Gregory Peck attempting to look unattractive as Captain Ahab in John Huston's Moby Dick.
Those of you who've been following along since the beginning can trace the dawn of a new obsession in my film viewing life: Gregory Peck. I can't figure out if it's the face, the VOICE or that over-eager quality he has in the love scenes, but I'm gaga for Gregory. And this just happened in the past month or so, while watching Spellbound for the umpteenth time.
Today I'm going to talk about two Peck movies, both adaptations of novels, the underrated Valley of Decision (1945) and the impossible to overrate Moby Dick (1956). Valley of Decision is on the surface a Cinderella romance between the scion of a Pittsburgh mill owner (Peck) and the family's loyal a Irish maid (Greer Garson). Midway through this simple romantic drama gets a lot more complicated and begins to take on a grander topics such as class and the moral duty of industry to its workers. Imagine a combination of "Jane Eyre" and Elizabeth Gaskell's "North and South" and you might have the film version of Valley of Decision. I've not read the novel, but I understand it to be much broader in scope, taking place over 60 years.
The romance between Garson and Peck is slow to build, but their chemistry is such that the audience is left in little suspense when Jessica Tandy is introduced as a rival for Paul Scott's affections. The pacing of the film feels like a novel, taking time to flesh out minor characters and lay out the simmering plot conflicts. There are good performances here from Donald Crisp, Lionel Barrymore and Gladys Cooper as the elder generation who can't change the way things are whether they want to or not. I wonder if this movie had been made ten years earlier if it would have had an entirely different set of sympathies. As it is, the Scott's are portrayed as honest and hardworking people who want the best for their workers and the unions and strikes are shown as not entirely the root of all evil, but close enough to it. As in "North and South," a high value is placed on the power of individuals and friendships across classes to save the day. The most interesting thing about Valley of Decision is its ending, which twists away from all expected paths and leads to a complicated, somewhat ambiguous denouement.
No such worries about ambiguity when viewing John Huston's colossal Moby Dick. You pretty much know where you're headed from the first ten minutes when Ismael (Richard Baseheart) ducks in to a pub on a stormy night and meets his future shipmates from the Pequod. Melville's novel was fairly stuffed with foreshadowing and Huston (with script help from science fiction master, Ray Bradbury) doesn't leave out any of it.
The studio insisted that a "name" be cast as Ahab (apparently John Huston wasn't enough of a "name" for movie posters, since many involved in the production felt that the director should also star) and Peck was chosen. Not only do Huston and Bradbury produce an Ahab for a movie star, they create an Ahab who IS a movie star. I don't remember Ahab from the book being so charismatic, but when Peck offers up a round of grog in "the manner of my sea-faring forefathers" for his men and makes them swear death to Moby Dick you can feel why the motley crew of the Pequod are willing to follow him into doom against all reason. Later as things get much worse for the men, Ahab repeats the ceremony in a frightening spectacle of demagoguery. Though the whale gets top billing as the monster in the film, it is really Ahab who chills, and the filmmakers wisely use him sparingly, saving the revelation of his character for the end of the first act.
Watching Moby Dick, I was mentally daring Gregory Peck to be attractive. After all he was literally hobbled with a peg leg, bushy beard, nasty 8 inch facial scar and no love story in sight. Could he do it? About half way through his speech "He tasks me. He heaps me." I found myself involuntarily kicking my feet in delight. Shortly afterward when he hears that the whale is within a day's sail of the Pequod the unabashed joy and anticipation is something quite close to that "over eager" quality I mentioned early.
I was expecting Moby Dick to look dated, but I was surprised at how good the water sequences are and at no point are the whales in the movie, comically fake. I think the effects actually were better than the 1998 mini series version with Patrick Stewart, which had a terrible CGI Moby that drew snorts from everyone at my house. Actually Peck's cameo as Father Mapple is probably the best thing in that movie. I much prefer Stewart's few Ahab moments in Star Trek the Next Generation to going the whole distance with him.
Huston's movie is at its best when its in adventure mode and has a surprisingly light touch with the friendship between Ismael and Queequeg. Still, it's Peck performance that convinces the audience that sensible Starbuck who earlier in the film suggest mutiny, would succumb to Ahabmania. The words "Captain Ahab" are almost synonymous with unhealthy obsession, and I would not be so flip as to suggest that the unhappy mariner could be cured by writing a blog about whale migrations. But given the love look on Ahab's face when he gets within 10 sea miles of Moby Dick, might I suggest a dalliance with a saucy Irish chambermaid?
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