Sea Wolf, The (1941)

“I’m obeying the law, Mr. Van Weyden — the law of the sea!”

Sea Wolf Poster

Synopsis:
When a writer (Alexander Knox) and two fugitives (Ida Lupino and John Garfield) find themselves aboard a ship run by a tyrannical captain (Edward G. Robinson), they hatch a plan for escape.

Genres:

Review:
Michael Curtiz’s adaptation of Jack London’s 1906 novel (his follow-up to Call of the Wild) remains an atmospheric if at times overly literary tale of sociopathic power run amok. After a brief introduction to some key characters on land, the majority of the film takes place on board “The Ghost”, a hulking ship most sailors know well enough to stay away from, given that its captain, ‘Wolf’ Larsen (Robinson), rules with an iron fist, using both physical and verbal intimidation. He hits, kicks, and slaps at will, but also uses his shipmates’ weaknesses against them psychologically: he appears to be supportive, then sucker-punches them either literally or metaphorically, as occurs with both a tippling chef named Cooky (Barry Fitzgerald in particularly vile form) and alcoholic Dr. Prescott (Gene Lockhart). Even the protagonist — soft-spoken but resolute writer Humphrey Van Weyden (Knox) — gets caught in Wolf’s snare. Less susceptible are a pair of perennially-suspicious fugitives (Garfield and Lupino) who will clearly do anything to escape and remain independent; they’re not swayed by Wolf’s snake-like charisma. Ironically, the split focus between the four central characters, while likely faithful to the source material, diffuses the film’s impact somewhat. We know who to hiss at, but we’re torn between paying attention to Knox (appropriately subdued in his role) or Garfield (whose character is somewhat undeveloped). Meanwhile, Lupino’s character — the only female — is so intriguing we wish we could learn more about her. Regardless, The Sea Wolf remains a strongly directed drama featuring fine performances, and is well worth a one-time look by film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances from the entire cast
    Sea Wolf Robinson2
    Sea Wolf Lupino
    Sea Wolf Fitzgerald
    Sea Wolf Knox
  • Atmospheric cinematography
    Sea Wolf Cinematography2
    Sea Wolf Cinematography

Must See?
No, but it’s certainly recommended. Listed as a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

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3 Responses to “Sea Wolf, The (1941)”

  1. A once-must, for its place in cinema history – esp. for the sharp direction by Curtiz and the strong performances.

    This is one gripping flick. I didn’t read London’s novel – but, from what I’ve checked, this film is supposed to be rather faithful, aside from some alterations (i.e., the ending). Overall, it comes off as being rather London-like; there’s really only one short sequence (near the end – when Garfield and Lupino swear undying love to each other) that smells of Hollywood pushing the ‘obligatory’ love angle forward.

    Helped immensely by DP Sol Polito (who, according to IMDb, “helped create the distinct visual character of Warner Bros. films in the 1930s and 1940s”) and the stirring score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the film just about reaches the level of a horror story (it’s fitting that ‘Ghost’ is the ship everyone is on). It’s the horror of man at his very worst.

    Aside from the opening sequence, this is pure pressure-cooker territory, with the film progressively becoming completely claustrophobic. This is one dark tale, with just about nothing by way of relief. Along those lines, the script by Robert Rossen (who eventually turned to directing as well) is practically relentless in its depiction of the black nature of certain men.

    Robinson is nothing short of superb here – and he is quite ably given high-energy support by the game cast, esp. Garfield, Lupino, Knox, Fitzgerald, and Lockhart.

    This is a film I admire quite a lot, though it can be a bit rough-going for the more casual film fanatic.

  2. I want to rewatch this film through the metaphorical lens of recent political realities/trends…

  3. I thought about that – how the content echoes now. But then I thought, ‘Life has always been this way. The evil that is always with us rears up, taking different forms, time and time again. We will never be rid of it. There are tyrants everywhere – and they always enjoy when they gain enough power to cause havoc.’

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