THE SEA WOLF is not my normal cup of tea -- it's a brutal, creepy, and extremely violent movie. It's also superbly acted, grandly atmospheric, gripping, and compulsively watchable.
Directed by the great Michael Curtiz, with a moody score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, THE SEA WOLF tells the story of the ship GHOST, its sadistic captain, Wolf Larsen (Edward G. Robinson), and those unfortunate enough to sail on the GHOST, including George Leach (John Garfield), a fugitive who took a job on the crew to get out of San Francisco in a hurry; Ruth Webster (Ida Lupino), a prison escapee who is picked up by the GHOST after a ferry wreck; and intellectual writer Humphrey Wan Veyden (Alexander Knox), another survivor of the wreck.
Garfield is electric as Leach, who soon rebels against Larsen and determines to find a way to escape the ship with Ruth. I wasn't wild about Garfield in FOUR DAUGHTERS, but he's terrific in this, and Lupino, as Leach's soulmate, matches him scene for scene. The two actors believably establish a connection between their characters in very few scenes.
One review I read said that the way Garfield snarls "sir," it sounds like a four-letter word. Modern-day filmmakers would do well to study this film and learn how less can be more; without any of today's graphic violence or language, the movie manages to convey an almost overwhelmingly oppressive, dangerous atmosphere.
Notable alongside the fine performances of the four leads are Barry Fitzgerald as the ship's rotten-to-the-core cook, and Gene Lockhart, heartbreaking as an alcoholic doctor who tries to recover his dignity after he experiences the satisfaction of saving Ruth's life.
My interest in Lupino initially drew me to the film, and I'm glad I gave it a try. This isn't exactly what I'd call a relaxing movie, but it's worth seeing. The first shot of the GHOST emerging from the fog is a classic.
THE SEA WOLF is not yet available on DVD. There are rumblings that there is a John Garfield set in the works from Warners, so perhaps if such a set is released, THE SEA WOLF will be included. In the meantime, it's available on VHS.
It can also be seen on TCM. The trailer can be seen at TCM's site.