The shape of John Huston’s career was significantly different from that of any other first-tier Hollywood filmmaker. Between 1941 and his death in 1987, he directed 37 feature films, most of whose screenplays he either wrote or co-wrote—among them such major works as The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The African Queen (1951), The Misfits (1961), Fat City (1972), The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Wise Blood (1979), Prizzi’s Honor (1985), and The Dead (1987). Like all prolific artists, Huston was uneven, but what is more to the point is that he continued to make films of quality until he died (The Dead was posthumously released). By then, every other surviving studio-system director had been driven out of the business by Star Wars, whose box-office success led the film industry to focus on franchise films aimed at a teenage audience. But Huston adapted to the new reality without altering his style, shifting to independently financed production and making some of his greatest films long after the rest of his contemporaries had called it quits.
Huston was as individual a personality as he was an artist, and the story of his life, which was well told by Jeffrey Meyers 10 years ago in John Huston: Courage and Art, is fascinating. He had five wives and did not pretend to be faithful to any of them, carrying on openly with a long list of other women ranging from Olivia de Havilland to his servants. An uncaring father to his three children, he smoked and drank to lethal excess (he died of emphysema) and gambled so recklessly that he was forced to make bad movies to pay his debts. Yet his irresistible charm, which is visible on screen in his performance as Noah Cross, the unscrupulous tycoon of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, got him out of countless scrapes, both personal and professional, and it was one of the reasons he was able to keep his career going.
In the end, though, it is his work, not his life, for which he will be remembered. Jeffrey Meyers exaggerated when he claimed that Huston “probably made more great films than any other American director,” but not by much, and while most of his films were adapted from more or less familiar source material, and the style in which he directed them was deliberately self-effacing, every shot still bears his bold signature. Such is the enduring paradox of Huston’s career: What did he do to the novels and stories he filmed that gave them so personal a touch?
BORN IN 1906, John Huston was the only son of Walter Huston, now mainly known for his Oscar-winning role as one of the hapless prospectors in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. When John was a boy, Walter worked in vaudeville. He put the child in boarding schools after his divorce in 1913 and paid no further attention to him until 1931, when John became interested in movies and started working as a scriptwriter. By then, Walter was starring in films and on Broadway and was in a position to ease his son’s path in Hollywood, where John co-wrote six successful screenplays for Warner Bros. He took on the last of them, High Sierra (1941), on condition that he would then be allowed to direct a small-scale picture he would also write.
Huston chose to remake Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, a hard-boiled mystery about a priceless statuette over which a group of criminals are quarreling. The book had been filmed twice, both times unsuccessfully, but Huston saw how it could be made to work with the right script and cast. He chose his actors with care, picking Humphrey Bogart, a Hollywood heavy whose potential as a romantic cynic had been revealed in High Sierra, to play Hammett’s detective, Sam Spade. Bogart was supported by an ensemble featuring Mary Astor, Elisha Cook Jr., Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre, a quartet of accomplished character actors whose presence in the film did much of Huston’s work for him.
He prepared for the shoot with similar care, pre-planning and storyboarding each shot and following what would become one of his artistic credos, “Always stick to the text.” In his words, the film “was based on a very fine book and there was very little for me to invent….I tried to transpose Dashiell Hammett’s highly individual prose style into camera terms—i.e., sharp photography, geographically exact camera movements, striking, if not shocking, setups.”
Much of the dialogue was lifted straight off the page, though Huston edited and tightened it with a sure hand, adding a climactic line suggested by Bogart. At the end of the film, one of the policemen looks at the statuette with puzzlement and asks, “What is it?” Paraphrasing Shakespeare’s Tempest, Bogart replies, “The stuff that dreams are made of.” Mere seconds earlier, Bogart’s Spade had turned his faithless client-lover over to the police, and his perfect reading of the line is charged with melancholy and rue.
Huston directed his actors with deceptive casualness, making soft-spoken suggestions that were pointed and specific—he was never a talkative director—but mostly giving them free rein. His camerawork was deliberately unshowy, in accordance with his belief that “in the best-directed scenes, the audience should not be aware of what the camera is doing.” (Among other subtle touches, he shot the big-bellied Greenstreet from below to make him look more sinister.)
