Moby Dick (1956) (Kino Release) (DVD)

An underrated work in John Huston’s filmography, Herman Melville’s massive novel Moby Dick is impossible to condense entirely as a film. However, Huston (with co-writer Ray Bradbury), managed to reduce the whole thing into two concise, yet exciting hours of cinema. Huston’s obvious respect for the source text alongside the surprising expressiveness of his camera creates a nice balance throughout that appears both accurate and ahead of its time.

Ishmael (Richard Basehart) the narrator of the story, is a restless sailor intent on experiencing life on a whaling ship for the first time. New Bedford 1841: Ishmael shares a room at the Spouter Inn with the cannibal facially tattooed native harpooner Queequeg (Frederick Ledebur). The next morning they board the Pequod led by Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) a menacing man with a wooden leg and a large scar on his right cheek. Ahab lost his leg in a fight with the legendary white whale Moby Dick and he’s determined to exact revenge. Ahab is rarely seen for the first .quarter of the film, Ahab is unseen. Though the thump of his artificial leg can be heard below deck. A lot of time is devoted to the minutiae of sailing; rigging, unfurling masts and general upkeep as the ship heads for open seas. Once there, the focus shifts to chasing whales and the rather bloody business of harpooning and hauling them aboard.

When Ahab finally appears (Peck in black top hat and bearded in a Lincolnesque visage), he exhorts his men to keep their eyes open for the great white whale, nailing a Spanish gold ounce to the mast for the first man who makes the sighting. The crew quickly catches Ahab’s bloodlust to capture the white whale, forsaking everything else. As obsession takes over, the crew doesn’t hunt other whales, refuses to help another Captain search for his son and eventually disregard values they once held dear.

Gregory Peck was one of the best actors of the 20th century, but he seems a bit miscast here. While he gives the material his best shot, Peck is too much the refined gentlemen to be fully believed as the rough, obsessed, peg-legged seaman. Peck is to stiff to have been bold enough to have “shook his fist at God”). Someone a bit rougher around the edges might have been better suited for the role. Perhaps Peck knew this, as it’s been long reported that he wasn’t happy with his work in the film.

Though the film has some obvious issues, John Huston’s experience with the adventure genre and his obvious respect and affection for the source material make giving this this version of Moby Dick a look.

Presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, Kino’s HD master seems to look quite good, making the most of cinematographer Oswald Morris’s complex dye-transfer look. I found it much more pleasing than the last DVD release of a decade ago. Fine detail is much better as well as depth and clarity.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track is nothing special, showing a notable thinness in many spots. While dialogue is generally clear throughout, ambient sounds such as crashing waves, have a limited, but acceptable, range.

English subtitles are included.

The following extras are available:

  • Trailer (3:13)

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