The Breaking Point, 1950

This is great stuff. The Breaking Point has the best kind of noir hero: an ordinary guy whose desperation gets him mixed up in the sordid underworld. John Garfield’s Harry is literally a fish out of water; his fishing boat business failing, he throws in with increasingly dangerous lot of characters. Patricia Neal plays the semi-femme fatale Leona, while Harry’s steady but bedraggled wife, Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter), has the kids, Harry, and Leona to worry about. Both women give superb performances; very nuanced and three-dimensional. Juana Hernandez, as Harry’s partner Wesley, is a sort of counterpart to Lucy, tremendously loyal, yet knowingly critical of Harry.

Harry does often seem insufferable. He’s angry, moody, and terse most of the time. Of course, he hardly spends a scene without pressure. Strangely, Leona, though she really has nothing to do with the criminal elements, seems to insinuate herself more into Harry’s life the deeper he falls into crime. She’s a sort of emotional distraction from Harry and Lucy’s otherwise comfortable domesticity; the underworld stuff is Harry’s physical distraction. As others have noted, the bar scene with both women is unique. They size each other up, coming away with a touch of mutual respect. They’re probably a bit envious of each other, but for different reasons. Even the kids act with subtlety; they have fun, but complain, plead, and whine just as kids do. No ideal family, no ideal relationships, but reassuringly decency. Just when you think Harry’s ready to junk everything for Leona, he backs out; ultimately, she just sort of fades away.

Harry’s not the greatest guy, but his stubborn streak is understandable. Why should he give up what he’s good at, and likes to do, for something (the in-law’s) lettuce business, that he knows nothing about? Equally, it makes sense to change, as Lucy points out. There’s choices, but nothing is a sure thing. Like all good noir movies, the stakes only increase in danger until there’s a literal breaking point. The pacing moves us quickly from Harry’s financial jam to the scam that results in Leona’s attachment to Harry, then to the smuggling episode, and finally the lethal heist. Ironically, the boat, which ought to represent freedom and adventure, becomes a vehicle for each tawdry subplot.

Despite plenty of violence, and a fairly high body-count, I found The Breaking Point oddly uplifting. Stubborn to the end, Harry gives in to Lucy’s pleading that amputating his arm beats dying. You feel the domestic world restored, with all of its unpredictability. The opposite consequence falls on Wesley’s son, as he’s left all alone, seemingly unnoticed on the dock, his father dead. That’s an incredibly poignant scene. Nothing good comes out of the criminal experiences; the point may simply be that not all is lost, either.

Everything’s of a piece here. Visually, the scene with dusk silhouetting Harry as he’s lost in thought before the heist sequence is captivating, as is the dark room in Duncan’s office with the gangsters looming in and out of the lamplight. Definitely worth watching more than once. 9/10.

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