Monday, June 21, 2010

#20: John Huston

- "Hollywood has always been a cage... a cage to catch our dreams."

I am in no way suggesting that John Huston should be classified as an “underrated” director. How could he be, considering that a number of his top films are rightly regarded as being among the finest ever produced in Hollywood. I do think, though, that his top two or three movies (and I suppose his role in Roman Polanksi’s Chinatown) are viewed as a complete summary of the man’s extraordinary career, which is a shame because there is so much more there. To be certain, his most famous pictures – The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle – deserve all of the acclaim that they receive. I love every one of them. But his lesser-known films are of such high quality, it amazes me that they are not more widely praised. The Misfits receives publicity because of the stars attached to it – it was the final film for both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift gave one his final performances, and Arthur Miller penned the screenplay – but it deserves recognition as the equal of Huston’s best work. Fat City is one of the four or five best boxing films ever made. The Dead is beautifully poetic. The Night of the Iguana might be my favorite screen adaptation of Tennessee Williams.

This is a man who continued making outstanding films for over forty years, remaining interesting through every phase.

Most of Huston’s films have a general vibe or feeling that make it known that he is the guiding force of his projects. I have seen his auterist credentials questioned, but I rarely have trouble recognizing Huston's style. His movies may not have been personal, but they contained similar threads that stamped them as John Huston films. Part of this I’m sure is due to the fact that, at least early in his career, he almost always had a hand in writing the scripts that he directed. His talents as a writer deserve nearly as much praise as those as a director. Being involved in projects from this early stage allowed Huston to instill a trademark understated cynicism to every film. It isn’t cynicism like one gets from a Billy Wilder film, where Billy is poking fun at everyone and everything. It is a cynicism where a fateful break, a stretch of bad luck, or good old ironic twists triumph in the end. His heroes come oh-so-close to fairytale endings, but never quite get there. Is it a pessimistic view? Some could read it that way, but to me it just feels realistic.

A connection to a modern director that I always think about is a lineage from John Huston and his early crime genre work and current crime film specialist Michael Mann. Both men set up great set pieces centered on heists and mysteries, but both Huston and Mann are more interested in examining why the participants are involved in the schemes and what compels them to take such risks. The heists or action is just the means by which they can examine their main characters.

1. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
2. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
3. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
4. Fat City (1972)
5. The Night of the Iguana (1964)
6. Key Largo (1948)
7. The Misfits (1961)
8. The Red Badge of Courage (1951)
9. The Dead (1987)
10. The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
11. The African Queen (1951)
12. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)
13. Under the Volcano (1984)
14. Wise Blood (1979)
15. In This Our Life (1942)
16. The Unforgiven (1960)
17. Beat the Devil (1953)
18. Prizzi’s Honor (1985)

Up next, a man who dabbled in many styles and produced classics in all of them: Anthony Mann.


  1. Huston's underrating may come from the fact that he was more consciously an interpreter of other people's work -- an adapter of classics --than the author of a personal way of seeing the world. Nor was he a pictorially distinct director. He came to directing as a writer and was more a storyteller and maker of mood than a crafter of indelible images or memorable montages. But there is an indentifiable intelligence and sensibility in all his best films. Here's how I rank what I've seen:

    1. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
    2. The Maltese Falcon
    3. Moby Dick
    4. The Asphalt Jungle
    5. The Man Who Would Be King
    6. Key Largo
    7. Prizzi's Honor
    8. The African Queen
    9. Fat City
    10. The Misfits
    11. Wise Blood
    12. The Dead
    13. The Red Badge of Courage
    14. Under the Volcano
    15. Moulin Rouge
    16. The Bible:In the Beginning
    17. The List of Adrian Messenger
    18. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

  2. Yes, Huston is often seen as an "adapter" though in too many instances his interpretations are what make a number of works soar. It's true what you say Dave, about a handful of worls ranking among the greatest of American films. His considerable output is diversified, and his work in bringing out the best in actors is most impressive.

