The Old Man and the Sea (1958)


(director: John Sturges; screenwriters: based on the novel by Ernest Hemingway/Peter Viertel; cinematographers: Floyd Crosby/James Wong Howe; editor: Arthur P. Schmidt; music: Dimitri Tiomkin; cast: Spencer Tracy (Santiago, The Old Man/Narrator), Felipe Pazos, Jr. (Manolin, The Boy), Harry Bellaver (Martin, bartender), Don Diamond (Cafe Proprietor), Don Blackman (Hand Wrestler), Joey Ray (Gambler), Mary Hemingway (Tourist), Richard Alameda (Gambler), Tony Rosa (Gambler), Carlos Rivero (Gambler); Runtime: 86; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Leland Hayward; Warner Bros.; 1958)

The film can’t do proper justice to the literary masterpiece.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Director John Sturges (“Joe Kidd”/”Jeopardy”/”Mystery Street”)took over when Fred Zinnemann resigned from the project and does what he can with Ernest Hemingway’s 1952 Pulitzer Prize winning novella, but the introspective story is probably not meant for film and even with the filmmaker’s best intentions it still comes out plodding and has long dry stretches. Nevertheless it has a few strong points on its side that won me over, such as Spencer Tracy’s triumphant dignified performance in this basically one-character film, the beautiful photography by Floyd Crosby and James Wong Howe, and the powerfully short story is faithfully adapted largely thanks to Tracy providing the ongoing narration. It could be thought of as a poor man’s subdued Moby Dick.My advice, however, is read the book and skip the film; the film can’t do proper justice to the literary masterpiece.

Set in a rural seacoast fishing village in Cuba, the luckless impoverished widowed old man Santiago (Spencer Tracy) is weary from not having caught a fish in eighty-four days. The parents of Manolin (Felipe Pazos, Jr.), the young sensitive boy Santiago taught to fish, order their son to fish with another luckier boat. The loyal boy follows his parents orders, but still idolizes and helps Santiago by providing him some food courtesy of the generous cafe owner and hangs around his shack to cheer him up and listen to the Old Man talk baseball and about the great DiMaggio.

On the 85th day Santiago goes out alone far from shore and snags a giant marlin, and the film ventures into the symbolic struggle between the man and the fish as a battle of survival takes place in his tiny skiff.

The film crew ran into bad luck when they couldn’t catch a big marlin and had to resort to using an unconvincing motorized studio-created prop, which put a damper on its big scene and had Hemingway rip the film by calling it ‘the condomatic fish’ and saying he thought ‘Tracy looked like he was playing Gertrude Stein as an old fat fisherman.’

The film went over budget, making it one of the more expensive films at the time. It also flopped at the box office.