Noirvember Day 5: Noir Dame Deep Dive

— Lucy Morgan. Not your average woman.

The Breaking Point, released by Warner Bros. in 1950 and directed by Michael Curtiz, was the second screen adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s 1937 novel To Have and Have Not. The novel originally started as a short story, “One Trip Across,” published in Cosmopolitan magazine in April 1934. (The first screen version, with the same name as the source novel, starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and was released six years earlier.) The film focuses on Harry Morgan (John Garfield), skipper of a not-very-lucrative charter boat, who finds himself over his head when he takes on some illegal cargo in a desperate effort to make ends meet. Harry’s desperation is fueled by his determination to provide for his wife, Lucy (Phyllis Thaxter), and his two young daughters. As the film opens, Harry’s voiceover sets the stage for what’s in store: “You know how it is early in the morning on the water? Everything is quiet, except for the seagulls a long way off. And you feel great. Then you come ashore and it starts. And in no time at all, you’re up to your ears in trouble.”

I’ve seen this film several times in the last few years, including once on the big screen, and it’s fast becoming one of my favorite noirs, one that I’d intended to review on this blog some day. But today’s post focuses on a single character in the film – Harry’s wife. She’s no cookie cutter housewife on hand just to prop up her man, but an extraordinary character who deserves a closer look. (Just watch out for spoilers, y’all.)

— We meet Lucy.

We first meet Lucy as Harry is preparing to leave on a trip to Mexico – he’s been hired to take one Mr. Hannagan (Ralph Dumke) on a fishing expedition. Interestingly, Lucy’s not clad in the standard housewife’s garb of a flared, belted skirt, pearls and heels, with perfect coiffed hair; instead, her hair is a bit mussed and she’s wearing a slightly ratty bathrobe. In other words, she looks like most of us would look in the morning with a husband and two young children to get out the door. In a short span of time, we learn that the couple has fallen on hard economic times, and that although Lucy is maintaining the proverbial stiff upper lip, she’s quietly but firmly in favor of Harry chucking the charter boat business and going to work on her father’s lettuce ranch. It’s obvious that they’ve had this discussion before, and she’s not giving up – unlike Harry, she’s rational and pragmatic. She’s supportive, but not indulgent; when Harry asks if she’s stocked his favorite tomatoes for his trip, she reminds him that tomatoes aren’t good for him. She’s in tune with her husband’s moods, correctly interpreting that his sniping at their daughter about walking about in a slip is a mere manifestation of something deeper. She’s brave enough to ask the hard questions: “Is it us, me and the kids? Are we a drag on you, Harry?” And she’s unexpectedly passionate, telling Harry that she was awake for hours the night before, thinking about him: “I can think about you any time and get excited.”

— Lucy meets Leona.

We get to know Lucy better when Harry returns from the fishing expedition – during which, incidentally, his passenger ran out of him without paying, prompting Harry to engage in some illegal activities that lead to the impounding of his boat. Lucy displays a remarkably composed demeanor about Harry’s troubles, although she gives as good as she gets when she resumes her argument in favor of moving to the lettuce farm (“Don’t yell at me,” she tells him. “I’m just trying to talk sense to you and you won’t listen. . .  You’ve got a wife and two kids to think about.”). She’s also matter-of-factly informs Harry that she knows there was a woman on board the boat (Mr. Hannagan’s uber-flirty gal pal, Leona, played by Patricia Neal), and asks if the woman was pretty.

Lucy finds out for herself just how that woman looks later that night. Harry goes to a local dive bar to tie one on and Leona just happens to be there, where she pounces on him like a duck on a junebug. In the midst of Leona’s none-too-successful efforts to literally charm the pants of Harry, Lucy shows up – the bartender had given her a call. Although Lucy hadn’t been told about Leona’s presence, she’s as cool as the other side of the pillow. Oh, she’s undeniably pleasant to Leona, but in a coded exchange, Lucy lets the other woman know that she’d put up a pretty stiff fight for her husband. Despite her confident demeanor, though, yet another aspect to Lucy is shown in the very next scene when she arrives home after a trip to the beauty parlor, with her brown hair dyed the same brassy blonde as Leona’s. “I wanted to do something, Harry,” she tells him. “I wanted to do something.”