    1 The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
    2 The Maltese Falcon
    3 The Dead
    4 The Asphalt Jungle
    5 Fat City
    6 Red Badge of Courage
    7 The Misfits
    8 The Night of the Iguana
    9 Prizzi's Honor
    10 Moby Dick
    11 The African Queen
    12 The Man Who Would Be King
    13 Moulin Rouge
    14 Wise Blood
    15 The Unforgiven
    16 Under the Volcano
    17 The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
    18 The Bible
    19 Heaven Knows Mr. Allison
    20 Beat the Devil

  3. I always found Huston to be an intriguing filmmaker and his later career, much like Eastwood's featured all kinds of fascinating works to explore. My faves:

    1. The Asphalt Jungle
    2. The Maltese Falcon
    3. The Misfits
    4. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
    5. Key Largo
    6. Under the Volcano
    7. The African Queen
    8. Prizzi’s Honor
    9. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
    10. Beat the Devil

  4. Asphalt Jungle ranks as one of my favourite films. In fact, as a matter of fact, it was the first film noir that I watched, so it holds a doubly special place in my heart. Maltese Falcon, though, needs another viewing cos I didn't like it as much as the fame and adulation that precedes it. And I've been waiting to watch Prizzi's Honour for sometime now, maybe I'll watch it one of these days. And not to forget Huston's remarkable screenplay for The Killers.

  5. I too am a big Huston fan. Everyone of his that I've seen I love. Night of the Iguana and The Man Who Would be King are both underrated greats.

  6. Dave:

    I have seen at least 28 of his films, but only about 20 are fresh in mind. Fortunately, many turn up regularly. You have ample film scholars at hand so my thoughts are more personal reflections – and films are almost always what we bring to them and take away with us. I chose to complete this on a Monday morning before reading your essay and to not change anything when submitting. Perhaps you will permit me an afterthought later. (I promise to take up less space.)

    1. The Maltese Falcon

    It is difficult to say anything new about this. Bogart at his best, the incredible supporting cast and Dashiell Hammett in good hands. My blog confrere, Matthew of Movietone News, and I have had a few go-arounds about the suitability of Mary Astor in her role. I say yes. Matthew no. (Matthew, as always, makes a good case.) I acquired a replica of the falcon at some expense about 40 years ago. (I suspect they are commonplace now.) I wrapped another replica in swaddling newspapers and left it at a friend’s house without comment. I wish I could move this title down to number two but choices include pain. If only this were the first round of The World Cup and draws were allowed -- I could give one and two equal standing.

    2. The Asphalt Jungle

    This is a struggle. The ghost of Jean Hagen keeps moving my hand to the number 1 key on my keyboard. Most remember her comic turn in Singin’ in the Rain, but fewer recall her heartbreaking Doll Conovan in this. Hayden, Marc Lawrence, Jaffe, Whitmore. Another incredible cast, but Monroe can stay on the couch. I suspect Melville and I fell in love with this at the same time. And I will always remember Doll Conovan running up to the house on the hill while the horses put their heads close to the dying Dix Handley.

    3. The African Queen

    For two good reasons. I was always a C.S. Forester boy, then man. And I particularly loved the spinsterish Hepburn performances (this, Summertime, Rainmaker) figuring perhaps she was desperate and who knows?

    4. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre I suspect many will choose as number 1. I have nothing new to add.

    5. The Man Who Would Be King

    Movie fun. A big good looking film. Gunga Din some forty years later. In color. Caine and Connery and Christopher Plummer as a rather subtle Kipling.

    6. The Roots of Heaven

    Not seen in a long while but I remember liking it. Futile causes can reach me. It probably needed some rethinking, putting Trevor Howard, Errol Flynn and John Huston in a pestilential place where one needed a large daily consumption of alcohol. And then throw in Zanuck’s latest conquest: Juliette Greco. We are told Huston did not much care for it, but then again, Hitchcock said on the tapes about Vertigo “I had a terrible actress.”

