Hemingway's deceptively simple story of an old, out of luck Cuban fisherman's encounter with a marlin is elusive prey for the cinema. Contrary to popular opinion, the first film version with Spencer Tracy isn't that hot, and has a gassy ponderousness and air of fakery about it. Anthony Quinn is more freshly true and this little film also has great close up marlin footage as a compensation. Overall it is not only more authentic, both as to the fish and as to the Cuban setting, but also lighter and brighter. Frankly Quinn beats Tracy by a country mile; he isn't some white liberal worrying about portraying a Cubano with dignity, and gives you a well-rounded performance which admits the character's faults and a certain tendancy to be out of his head. That makes his quest believable and not simply fantastic. Hemingway did actually pick this story up out of real life, but any writer knows that such fact is harder to handle than fiction.
Alas, the film has a few other faults such as poor (old TV) film quality, plus a distracting subplot with a Hemingwayesque writer figure. Yeah, the shot of the old man superimposed with the marlin is funny, but at least has the excuse of being near impossible to avoid. There is no excuse for turning a full moon at sea into a giant searchlight worthy of a prison camp. And then they avoid a great highlight of the book--the night scenes with the sharks!
The subplot is the main problem though. It doesn't finally kill the story, but anyone who has read the novella knows how taut and carefully paced it is between the fisherman's day and night battles, first with the marlin and then with the sharks that devour it. Cutting from that to Mr. Writer and his shallow marital issues is at best minimally interesting the first couple times (mainly because the duo is cast well, and nicely decked out in period costume) but eventually trite. Its a pity because this film, however low budget, had so much going for it, yet its makers strangely didn't trust Hemingway's story enough. And this subplot, students should know, doesn't track Hemingway biography either, nor any of his wives -- the well dressed ditz that is the unnamed writer's wife actually resembles Hemingway's Key West (not Cuba) mistress Jane Mason, who he never paired up with in literary excursions. Nor does it track the Roger/Audrey subplot of Islands in the Stream (the egg out of which Old Man was hatched). Its just too bad to have earnest people who look so good but are such bad news, crowding out a delicate story.
Overall, however, the effort is saved by Quinn's good sense and an excellent supporting Cuban crew, rounding out the village and the old man's family -- only slight liberties on the novella. Quinn's shrewdness and the director's option toward lightness keep the main plot from veering into this novella's very own shark infested waters--the danger of sentimentality at one end, and too heavy metaphor at the other. Quinn's handling of the old man's monologues and dialogues keeps the project with at least one foot firmly set in the realm of realism. And he wonderfully looks the part too, in every frame in which he appears.