This years Turner Classic Movies Film Festival started off with a bang in its showcase of a number of solid opening night films. In a line-up that included such well-known classics as To Have and To Have Not and The Producers, the festival added the 1941 action adventure rarity The Sea Wolf among the prestigious movies. While it may be a deep cut, the film is definitely a worthy inclusion among the classics.
The Sea Wolf follows a group of misfits as they join up with the harsh and authoritarian sea captain “Wolf Larsen” (Edward G. Robinson). The film also features starring turns by actors John Garfield and Ida Lupino. The noirish action adventure is directed by Michael Curtiz from a script by Robert Rossen.
This was a first time viewing for yours truly, and it was a challenge figuring out what to expect. The early 1940s feature is known primarily as an action/adventure picture. However, what becomes absolutely fascinating as the movie gets going is the dramatic presence of film noir elements in the turn-of-the-century period piece. Screenwriter Robert Rossen did some of his best work during this period. The writer is best known for penning such classics as All the King’s Men, and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Rossen is one of a handful of writers during this era who was truly at home working in film noir.
From the opening credits, The Sea Wolf even feels like a work of film noir. It seems the story could just as easily exist outside of this turn-of-the-century ship, and take place inside of a New York jazz club in the 1940s. The film is brooding and foggy, absolutely dripping with the stark atmosphere of its film noir contemporaries. Not only is it very dark stylistically, but also in the narrative sense. This life is bleak for all of our leads.
This bleakness is a hallmark of film noir. The movement rose to prominence in the early 1940s and continued strongly until the middle of the 1950s. This period is defined by World War IIr and later the ensuing return to normalcy. The changes ushered in by the war gradually lead to a desperate search for stability in the years following the war. One drastic change came in post-war gender norms. Women had ventured out to get jobs as part of the war effort, and some weren’t ready to go back into the kitchen. Meanwhile, returning soldiers were struggling to adjust to peace-time. Cinema (and particularly film noir) threw a spotlight on these drastic post-war changes. While The Sea Wolf takes place at the turn of the twentieth century, these issues of gender roles are still apparent in the characters of Ruth (Lupino) and George (Garfield).
The brunt of the audience identification falls on the solid and more than capable shoulders of John Garfield, Ida Lupino, and to a slightly lesser extent, Alexander Knox. Garfield and Lupino are absolutely stunning in the film as two prison escapees finding it incredibly difficult to start a new life. As a performer, Garfield brings a heart-wrenching sense of struggle. He’s a working class guy, just trying to figure things out. There are many moments of brilliance in his performance, particularly in his stunning chemistry with the equally brilliant Lupino, reminding us how tragically little we saw of John Garfield before his premature death at age 39.
Also worth noting for film fans is Ida Lupino’s performance. The young actress began in the 1930s, with her work picking up speed into the 1940s. Once the 1950s rolled around, Lupino’s career shifted and she started directing. She jumped into the medium with both feet, working steadily throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. While The Sea Wolf is still early in the actress’ career, the independence in her star persona, which allowed her to become a ground-breaking figure in the film industry during the classic era is hugely apparent in the character of Ruth.
In terms of struggles, the film’s biggest problems are narrative based. The script is trying to do a lot, most notably juggle a number of characters. The Sea Wolf packs a strong cast, and each of these vital characters deserve their due. On top of Garfield, Knox and Lupino, we also have classic film titan Edward G. Robinson as well as legendary character actors Gene Lockhart and Barry Fitzgerald competing for time. This results in a crowded (but not all together quickly paced) 100 minute run-time.
The Sea Wolf is definitely a deep cut in the classic film world. The hybrid action feature and film noir captures brilliant performances by some true Hollywood legends in a unique and interestingly constructed work of cinema. Check it out when you can.