysterious heights, and that is the look of the film itself. Moby Dick is a beautiful and strange movie, appearing to take place in a world where the sun has been sucked out of the world and taken its warmth with it, where the night is dim and impenetrable, as if the world is seen through cataracts. And as the movie progresses, sunny days in the equatorial doldrums grow increasingly dark and pessimistic. Oswald Morris and John Huston, both of whom are credited with the “color style” in the credits, are doing wizardry with their film. To the best of my limited knowledge, the effect was created by placing a black-and-white print over a color one which artificially tamps down the color and makes the world funereal. Indeed, it is merely old-timey when Ishmael tramps his way to New Bedford, a little dim in the pub where he learns about Ahab (Peck) and meets Queequeg (Friedrich von Ledebur), perhaps overcast and wintry in the New Bedford harbor. The church where so many names of dead whalers are fixed in plaques on the walls, and where Father Mapple (Orson Welles) delivers his titanic sermon on Jonah, is treelike. Either the church is seen through crumpled parchment paper or it is like a woodcut, etched firmly but a little roughly all the same, with lines harder than the color that might fill them in. There aren’t other movies that look like Moby Dick, and that’s what makes the film a genuinely cinematic experience. No other medium has the power to make this world which suffers through a long solar eclipse, or to make the symbolism of that appearance so plain. “Speak not to me of blasphemy, man,” Ahab famously says. “I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”
I don’t think this is necessarily a classic Gregory Peck performance, but it showcases his ability to own a movie. For all of his statuesque qualities, Peck was a pretty generous actor who was good at sharing the screen with co-stars. You can see it in a movie like Roman Holiday, playing against an unknown Audrey Hepburn, or his work underpinning a very noisy ensemble in The Guns of Navarone. In Moby Dick I don’t think Peck has to share the screen for a moment. Either he is the focus of John Huston’s frame or he is absent from it, and even then people incessantly speak of Ahab. I love the way that the crestfallen cinematography combines with the makeup, making the white scar on Ahab’s face start to glow the further we get into the picture. The whites of his eyes, the bristle of his beard, and the dark cloth of his coat are a holy trinity of obsessive menace. Peck’s deep voice has never sounded more like a bassoon; his mouth curves to the keel of his ship in a frown that must weigh ten stone. It’s a dominant performance, and I adore its organization. Peck and Huston, although it doesn’t seem like the movie appears to have been good for their personal relationship, appear to have been on the same page with one another as regards the growing intensity of the part.
Ahab could be a stern ship captain with a colorful past and a wooden leg in the first few appearances, but by the end of it he has grown into a new skin. Moby-Dick, the novel with a hyphen in the title, creates an Ahab who is a tragic hero in the old style. Whether your hamartia signifies a fatal flaw, like you learned in 10th grade English, or if it has something to do with a random tragedy befalling the hero, in either case Ahab has it. Like Oedipus, he is not necessarily wicked on his own but requires a fate to lay him low, for despite all of his weaknesses he is a great captain. Peck is assisted in those moments where Ahab is the leader of men by the shouts and cheers of an instantly swayed crew, whether by grog or Spanish gold. But in quieter moments without throngs of witnesses, like those where he is confronted by Starbuck (Genn) about the fundamental illogic of his need for vengeance, I think Peck displays the horrible greatness that makes Ahab an irresistible character and an inexorable leader. In explaining to Starbuck that Moby Dick is the mask, and “it is the thing behind the mask I chiefly hate, the malignant thing that has plagued and frightened man since time began,” Huston closes in on Peck. His face goes from being a few feet away from the camera to being the vast majority of the field, and the lantern that shone on him has been eclipsed so that only blackness surrounds him. In that moment, one understands why men live and die at Ahab’s command. He is spellbinding, and he is frightening, and Peck plays Ahab as a man imbued. The St. Elmo’s fire scene, my favorite from the novel, features Ahab capturing the sickly green lightning in his harpoon and boasting at his (short-lived) command of Nature itself.
Even Ahab, as potent as he is, needs someone to strive against who we can see. The sequence where Ahab rides Moby Dick down to perdition is pretty good, as far as that goes—people who are hoping for action sequences in Moby Dick won’t be disappointed, necessarily, but they are far from the reason this movie works—but the film is at its best when Starbuck is contesting with him. Leo Genn doesn’t fill the screen the way that Peck can, and no one asks him to do so. Huston is clever about placing him a little further out in the frame, rarely centering him, and even when he is speaking to the other mates on the ship about the potential of mutiny against the mad captain, he doesn’t stand much. What matters is that Starbuck’s calm, businesslike nature seems wrong against Ahab no matter what temperature the captain is. If Ahab is running hot and whipping the crew into a frenzy, then Starbuck’s reasonable aspect is anathema to their hot-blooded excitement. If Ahab is running cold and expressing his intention to chase the white whale over the globe, his iciness only serves to make Starbuck seem unreasonable and ill-tempered himself. The film never pretends that Starbuck is anything but correct and moral, but it is excellent at finding ways to make sure that we understand Ahab’s triumphs, which of course lead to Starbuck’s unjust death.
As far as the novel goes, which absolutely hangs over the picture in the way that The Great Gatsby or Pride and Prejudice hang over their adaptations, Huston and Ray Bradbury have done a remarkable job with it. They’ve identified the beats which are essential to the story, and dropped some characters and scenes to make it match. Fedallah is not in this adaptation, and I’m a little ashamed to say that I don’t miss him all that much. Much of what makes Queequeg a more compelling character is lost, though, in basically skipping from the New Bedford bed-sharing experience to his casted runes that lead him to believe he’ll die; this is a shame, although a story as much about Ahab as this one does not necessarily require much reliance on Queequeg’s stolidity. They have excised the many ships that the Pequod makes contact with and only maintained the ones which can evince something new about Ahab. His meeting with a British captain who has lost a limb of his own in whaling ends with that captain barely getting off the Pequod before Ahab sets sail again; his good humor is a little shocking compared to Ahab’s purposeful scowl. Perhaps most important of all is the ship that the screenwriters keep, the Rachel. Ahab’s new skin shows red touching yellow when he addresses basso the captain across the still sea. The captain (Francis de Wolff) is grieving the loss of a son he hopes may have been spared by some miracle; he wants Ahab to help him look for that son. We cannot see his face but the timbre of his voice is unmistakable. Starbuck encourages his captain to do the decent thing, and there’s a look on Ahab’s face which we never see there before or after: regret. Knowing that the whale that killed Gardiner’s son is Moby Dick, an irresistible impulse has overtaken the one-legged whaler. He understands that all bonds of fellowship and Christian behavior, all propriety and decency, demands that he break off his pursuit of Moby Dick and search for the boy instead. Screwing up his face, Ahab denies Gardiner and takes the Pequod on the final leg, haha, of its voyage.