Classic Musings: Moby Dick ('56)

"Where are the crew of the Pequod? There is not one face I know among thirty" -- Starbuck, Moby Dick

Herman Melville's "Moby Dick", his lavishly verbose classic about the consuming nature of obsession and mankind's powerlessness in controlling the high seas, seems like an ideal fit for big-screen adaptation under The Maltese Falcon and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre director John Huston's hands. With a conflicted but ultimately triumphant partnership with sci-fi novelist Ray Bradbury as his screenwriter, he succeeds; this take on the story adheres to Melville's framework, from the isolation and contemplation of mutiny to the raw thrill of the whale hunt, in a visually-inventive and dramatically potent atmosphere. And it would've been damn near perfect in just about every respect, had the suits in charge made a smarter decision with how to suitably make use of Gregory Peck's magnetism.

Peck plays Ahab, the captain of the Pequod, a man driven purely by his obsessive hunt for "the white whale", a pearly sperm whale that took his leg whilst in the middle of a hunt. This story, the recount of Ishmael (played by an over-aged but excellent Richard Basehart), tells the story of how Ahab acquired a squawk of obedient shipmates to join him on his journey, first as a general whaling mission and then into a direly-driven hunt for one target in particular. Along the way, the story gravitates around the multiple uses of whale parts and how it instills glory in the whalers, all without taking away an ounce of the blood-boiling thrill behind it, and then over into the wavering sanity of the crew as their isolation at sea prolongs -- some in need of motivation, others in need of acting out in rage. As expected, the boiling point comes when they locate the idolized beast, the fruit to their manic strife.

Shot by Huston's recurring cinematographer Oswald Morris, who also filmed Moulin Rouge and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison for the director, Moby Dick employs an intentional sepia-toned, earthy look due to an innovative dye technique. It gives the entirety of the film a vintage tint that emphasizes a novel-like texture about its aesthetic, all while giving the Pequod's voyage an ethereal feel -- almost mythic. This starts in the cramped, musty bar where Ishmael meets the crew over penny-level servings of rum and leads in the church as Father Mapple preaches from his mast-shaped pulpit, which features a cameo from Orson Welles as he spouts cautionary fire and brimstone in an exquisite soliloquy. But the meat of this visual allure really grabs attention when the Pequod begins crashing through waves and chasing whales, following the crew through a dusty, organic haze, occasionally in painterly silvers and blues, that literally makes it look like the images are leaping from pages of parchment.

It's all glorious, the superb archetypal craftsmanship you'd come to expect from John Huston, until Gregory Peck makes his first appearance. Peg-legged and appearing more like a wooden Abraham Lincoln than a weathered sea captain, his portrayal of Ahab becomes what could be the quintessential argument proving that even the greatest of actors can be miscast in the wrong role. At age 38 and coming off of his gangbusters turnout for Roman Holiday, Warner Brothers shoehorned him into the spot in hopes that he'd drive an audience to the production. Peck does acclimate to the role as Moby Dick progresses, grappling the isolation and madness with a genuinely gripping ferocity, but his puffed-up posturing against the crew -- especially during the boisterous, stilted opening dialogue where he offers the Spanish gold to the man who first spots "the white whale" -- feels forced and out of place in the otherwise seamless backdrop.

Still, Peck's patchiness as Ahab, though it creates a somewhat uneven rhythm about Moby Dick since his deep-seated obsession's one of its driving forces, can be overlooked as the story's themes and suspenseful thrust begin to crash through the waters amid this faithful retelling of Melville's work. Huston's experience in adventure, such as with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The African Queen, couples with his admiration for the source material into an enthralling and approachable telling off the officious novel, creating authentic-feeling excitement through the crew's everyday hunt for their pray. But it's when the white whale breaches for the first time -- brought to life by a model that, though requiring endless repairs on-set, really nails an authentic look -- that Huston's furiously-paced film truly embarks towards the quenching of a salty old captain's obsession, and in turn becoming a grand affair in the hands of one of cinema's classic directors.

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