Release Date(s)1941 (October 10, 2017)
Studio(s)Warner Bros. (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A-
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: D+
Since they were published, a number of Jack London stories have been recalibrated for various movie, TV show, and radio adaptations. In today’s world, London is most-remembered for “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang”, mainly due to Disney’s involvement with them. Yet, at one time, “The Sea-Wolf” was one of his most popular works, and as such, has been brought to the screen more than a dozen times since it was put into print in 1904. One of those adaptations came in 1941 under the direction of Michael Curtiz. Losing a hyphen along the way, The Sea Wolf features Alexander Knox, Ida Lupino, and John Garfield as lost souls who find themselves aboard an infamous sailing vessel known as the “Ghost”. It isn’t long before they discover the boat’s brutal captain, Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson), and soon must find a way to escape from his tyrannical clutches.
Curtiz, who had just found success with another high seas adventure the year before (The Sea Hawk), directs this compelling tale of a captain slowly going mad and the mutinous crew who are verbally and physically abused by him at the promise of eventual profit. But Larsen, we come to learn, is perhaps less of the uncivilized animal that we perceive him to be once Knox discovers his collection of fine literature. Once Knox reveals himself to be a writer, Larsen takes a shine to him, but we’re never quite sure about Larsen’s intentions. He’s a complicated character, plagued by headaches, who is prone to maniacally kicking a man down the stairs in one scene while pondering the woes of life and what it means to be captain in the next. In some way, he seeks Knox’s approval without ever saying so, which ultimately plays into the film’s conclusion.
In the scheme of things, The Sea Wolf is one part adventure story and one part psychological thriller, although it isn’t as dark and mysterious as one might think. There are obvious moments when characters twist the screw of suspense to their unscrupulous will, but it’s more of a test of mettle between them and how they’re going to survive in the end. It also has what I refer to as “period tropes” – chiefly Ida Lupino’s character who begins as someone interesting with shade and dimension, but winds up being not much more than a love interest for one of the male leads. That said, there are some genuinely good performances from all involved and some terrific speeches to be had. Sol Polito’s excellent cinematography captures the story in a less than perfunctory way while the special effects, which were nominated for an Academy Award, bring the “Ghost” and its surroundings to life. However, the towering performance from Edward G. Robinson, who unsurprisingly is the focus of every piece of advertisement for the film, is the chief reason for seeing it.
Like many films of its era, most notably King Kong, The Sea Wolf was trimmed at the insistence of studio head Jack Warner by fourteen minutes for its 1947 re-release in order to pair it up with another film for a double bill. Unfortunately, those trims were not saved and until recently, only a 16mm copy of the original version, which was once owned by John Garfield, was all that remained. That is until a 35mm fine grain nitrate print of the original 100-minute version was discovered in an archive at the Museum of Modern Art. That print was the source for this Blu-ray presentation and great care has been taken to carefully restore it without compromising its intended look. Scanned at 4K resolution and cleaned up to remove as much dirt, debris, scratches, and other damage as possible, Warner Archive’s presentation of the film is superb, preserving Polito’s beautiful black and white cinematography with largely film-like results. Grain levels are obviously higher than one might normally expect, but are stable, revealing an enormous amount of fine detail with deep blacks and excellent delineation. Overall brightness and contrast levels are terrific as well, and with a high encode to boot. The sole audio track available is an English 2.0 mono DTS-HD soundtrack with optional subtitles in English SDH. Dialogue is well rendered while particular attention has been paid to giving the film’s score by legendary composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold added life. Sound effects have occasional depth but definitely have the feel of their era. Two extras are also included with this package: the original theatrical trailer, presented in HD, and the complete Screen Director’s Playhouse radio broadcast from February 3, 1950 of an abridged version of the story featuring Edward G. Robinson and Michael Curtiz.
Films like The Sea Wolf are part and parcel as to why film fans get excited about the medium. Rediscovering what was once a long-lost version of a very compelling film has now been rescued and restored due to the many efforts of all involved from the folks at Warner Archive. Thanks to them, a black and white classic can now be viewed in outstanding quality. Highly recommended, especially for black and white cinema fans.
- Tim Salmons