Edward G. Robinson never won an Oscar, nor was he even nominated for one. The Sea Wolf alone proves how tragic that is. The 1941 classic, finally released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive in October 2017, features one of Robinson’s greatest roles.
The film is based on Jack London’s famous adventure novel of the same name. Robinson plays Capt. Wolf Larson, a violent and horrible man cut from the same cloth as Mutiny on the Bounty‘s Capt. Bligh. But the story really starts with novelist Humphrey van Weyden (Alexander Knox) and escaped convict Ruth Webster (Ida Lupino) surviving a ship wreck. We also meet George Leach (John Garfield), a rebellious man looking to escape the San Francisco authorities. While he chooses to head to sea on the Ghost, van Weyden and Ruth find themselves on Larson’s ship by chance.
Once on the boat, tempers flare and the tension rises. There are attempted mutinies, men jumping from sails, punches thrown, guns shot and more once director Michael Curtiz puts all the pieces in place.
Curtiz, with the help of writer Robert Rossen (who would go on to direct All The King’s Men and The Hustler) and editor George Amy (an Oscar-winner for Howard Hawks’ Air Force), kept the film moving at breakneck speed. He knew an action movie needs to be fast, but still needs a heart beating at its center. It’s incredible seeing the film at its full, 100-minute length without having seen the 86-minute version because it is impossible to see how anything could be cut. Every scene is necessary to push the story forward and it’s heartbreaking to think that some audiences might not have seen the full breadth of Robinson’s mastery.
And what mastery it is. Once he enters the picture, you can’t take your eyes off this vibrant man, who created a villain more well-rounded than he had any right to be. Robinson can even make us feel sorry for Larson, who goes above and beyond to prove his manliness. But inside, he is just an insecure man desperate to prove he is the best at what he does, even if it means killing himself in the process. Robinson created countless great characters, but Larson should be considered his greatest, alongside Little Caesar‘s Rico.
The other performances in this film are just as impressive as Robinson’s. Although he’s fourth-billed, Alexander Knox succeeds at bringing out the humanity from Larsen and Robinson. It’s the kind of performance that should have earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. This is also early in John Garfield’s career, but it’s not hard to see why Curtiz thought he was perfect for The Breaking Point a decade later. And lastly, there is Ida Lupino, making an impression in every scene she has and inviting us to desire to learn more about her character.
Warner Archive released The Sea Wolf on Blu-ray last October, bringing the adventure to life in a way few have seen it since 1941. The film was brought back to its original run time. This is the main selling point of the disc, and it sure looks beautiful. Cinematographer Sol Polito’s atmospheric photography makes this look like a noir on a boat, even before film noirs were made.
Unfortunately, the disc is lacking in extras. Despite the excitement over the full-length cut, there is no newly recorded commentary or featurette included. Instead, we just get a trailer and a 30-minute radio adaptation.
Radio adaptations of films are always fascinating, and this one is no different. It comes from an episode of Screen Director’s Playhouse, recorded almost a decade after the film was made. In it, Robinson reads from Larsen’s diary to move the story along. Garfield’s part is cut completely, which means the Lupino role is minimized as well.
Halfway through, there is an advertisement for televisions. It must have been something to have to advertise for the medium that would kill your line of work. At the end, Robinson is asked a few questions about his life, and Curtiz also has a few things to say about working with Robinson. It’s a charming inclusion and worth listening to.
Warner Archive’s Blu-ray is not just a must-have for Curtiz or Robinson fans, but it is an exciting film for anyone who loves adventure movies that move at break-neck speed.
Thanks to Warner Archive for providing the disc to review! You can buy it at WBshop.com/warnerarchive.