Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 20, No. 7. 30th May, 1957
"Moby Dick" is an honest attempt to capture the spirit and excitement of Herman Melville's book. But director John Huston no longer has the means to do it. At the beginning of his career, Huston showed a terseness and a concentration, an ability to rystalize an idea in one telling cinematic moment. But this strong disciplined talent has now deserted him.
He attempts in the film to convey the feeling of awe, of mystery and of doubt that gnaws at the souls of the crew of "The Pequod" because of the monomaniac moods of their captain, Ahab. Quite legitimately, he does this through one of two isolated sequences, one of which is when the crew listens to the sound of Ahab's bony step as he hobbles on the nightshrouded decks. Cinematically this sequence was a good idea, but the final result is wasted footage. The treatment is thin and over-emphatic. There was a time when Huston would have made such a moment so telling that the effect would have been lasting. In "Moby Dick", an atmosphere and impression that should have pre and impression that should have peravded the whole film is over in a few minutes.
It seems to be the old question of the artist becoming more interested in how he is speaking than what he is speaking. Huston, since "Moulin Rouge" as least, has become increasingly more preoccupied with technique and this obvious obsession mars "Moby Dick". There are moments of sheer visual excitement—but these beauties tell an empty tale. From the moment I knew that the story was to be helped by the device of the narrative link, I knew that Huston's attempt would be a failure. What a strange clash there is between the page 5 literary and the visual! What a disappointing and undisciplined hotchpotch the storm sequence is—a mixture of real and supernatural. If this sequence had been played wholly as a mime, the attempt at the mystical would have been wholly successful. As it is the entrance of the supernatural seems false and superimposed. What an exciting sequence this would have been with a little more restraint and a little less fascination with a new camera technique.
The new photographic technique, invented by Huston and his [unclear: camera] man, deserves to be praised—but not too much. The colour of "Moby Dick" is more subdued, mistier and less harsh. But is colour the right medium for a tale such as "Moby Dick"? The use of colour and the blurred shots are admirable—until the final sequence., Here Huston is forced out into the open where there is less sea-spray. The pastel shadings so predominate that one is reminded of outer space and the monsters that lurk therein. Perhaps I shouldn't have known that the co-scriptwriter for "Moby Dick" is a science flctioner, but the longer the sequence went on the more unconvincing.
Moby Dick's destruction was too boldly pointed. Some of it should have been merely suggested—then we would have had more realism and perhaps a little poetry.