    7. Moulin Rouge

    Beautiful to look at. Although I am an art neophyte, I spent years at MOMA to attend the film programs. Often while waiting for a film to begin or between showings, I would “kill time” (Hilton Kramer would wince) among the works of Lautrec, Seurat, Van Gogh and Matisse. And for some reason I became smitten with Matisse’s Woman on a High Stool. I spend time with her whenever in New York and think of her whenever I see Moulin Rouge.

    8. Wise Blood

    Bleak but interesting. I am not sure why this stays in mind. Perhaps Brad Dourif. Every time I see him in a film I do not realize it is him. He seems to change totally from film to film. I have not seen this recently enough for a fresh assessment, but I remember being taken with it.

    9. In This Our Life

    I suspect this older Huston film is out of favor, but I agree with James Woods on Davis. And I cannot resist the scene in which Bette Davis and Charles Coburn go after each other about the peril each is facing. I think one scene can move a film into a higher level. Especially when the likes of Davis and Coburn are involved. So the film makes the list.

    Thank you for your patience. I will give back the space if and when you do Godard.


  7. Have only seen two from Huston (excluding the first 20 minutes of Asphalt Jungle, which I have seen about 10 times):

    1. Sierra Madre
    2. Falcon

    Both terrific films.

    I personally think Huston got a raw deal. Truffaut once commented that the worst film of Hawks is much better than the best by Huston. And somehow this auteurist prejudice seems to have stuck. I think he deserves more critical appraisal.

  8. Truffaut's opinion there was indeed misguided, JAFB!

    TREASURE and MALTESE FALCON are as great as any one of Hawks's best films.

  9. Here's my list of those I've seen so far, in order of preference, with the proviso that it is a long time since I saw 'The Misfits', so it should possibly be higher.

    The Maltese Falcon (1941)
    The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
    The African Queen (1951)
    Key Largo (1948)
    In This Our Life (1942)
    We Were Strangers (1949)
    The Misfits (1961)
    Moby Dick (1956)
    Annie (1982)
    Escape to Victory (1981)

    I do have at least three more movies directed by Huston in the house that I haven't seen yet, but will get to soon! It strikes me that all my top four star Bogart and he is great - and very different - in all of them, which is a testament to how Huston got the best out of him as an actor. I could probably put these four in a different order depending on which one I saw most recently.

    I think Bette Davis gives a great performance in 'In This Our Life' and the subplot about racism is also strong - almost like a second movie within the first. 'We Were Strangers' is out on DVD in region 2 and has fine performances by both John Garfield and Jennifer Jones - I'm surprised it isn't better known. I also really like all the others on my list... well, except for my bottom two.

    On the subject of those, I'm slightly amazed that nobody else has yet admitted to having seen 'Annie' - in the UK, at any rate, this comes on television constantly! It's not one of my favourite musicals but one or two numbers do have a certain appeal, and there is a horrible fascination in seeing Albert Finney as Daddy Warbucks. The film at the bottom of my list, 'Escape to Victory', about a football match in a prisoner of war camp, is pretty bad in all honesty, but has a cult appeal in my home area, since it features several great Ipswich Town footballers of the past in bit parts. Huston also directed part of the unfunny comedy version of 'Casino Royale' - though I have a vague memory that his scenes might be better than the rest of it.

  10. Samuel - Very true as far as being an interpreter of work, but I think we both can agree that he is able to infuse a certain "Hustonian element" into his best films. Seeing MOBY DICK that high on your list makes me realize that I really need to get around to seeing it.

    J.D. - I agree, his later career gets very interesting. My favorites from him tend to come from his earlier years, but there are some truly great films in his third and fourth decades as a director. Definitely check out 1972's FAT CITY, one of the all time best boxing films.

    Shubhajit - Love to hear of the great memories of THE ASPHALT JUNGLE. And you are absolutely right, Huston's skills as a writer definitely deserve recognition.

