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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 20, No. 7. 30th May, 1957

"Moby Dick" in Retrospect

"Moby Dick" in Retrospect

"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.

Unable to Master Part

Part of Huston's fault lies in his star. Gregory Peck, to begin with, lacks the hoary and grim aspect of Melville's old Ahab. His voice is too refined and it lacks depth and sublety. No actor has ever received such a build-up nor has he been given such a dramatic entrance. But when Gregory Peck appears he doesn't fill us with awe, nor can we believe that there is some inner crucifixion and woe in his face, as the commentary tells us.

Peck sabotages Huston's more significant moments with his crew. They struggle manfully to reflect the disquietude of their master and add an apprehensiveness of their own. The chorus of "Moby Dick" perform their task vigorously and with as much sublety as they are allowed. But aren't they a little too clean? Where are the mongrel renegades, the castaways and the cannibals?

On the credit side is the way Huston overcomes the hackneyed conventions of the screen sea-stories. There is a new vigour and the three mates are able to give at least a hint of characterisation, even if they are not the momentous men that the novel describes. Harry Andrews as Stubb is the most successful. Although not physically quite right, I liked the Quaker Starbuck of Leo Genn. Huston and his scriptwriter, however, don't do justice to Flask.

No Genius

There is much to admire in this film. The technicolor just as an experimental achievement deserves praise; the Elijah sequence is well handled and there are some fine faces and a fine mood at the "Pequod's departure. The whale-chases themselves arc excitingly contrived. I like the use made of Pip, the cabin-boy from Alabama, and the unusually restrained handling of Queequeg's coffin. And I welcomed the sequences where the background music was absent Moby Dick is a good film; and a sincere one, I suppose, in that Huston is being honest to himself in his present phase. It is a pity he tackled one of his greatest ambitions in the film industry's current experimental stage, and it can only be hoped that he will forget the visual excitement for a while, and turn to subjects a little less big—stories of intimate intensity. "Moby Dick", after all, has a certain Shakespearean magnitude. Remember, John huston, "the play's the thing".—I.R.

A bible-class called Dolores
Found few could achieve Heaven's glories,
So to make the few fewer Corrupted the pure
By telling indecorous stories.


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