Sunday 8 April 2007

Moby Dick (1956) John Huston

I've consistently failed to find out what happens in Moby Dick, probably because it's the one novel that my mother could never finish, because it bored her silly every time she tried it. So I haven't read it, heard it or seen it, any which way you can experience a classic work of literature nowadays. Finally I get to experience it, in the form of the version by no less a director than John Huston himself. Huston also co-wrote it, with Ray Bradbury, of all people, and there are other names I know in the crew.

I know some of the cast too. Captain Ahab, to whom we are not introduced for some time, is played by Gregory Peck, which works because it's a deep and serious role and he's always been as great an actor in serious roles as he's seemed to fail in my eyes in anything less serious. Before we meet Ahab though, we meet Ishmael, in the form of Richard Basehart. I'm surprised that Im surprised to find that he's our storyteller, given that the only line I know from the book is 'Call me Ishmael.' We also meet Queequeg, a wonderfully characterful cannibal with distinctive facial scarification, played by an Austrian count called Friedrich von Ledebur; the sonorous Father Mapple played by the sonorous Orson Welles; a crazy yet sage Royal Dano and many members of a motley crew from around the world.

The plot is slim because it's hardly important in the grand scheme of things and this is all about the grand scheme of things. It's 1841 and Ishmael wants to get back out on the ocean so he finds his way to New Bedford and signs up for a whaler, the Pequod, under Captain Ahab. It's a full half hour, a quarter of the way through the film, before Ahab turns up, brooding and obsessive, to promise gold to anyone who finds him the white whale known as Moby Dick. They do well on the hunt but then the obsession takes over and it's off to find the white whale.

It's an overly theatrical piece, at times (hence we reach a Finis instead of The End), but it has power. Peck, who many seem to suggest was miscast, is suitably obsessive. Basehart is solid and so is everyone else, though Friedich von Ledebur will probably be most memorable for me, along with Moby Dick himself, who is the suitably scarred villain of the piece who gets the best lines even though he can't speak.

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