    Retro Hound - NIGHT OF THE IGUANA in particular I think is underappreciated. It's a very quirky film, but a great one in my opinion.

    Gordon - No apologies necessary for the length of the comment... this is great stuff! I don't have much that I can add to your wonderful comments. It's hard to argue with the your top two choices, even if I do personally rank SIERRA MADRE at the top. And no worries about giving back space for Godard... as anyone who has followed the blog can tell you, there isn't much of a concern about him popping up! LOL

    JAFB - Yes, that Truffaut claim is absolutely ludicrous. I love Howard Hawks, but as Sam points out below, films like TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, and THE MALTESE FALCON are just as good as Hawks at his best.

    Judy - I honestly have not seen ANNIE... not that I've avoided it, just not one I'm particularly running to watch! Love your list and definitely try and get to THE ASPHALT JUNGLE when you can.

  11. Dave I'll take it one step further (as I am very often prone to do) that Huston's top 3 The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, and The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre are slightly better than Hawks at his best-- Red River, The Big Sleep, and Rio Bravo!!! While it is nitpicking since all 6 movies are beyond great I'm shocked someone like Truffaut would make such an outrageous claim like that. Especially considering that he could never achieve the same level of greatness in his own career (other than Shoot The Piano Player) as Huston practically did in his sleep. Overrated is my one word dismissal of Mr Truff.
    P.S. Jules et Jim is ok as well lol.......M.Roca

  12. Well, I do think Hawks was a greater filmmaker than Huston, although I mean that as no slight to the latter, and the auteurist prejudice that persists in some circles I find to be really unfortunate. I love a lot of his films, and in many cases prefer his seventies and eighties work to his forties and fifties work, which isn't true of most classical filmmakers. Seeing Huston working with a master like Dourif the way he does in Wise Blood was a revelation to me, and still is.

  13. I definitely prefer Hawks stylistically, but Huston's influence and importance cannot be dismissed as much as Truffaut does. The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt jungle were both important pioneers in each of their sub-genres (the hard-boiled detective film and the heist film respectively). Huston was, along with Robert Wise, the essential journeyman director of classic hollywood. The Asphalt Jungle is my favorite of his.

  14. I wonder if African Queen would better round out that "famous 3" with Maltese Falcon & Treasure in terms of public perception. All of those films made the AFI list and seem to be his most popular and widely-known films. In contrast, Asphalt Jungle is a bit more inside-baseball.

    I finally saw that movie a year or so ago and thought it made a fascinating complement to The Killing, with which it is often compared (sometimes favorably, sometimes un-). However the penultimate film, whose details escape me but whose moralistic, didactic tone lingers, wrecked the otherwise powerful climax for me. Since we're talking Hawks, at least in Scarface the censor-inserted scene (which is what that Asphalt Jungle moment feels like) gets inserted harmlessly into the middle of the film!

  15. I am still missing some late key Huston films. That said, the first three on my list are almost interchangeable in their ranking. I agree with Samuel Wilson that Huston's underrating has to do with his reputation as an interpreter of so many literary works than his having a personal vision of his own. Still he has made many excellent films and at least three bond fide classics.

    For me the single most thread, the main theme that that holds his films together is that his characters are generally outsiders.

    The Maltese Falcon
    The Treasure of Sierra Madre
    The Asphalt Jungle
    The African Queen
    Fat City
    The Night of the Iguana
    Key Largo
    Prizzi's Honor
    San Pietro (short)
    The Misfits
    The Red Badge of Courage
    Heaven Knows Mr Allison
    List of Adrian Messenger
    The Unforgiven
    Moby Dick
    Across the Pacific
    Life and Times of Judger Roy Bean
    Casino Royale (segment)

  16. Hey, Dave, in case you haven't heard yet (though some of the people commenting here are already aware of it!), I've got a Huston blogathon planned for early August:

  17. Honestly I don't like the "The secret of Sierra Madre"

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