Moby Dick 1956 *****

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Is John Huston’s Moby Dick a neglected masterpiece? If it’s not, you can call me Ishmael; this adaptation of Herman Melville’s literary opus was much derided on release, and gained little more respect when re-released in the 1970’s in a vague attempt to cash-in on the popularity of Jaws. And there’s a specific reason why everyone hated Moby Dick; it looked awful.

Blu-ray may seem like a specialist format to some; most movies look pretty good in the 1080p definition of a streaming service. But Moby Dick has looked dreadful since before most of us were born, and that’s because the innovative cinematography of Ossie Morris required considerable restoration. If you think you’ve seen this movie, think again; lovingly restored and presented on blu-ray, Moby Dick is something of a revelation.

Gregory Peck takes the lead as Captain Ahab; he doesn’t appear for a good chuck of the film, but the first view of him, erect like a masthead, makes a big impression. He’s setting sail with a tough crew of sailors including Boomer (James Robertson Justice), Stubb (Harry Andrews) and the man whose name launched a thousand coffee-shops, Starbuck (Leo Genn). Even more impressive is the taciturn, tattooed face of Queequeg, played by Friedrich Anton Maria Hubertus Bonifacius Graf von Ledebur-Wicheln. They’re in search of a great white whale, one which has made of with Ahab’s leg and makes off with considerably more by the time the film is over.

Peck was largely perceived as being too young for Ahab, but he’s pretty good here, and the age difference doesn’t seem to be an issue. Ray Bradbury provides some choice dialogue, notably a wonderfully unexpected soliloquy for Orson Welles as Father Mapple, who delivers a sermon from a nautical pulpit in one of the opening scenes. This is a literate film, made off the coast of Ireland, and for once, the production values are up to the task, with little back projection and a few jaw-dropping shots. There’s a few shots, notably the ropes catching on the whale’s back, which seem to have echoes in Jaws, but Huston’s film has a salt and grit all of its own.

Moby Dick’s reputation has collapsed due to poor presentation; it looked washed-out on tv and DVD releases, and this restoration is essential for film-lovers. It restores Huston’s vision, it showcases some great acting, and it’s the one and only show in town in terms of making great drama from one of the great American novels. If you’re looking for a gift for a film-fan who has seen everything, you can bet they’ve never seen anything like John Huston’s Moby Dick.

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