Moby Dick (1956)

I have at least one thing in common with the late Ray Bradbury —we both could never get through the novel Moby Dick.  At least that’s what Ray Bradbury once said on John Huston asking him to pen the screenplay. Frankly, I still don’t know what it’s about nor do I care what 9th Grade lit teachers once told me what it was about.  To me it’s about a big frigg’un pissed off whale who’s squaring off with an ornery one-legged dude in a top hat. I know there’s more to it, but John Huston and Ray Bradbury whittled through much of the story and made a fairly entertaining adventure yarn.

Moby Dick (1956) has a lot to offer: a fine cast, led by a young Richard Basehart as Ishmael, Friedrich Ledebur as Queequeg, and Leo Genn as Starbuck; John Huston’s attention to period detail; a rousing score by Philip Sainton; Oswald Morris’s desaturated cinematography; and of course Huston and Bradbury’s screenplay.  We even have Orson Welles and Royal Dano in bit parts.  Next to Jaws (1975), it’s probably the best movie out there about a giant fish.

Oddly, my favorite character isn’t Ahab. Yes, I tend to agree with critics here that Gregory Peck was miscast. He seems too stiff. He’s not believable as the vengeful maniacal Ahab. To me his interpretation of Ahab comes across as being stagey, like he is playing Ahab on broadway. I don’t think Moby Dick translates well for Broadway. I wonder if Robert Mitchum could’ve pulled it off?

My favorite character  and performance of course is Ishmael’s friend, the harpooner Queequeg, played by Austrian-born actor Friedrich von Ledebur. What a presence this guy has. I remember him as Brother Christophorus, in The Howling Man episode of The Twilight Zone, Season 2, 1960. Standing with his harpoon and top hat, he seems 8-feet tall. After being criticized as being a savage by Quaker book keepers, he scoffs at them and drills his weapon into the end of a keg.

…And Queequeg signs on-board.

Only after a half hour or so into the film do we get a full introduction to Captain Ahab.  He offers up a Spanish gold piece for the first mate to spot the white whale.  “Skin your eyes…”

The model work and special effects for this film are top notch.  IMDb notes that the special effects were rendered by George Blackwell (Curse of the Demon, 1957) and Augie Lohman, with technical advice on the whale model from Robert Clarke and Charles E. Parker. Bravo to them as the whale looks both dynamic and terrifying.  The film also has a somewhat unique, desaturated and weathered look, achieved from variations on printing of Eastmancolor 5248 (25 ASA tungsten) (See link below for full technical discussion).

Of course the whale is the show and he doesn’t let down.  We also have the now famous line:

From Hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee. Ye damned whale.

And the Pequod also meets her fate.  Ishmael lives to tell the story:

[Voiceover] Call me Ishmael.

Interesting Discussion Board on Cinematography of Moby Dick:

2 Responses to “Moby Dick (1956)”

  1. true, there’s a spectacular adventure yarn in Moby Dick (and a monster-movie, too), despite all of the generic, philosophical, and historical excess. A professor of mine posited this question in an essay about Moby-Dick (the book): “what if whales really are the vital matter in Melville’s textual leviathan, and the philosophical materials no more than arabesques?” — i.e., what if the book is really about whales?

  2. cuttydarke Says:

    I think the book really is about whales. But it’s whales as a metaphor for man’s relationship with nature.

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