American novelist Herman Melville’s timeless Great American Novel Moby Dick about obsessive and madcap Captain Ahab’s insane quest for revenge on a white whale that bit his leg off at the knee during a previous whaling expedition, is a kind of surreal science fiction story with elements of William Shakespeare and H.G. Wells that captured the imagination of readers for generations to come. Inspiring the Robert Shaw character in Jaws and more or less Khan in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as well as serving for the basis of Ron Howard’s earnest but ill-fated In the Heart of the Sea, Moby Dick seems forever fused into our American literary identity.
Adapted several times in pop culture including but not limited to dozens of books, cartoons, television, graphic novels and of course cinema, many consider the 1956 rendition directed by John Huston and adapted by famed science fiction author Ray Bradbury to be the definitive take on the larger than life adventure/horror story. With Gregory Peck firing on all cylinders as the mercurial and crazed Ahab, Richard Basehart as the omniscient narrator Ishmael, Orson Welles as the God fearing Father Mapple and a fine ensemble cast of characters, the stage is set for what was at the time a truly technically innovative feat and among the more nightmarish stories of man versus behemoth realized on film.
Cited as among the very first films to utilize bleach bypassing which is a development process which skips the bleaching function and thus retains silver in the emulsion among the color dyes, resulting in a brighter, somewhat desaturated image with visible grains and ultimately a dryer look. Some of the more noteworthy examples of this technology include Saving Private Ryan, Se7en, Oldboy and 1984. Shot by Huston’s longtime cinematographer Oswald Morris on Eastmancolor stock and presented in 1.66:1, Moby Dick aimed to recreate the look of old whale hunting paintings and was created using the Technicolor three-stripe-dye transfer technique. The end result looked something like a beige-brown image with heavy grains, intentional blurriness with a lack of detail, brightness in darker scenes and other scenes where contrast is intentionally blown out.
All of the theatrical Technicolor prints for Moby Dick utilized this post-processing cinematographic technique but the bleach bypassing was not present in the original negative. As a result, for decades many home video releases were struck from the negative and not a theatrical print with the post-processing intact, giving viewers an image which did not represent the intentions of the filmmakers for nearly fifty years until now thanks to the laborious efforts of visual effects specialist Greg Kimble. After rifling through archival Technicolor prints in the Library of Congress for visual reference and eight months of meticulous frame-by-frame re-tinting and re-timing the colors, Moby Dick brought to blu-ray by Twilight Time now looks as close to the original theatrical release in 1956 as possible, making this limited edition release disc a must own for staunch cinephiles eager to see one of John Huston’s greatest cinematic achievements as intended for the very first time.
Upon initial release, Moby Dick like most classics ahead of their time was not well received. Many criticized the casting of Gregory Peck as being too young for the role and Peck himself voiced his own dissatisfaction with his performance over the years. Many even suggested John Huston himself play the part of Ahab, but reportedly Warner Brothers would not bankroll the project without a big star like Peck attached. It didn’t help that audiences had difficulty adjusting to the idea of Peck in the role of an aged and craggy villain.
Despite the intentionally blurry and rusty looking image, there are times when the edges of set pieces intended to be the deep ocean show their wrinkles and it is unclear whether audiences in 1956 saw the same thing. In any event, despite the flaws and penchant for spectacle over prose, seen today it is still a rousing and often harrowing adventure film with elements of horror and science fiction with a descent into madness that would make the likes of Ken Russell and David Cronenberg blush.
- Andrew Kotwicki