DATELINE: Lost & Forgotten Movies
Of the legendary Blacklist victims of old Hollywood, one of the most tragic is actor John Garfield, a star not much thought of nowadays. He died too young, but he would have been even bigger before another decade passed if only he had lived.
He had a career often playing tough guys with a conscience, often in socially redeeming movies. Clifford Odets wrote Golden Boy for him, but he never played it. Elia Kazan was a buddy, but never directed him. Garfield’s last role, before he was forced off the screen in 1951, was The Breaking Point, based on an Ernest Hemingway tale.
As you might expect, Garfield played an independent owner of a small fishing boat that rented out to corrupt businessmen on holiday.
Needing money, Garfield’s character succumbs to dealing in human contraband, bringing illegal aliens into the United States from Mexico. The story almost seems ripped from present-day headlines.
Featuring Juano Hernandez as his partner, a daring cross-color friendship in the middle of the McCarthy era, Garfield’s hero must deal with temptations of corruption. Patricia Neal, in her blonde vamp role, is hard-hearted nemesis, tempting the hero from his wife.
Garfield suffered from a rheumatic heart in the days before medications and procedures—and yet he often played the action hero. Throw in the stresses he suffered personally from the House on Un-American Activities, and you have a shortened life.
The film treads on noir ground, and it plays as cultural realism too. It seems a contradiction coming from the macho-Hemingway mode, but this is a tale of honor with filmmakers who wanted to be relevant as well as entertaining.
Today The Breaking Point stands as a movie way ahead of its time.