Attempting to faithfully adapt the greatest American novel is a mission as foolhardy as chasing a white whale. Yet, underneath Moby Dick’s blubbery layers of nightmarish metaphors, whaling history, scrimshaw lessons, and weird cetology is a good, old-fashioned adventure story fit for Hollywood. In 1956, director John Huston and co-screenwriter Ray Bradbury brought that story to life with iconic performances from Gregory Peck as self-destructively obsessed Captain Ahab, Leo Genn as his moral adversary Starbuck, kind-faced Richard Basehart as our narrator/surrogate Ishmael, Friedrich von Ledebur as Ishmael’s best pal Queequeg, Orson Wells in a memorable cameo as a preacher, and Tony the Whale aaaaaaas Moby Dick!
John Huston still manages to make Moby Dick more than the average widescreen actioner with strange sepia coloring that removes the picture from its pastel decade, somber gravitas and buckets of death imagery, and even a touch of mysticism (the appearance of St. Elmo’s fire that injects a brief shock of fluorescent green into the film’s clay-grey palette). On the flip side there’s a somewhat lazy tendency in Huston and Bradbury’s script to spoon-feed themes and even information to the viewer. When Stubb captions the first appearance of peg-legged Peck by muttering “Ahab,” anyone who finished seventh grade lit will yell “Duh!” at the screen. But don’t let that put you off, because Moby Dick remains an exciting and artful interpretation of the most exciting passages in Herman Melville’s epic.
Twilight Time’s much anticipated blu-ray presentation of Moby Dick had its work cut out for it since the film’s distinctive look is so tied up with the so-called “gray negative,” which preserved that near-monochrome aesthetic most authentically. For this release, that drained coloring had to be painstakingly recreated, a process explained in a six-minute featurette included with this release. Otherwise, the image is blemish-free, naturally grained, and well detailed for a film designed to look like a drizzly afternoon. Other extras include an audio commentary with Twilight Time’s resident historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman and film editor Paul Seydor, and they have a rollicking discussion about the film’s themes and making and their own memories of seeing it, and a few promo materials galleries. The blu-ray is available here.