— Lucy never ceases to amaze.

Later, Harry tells Lucy that he plans to sell the boat, but when she spies him surreptitiously loading bullets into a gun, we half-expect her to ignore the sight. But not this woman. She confronts him directly, asking him what the gun is for. “I know you,” she says. “You’ve got that stubborn, stupid look on your face when you’re gonna do something you know isn’t right.” And when she’s unable to talk him out of his plan, Lucy tells him that she won’t be there when he gets back. It’s not until after he leaves that she allows herself to dissolve into tears.

We see Lucy just once more, at the boat dock, when Harry’s bullet-riddled body is brought in by the Coast Guard. He’s still alive, but barely, and faced with the knowledge that he will die unless he gives permission for his arm to be amputated. He’s unwilling, and yet again, Lucy draws from her deep well of love and courage. “It isn’t just you – I’ll die, too. I won’t be anything anymore. You don’t want that,” she says. “You’re more of a man than anyone I’ve ever met.”

If you’ve never seen The Breaking Point, do yourself a favor and check it out – or give it a rewatch if you’re already familiar with this gem. it’s on Amazon Prime and Apple TV, and for a limited time, on the Criterion Channel. Just be sure to give some extra attention to Phyllis Thaxter’s Lucy. She’s a revelation.

And join me tomorrow for Day 6 of Noirvember!

~ by shadowsandsatin on November 5, 2022.

7 Responses to “Noirvember Day 5: Noir Dame Deep Dive”

  1. I’m so happy to see Thaxter’s Lucy getting some love!

    It’s a quiet, lived-in performance that suggests a whole life beyond the frame. Thaxter makes me feel like I know what Lucy carries around in her purse. And the makeover reveal has an aching vulnerability to it that reminds me of Barbara Stanwyck playfully bouncing toast off her kisser in a desperate attempt to reconnect with Ralph Graves in LADIES OF LEISURE. Both moments leave me in a puddle every time.

    • She was just so interesting to me, from her unyielding support of Harry, to the way she didn’t let him get away with any BS, to her sizzling passion for him. And, like you said, her completely unexpected makeover that you felt to your core. (And now I will I have to and rewatch Ladies of Leisure to see that scene!)

      • “She was just so interesting to me, from her unyielding support of Harry, to the way she didn’t let him get away with any BS, to her sizzling passion for him.”

        Co-signed. Completely.

        I first saw this picture shortly after I saw THE BIG HEAT for the first time, and I was struck by the contrast between Jocelyn Brando’s character and Thaxter’s character. Brando’s character in THE BIG HEAT (through no fault of the actress) seemed to exist only as an extension of her husband, content to make due with a sip of her husband’s drink and a puff on his cigarette, while Thaxter’s character clearly wanted more for herself than a banquet of crumbs. And I love that Thaxter’s character projected that sizzling passion even though she wasn’t coded as a sexpot. She didn’t have to lounge around in a neglige and caribou-trimmed kitten heels to be hot for her husband (though I would never hate on such an ensemble). Like every other aspect of her performance, her sexuality is so real and true.

        As for LADIES OF LEISURE, watching pre-code Stanwyck is ALWAYS a good idea! And you’ll get an earful of one of the great pre-code convos:

        Kay Arnold : I read somewhere in a book that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
        Dot Lamar : Aw, baloney! Sure you can have your cake and eat it.
        Kay Arnold : Yeah? How?
        Dot Lamar : Have two cakes!

        • I could just cut and paste your whole section comparing Jocelyn Brando’s character to Phyllis Thaxter’s. Brilliant.

          And I love that Ladies of Leisure exchange. Marie Prevost was born on today’s date and I was just telling somebody on Facebook this morning how much I always enjoyed her performances.

  2. Here’s one I haven’t seen yet! (there’s always one more of those 🙂 ).

    • Ooh, I can’t wait for you to see it! I really do love it more every time I see it. And I got the chance to see it on the big screen, too, so that just bumps it up on my list even more.

  3. […] The Breaking Point (1950) […]

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