John Huston Tony Richardson - Essay

Tony Richardson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[In Moby Dick John Huston] has been unable to make the book his own cinematically, and the final gesture the film makes is simply that Melville once wrote a "Great Book"….

As with [The Red Badge of Courage], Huston has seized on the heightened pressure of the book. But he has failed to comprehend the balance, the interior stresses by which it was produced. The spectacle he can certainly provide—the painted Queequeg, the weird Coleridgean calm, the whalebone leg of Ahab—but, because he has been unable to realise the context, the ordinary weary grind of life on the Pequod, the careful expertise of the whale hunts, these become just so many theatrical effects. Wherever the film touches on the pure routine (the melting down of the whale, for instance) it is, significantly, at its most perfunctory. The hunts themselves become in Huston's handling a wild, artificial threshing for exciting action sequences.

There could, of course, have been many valid ways of making this film…. But because his approach is finally external, Huston falls between all stools, grasping eclectically for the instant pay-off. The chapel scene … has something of the Visconti manner both in setting and technique; the departure of the Pequod suggests an unsuccessful attempt to be Ford. Only the opening—a solitary figure picking his way beside a mountain stream and turning into close-up for a forthright "Call me Ishmael"—has real boldness. For the rest, though the film is a physically battering experience (chases and storms are staged with the maximum sound and fury), there is little that convinces. (p. 151)

[Moby Dick] is a sad straying of the talent that once created The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt Jungle. (p. 152)

Tony Richardson, "'Moby Dick'," in Sight and Sound (copyright © 1957 by The British Film Institute), Vol. 26, No. 3, Winter, 1956–57, pp. 151-52.