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Case Number 19795: Small Claims Court

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Moby Dick (1956)

MGM // 1956 // 115 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // September 30th, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge Clark Douglas will find the white whale! And then invite him to a party!

Editor's Note

Our reviews of Moby Dick (2010) (Blu-ray) (published September 26th, 2011) and The Master (1989) (published October 4th, 2002) are also available.

The Charge

The man—the whale—the vengeance—the mightiest adventure ever seen!

The Case

It's hard to imagine a director better-suited to adapting Herman Melville's Moby Dick than the great John Huston. The director loved tales of outdoor adventure and obsessive characters, and has any literary figure been noted for his obsession quite so much as Captain Ahab? Alas, Huston's adaptation has typically generated mixed opinions over the years, with many criticizing the choice of Gregory Peck in the crucial role of Captain Ahab. There's no question that Huston's Moby Dick is a flawed film, but it's deserving of another look: this is a fascinating flick with a whole lot of virtues worth noting.

The narrator of the story is Ishmael (Richard Basehart, The Satan Bug), a restless sailor intent on experiencing life on a whaling ship for the first time. He joins a ship led by the mysterious Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck, The Omen), a brooding man with a wooden leg and an ominous scar on his face. Ahab lost his leg to the legendary white whale Moby Dick, and he's intent on getting revenge. It takes a while to persuade the crew that the mission of vengeance is one worth taking, but Ahab eventually wins the full support of his crew. Who will win the furious sea battle between man and beast?

One of the film's greatest virtues is the splendidly cinematic manner in which it casts a spell of doom over the proceedings. Each important element is given a generous amount of ominous build-up before it arrives, giving us the sense that we are witnessing a slow, inexorable march towards doom. The first genuinely superb scene comes early on, as all of the local townsfolk gather into a church to worship before Ahab and his crew takes off on their voyage. Most of the sailors are quite religious and superstitious; they dare not miss church before embarking upon a dangerous voyage. As the service begins, the choir sings a dark, minor-key hymn that sounds more like a funeral dirge. The camera slowly pans towards the front of the church, examining tributes to dead sailors along the walls. Finally, when the song is ending, the stern Father Mapple (Orson Welles, The Third Man) emerges, climbs on top of a giant replica of a ship's mast and delivers a fiery sermon: "Delight is to him who coming to lay him down can say, 'O Father, mortal or immortal, here I die.'"

From there, we build to Captain Ahab, as the character isn't properly introduced until after the 30-minute mark. Everyone who has served with Ahab speaks of him in mysterious hushed tones. Ishmael, being a man of religious superstition like everyone else, hesitates when he recalls that Ahab was the name of an evil king in the Bible. He hesitates a bit more after being approached by a scruffy "prophet" named Elijah (Royal Dano, The Right Stuff) who essentially declares that Ahab is nothing short of evil incarnate. "He is a champion of darkness," one of the crew members declares. "This is an evil mission." Maybe so, but even this supposed Prince of Darkness seems fragile in contrast to the famed Moby Dick. Ahab speaks of finding and destroying the whale with a religious fervor, and his speeches tend to be framed in epic terms: "Speak not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me."

This is grand stuff, hypnotically portentous and benefiting from Ray Bradbury's exceptionally elegant screenplay. Huston encourages his actors to strike bold notes, and most of the cast responds by vigorously embracing this material. The Orson Welles speech is a good starting point in terms of setting the film's tone; the actor's theatrical delivery is also found in the performances of most of the members of Ahab's crew. Standing out considerably is Friedrich von Ledebur (The 27th Day) as Queequeg, the pagan cannibal and headhunter whose lack of Christian values is forgiven due to his skill with a harpoon. The performance could have easily fallen into camp, but the actor sells some challenging scenes with great conviction.

If there's a weak point in the cast…honestly, I feel Basehart's Ishmael is more of a liability than Peck's Ahab. Ishmael is just such a bland, vanilla character, wandering through the proceedings as an innocent audience surrogate without really being able to add much. Peck's performance, though a bit awkward at times, is an intriguing variation on the character. Peck may have been established as a handsome, good-natured leading man, but he had already demonstrated on multiple occasions that he was capable of digging into dark emotional territory. It's a grim performance that works well for the most part, particularly during Ahab's scenes of quiet brooding. However, I must admit that Peck's blustering delivery of, "I spit my last breath at thee, ye damned whale!" always struck me as being fairly amusing.

Now, I haven't yet pointed out that this review is being written some nine years after this film was released on DVD. This is due to the fact that MGM is re-releasing a handful of classic titles with noteworthy literary inspirations, adding a nice little bookmark as a bonus. Unfortunately, this disc serves as a testament to just how far we've come in terms of DVD transfers in the past year. The film was originally shot and distributed in either 1.66:1 or 1.85:1 widescreen (opinion seems to vary), but was trimmed to full frame for its initial home video release and has remained that way ever since. The fact that the film is in full-screen is bad enough, but the transfer is also just ugly. The darker scenes are a murky mess, while everything else tends to be soft and lacking in detail. The audio is just as bad, with the bombastic score sounding badly damaged and the dialogue sometimes being muffled to the point of incoherence. The only extra on the disc is a trailer.

Moby Dick is a worthy entry on Huston's resume, but this DVD release remains disappointing. Still, I suppose it'll have to do until someone decides to rescue it with a handsome special edition.

The Verdict

The film is not guilty, but this DVD release is.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 80

Perp Profile

Studio: MGM
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
• English (CC)
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 115 Minutes
Release Year: 1956
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Adventure
• Classic
• Drama

Distinguishing Marks

• Trailer


• IMDb

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