“I like it when an audience forgets there’s a screen, forgets it’s a story, and just beholds,” Huston said. He achieved this goal in The Maltese Falcon, whose careful planning is blessedly invisible to the casual viewer. The result was a fast-moving, tightly knit picture that was one of the most artistically and commercially successful directorial debuts in the history of Hollywood. And during the next decade, Huston made three films, two of them starring Bogart, that were just as good. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a black tragicomedy about three Americans panning for gold in Mexico who succumb to greed-inflamed paranoia and find themselves at each other’s throats. The Asphalt Jungle is a caper movie about a jewelry-store heist—but one in which, once again, nobody comes out on top. Both, like The Maltese Falcon before them, are wholly characteristic of Huston: They are action films adapted from successful novels in which men who turn out to be losers play all the key roles, and they contain little or no romance.
The African Queen, by contrast, is a romantic comedy, but a most unusual one. Adapted by Huston and James Agee from a bestselling 1935 novel by C.S. Forester, it is an odd-couple yarn set in the Belgian Congo during World War I in which a genial but grubby riverboat pilot played by Bogart helps a priggish Methodist missionary (Katharine Hepburn) escape from the Germans and falls in love with her in the process. Huston’s most beloved film, The African Queen is charming almost to a fault, though its hazard-packed jungle setting keeps it from cloying.
With these movies, Huston dealt the creative high cards that he would play repeatedly for the remainder of his career. Prizzi’s Honor, for example, is another odd-couple romance, this time about a pair of hitmen (played by Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner) who fall in love without knowing that they have been hired to kill each other, while Fat City and The Misfits (whose slightly overblown but nonetheless screenworthy script is by Arthur Miller) are tales of losers brought to grief by character flaws they cannot surmount.
Huston plays the latter theme for laughs in The Man Who Would Be King, adapted from one of Rudyard Kipling’s short stories, in which a pair of roguish ne’er-do-wells played with swaggering panache by Sean Connery and Michael Caine go off to seek their fortune in a perilously risky manner—to no avail, naturally. Shot on location, with Morocco and the French Alps standing in for India under the British Raj, and executed on the largest and grandest possible scale, The Man Who Would Be King is a brilliantly ingenious expansion of Kipling’s tale of high adventure and ultimate disaster, one in which everything is shown rather than merely being described and Kipling himself becomes an on-screen character played by Christopher Plummer. It is Huston’s most extensive and successful imaginative transformation of a well-known piece of source material, remaining true at all times to the spirit of the original story.
When Huston took on more ambitious source material, as in his adaptations of The Red Badge of Courage (1951) and Moby Dick (1956) and The Bible (1966), a grandiosely pretentious dramatization of the first 22 chapters of Genesis, he stumbled. Not until his last years did he find a way to bring to the screen two pieces of indisputably great literature, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood and James Joyce’s The Dead, in both cases adapting them into small-scale low-budget pictures that are exceptionally faithful to their sources and filming them so sensitively that the results are entirely honorable renditions of the masterpieces on which they are based.
EVERYONE WHO writes about John Huston compares him sooner or later to Ernest Hemingway, whom he admired without reserve both as a writer and a man and to whom he became fairly close, if not intimate. Like Hemingway, he preferred to make art about (to borrow the title of a Hemingway short-story collection) “men without women” and was fascinated by life-threatening situations. James Agee was struck by how much Huston and the older writer had in common. Alluding to Hemingway’s definition of courage as “grace under pressure,” he described Huston’s films in a way that underlined their commonalities to the work of the author of “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” and “The Killers”: “His movies have centered on men under pressure, have usually involved violence, and have occasionally verged on a kind of romanticism about danger.”
The difference was that Huston was fully at ease with himself and his larger-than-life appetites. This is what makes even the darkest of his films so enjoyable, for he typically infuses the situations in which his losers find themselves with dark touches of wit and a sense of relish absent from Hemingway’s work. Like Huston—but unlike Hemingway, whose doubts about his masculinity are never far from the surface—their characters are not neurotic.
Whether or not Hemingway was a truly great writer remains in dispute, but Huston is easier to place. Nearly all of his best films are what Graham Greene, apropos of his own novels, called “entertainments,” exercises in middlebrow storytelling written with supreme craft. To put it another way, they are popular masterpieces, as good as anything that came out of Hollywood in the days of the studio system.
At the same time, Wise Blood and The Dead are films of high seriousness that are also entertaining in the best sense of the word. In particular, Wise Blood is extremely funny, which is what Flannery O’Connor would have wanted, since the 1952 novella on which it is based is (in her words) “a comic novel…and as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.” Together with Huston’s middlebrow masterpieces, they are—if you will—the stuff that dreams of cinematic immortality are made of.
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