The Slighted Art of John Huston

I have long been intrigued by, and resistant to, the exclusion of John Huston (1906-1987) by the auteur theorists (Bazin, Truffaut, Sarris, etc) from their sacrosanct canon of cinematic saints, which included the likes of Welles, Hitchcock, Ford, Ray, Hawks, and co. I comprehend their argument that he “lacks a visual signature” (though that, too, is arguable) but there are many any other attributes to authorship that can characterize a film director’s work beyond style, among them subject, theme, character, plot. Even people who have seen only Huston’s best known films can probably put their finger on key traits of a Huston film: 1) he loved adapting and working with great writers, especially but not exclusively American ones, including Dashiell Hammett, Ernest Hemingway, Maxwell Anderson, Stephen Crane, C.S. Forester, Herman Melville, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Jean-Paul Sartre, Flannery O’Connor, James Joyce, Malcolm Lowery, James Agee, Ray Bradbury, Thornton Wilder, et al. ; 2) he loved travel, travelers, and “roughing it”, telling stories set in Africa, Asia, on tropical islands, and, above all, Mexico; 3) he was interested in male culture, i.e., the dynamics of machismo; 4) he was scornful of greed, pretension and vanity; 5) he was sympathetic to alcoholics and other “sinners”; 6) he respected, and understood, the art of acting, as some of the most esteemed auteurists like Ford and Hitchcock did not; and 7) let’s not forget that great authors are often chameleons; the man who wrote Hamlet also wrote The Comedy of Errors.

Huston’s love of the actor’s art of course stems from his father, Walter Huston, a vaudeville veteran, and consequently one of the earliest artists we ever profiled here (some 5,000 posts ago). John Huston called his father his “best friend”, gave him cameos in his first two films and an Oscar winning turn in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). When just a teenager he tagged along when his father was in Desire Under the Elms on Broadway. Thus he got to know and learn from no less than Eugene O’Neill. “Pipe dreams”, that great theme of The Iceman Cometh, would come to be a major thread through Huston’s films, beginning with his first one, the genre-defining The Maltese Falcon (1941). It’s interesting that he never adapted O’Neill for the screen, but O’Neill is pretty talky and his best works tend to make pretty static movies. The Sea Plays are an exception, but Ford beat him to that. I also find it HIGHLY significant that Huston worshipped Charlie Chaplin, and respected Griffith. Both of those early film-makers brought a theatre mentality to the cinema. Chaplin hated self-consciousness in directing. In his autobiography he cited that briefly popular mid-century trope of a camera placed in a p.o.v. behind a fireplace log as an example of the kind of thing he disliked. As a screenwriter in the 1930s and ’40s, Huston had gotten to work with and study the methods of the likes of Raoul Walsh, William Wyler, and Howard Hawks. (Interestingly not William Wellman, with whom he also had some things in common). This gave him a sound grounding in how to shoot a Hollywood movie.

As a very young man, Huston had spent a year in Paris studying painting and had also studied at the Art Students League in L.A. Pictorial art is not what he is known for, and yet my favorite film of his is the remarkable Moulin Rouge (1952), a GORGEOUS Technicolor outing set at the storied Parisian cabaret of the title, thus it is the only film of his I can think of that gets anywhere near a vaudevillian milieu. That alone would be enough to hook me already probably, but that’s only the backdrop. The film’s anti-hero is the era’s pictorial chronicler, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec played by Jose Ferrer in one of his best performances. Director and actor collaborated to create something of Shakespearean dimensions, conceiving of the dwarf Toulouse-Lautrec as a tragic outsider in the tradition of Shylock or Richard III. And Huston had sought a look for the film that would emulate Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting style. It was one of the few times Huston would give that much attention to the visual aspect of his films in such an in-your-face way.

Huston’s more typical method seemed more an outgrowth of his own literary aesthetic. As cultured as Huston was in the realm of fine art, he was even more devoted to literature. From childhood, he read several books a week. (One of these was The Man Who Would Be King. His 1975 adaptation is one of his best films, as it should have been: he had been seeing it in his head for 60 years). In his early ’20s Huston had stories published in H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury and several other magazines. He was of the generation that was in thrall to Hemingway, not just the ethic of hard-living away from the typewriter, but the stylistic devotion to economy. This came to inform his cinematic style, or as the auteurists would have it, his absence of one. Like Hitchcock, he drew his own storyboards, and preconcieved how the movie would be shot. His orientation was that of the screenwriter, not of the editor. The film was primarily constructed in preproduction, not assembled in postproduction. He spoke of the “grammar” of filmmaking, and much like the style mavens of the printed word who always strive for the mot juste, he basically believed there was ONE perfect way to shoot each moment. His job was to identify what that was and execute it. He often shot only a single take unless something went wrong, and only shot from one angle (as opposed to the common strategy of shooting the same scene or moment from many angles for “safety” or “coverage”, which allows the director and editor to choose from many options as they assemble the footage). Consequently, you might call Huston’s the “well-made” method, the equivalent of what Sardou did in playwriting. The French studio system had its own equivalent, and it’s undoubtedly one of the reasons the French critics were dimissive of Huston, for he seemed to always take the “obvious” path. (Yet he was not without his self-conscious touches. He did downright strange things at the end of Reflections in a Golden Eye and Fat City, for example.)

No doubt through the assistance of his father, Huston began working as a Hollywood screenwriter as early as 1930, when he was 24 years old. This is pretty early in Hollywood history; that same year, his father was starring in Abraham Lincoln, directed by D.W. Griffith, who’d been around since the days of silent one-reelers. Huston worked on his dad’s films A House Divided (1931) and Law and Order (1932, the first film to dramatize the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral). Other early screenplays he worked on include the horror classic The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), Jezebel (1938), Juarez (1939, which I bet he really wished he could have directed), High Sierra (1941), Sergeant York (1941), and The Killers (1946). It was the success of High Sierra which helped made a star out of Humphrey Bogart, and had gotten Huston the juice to direct his first picture The Maltese Falcon (1941), one of the best freshman efforts in the history of ANYTHING. He would go on to direct Bogart five more times, and the two became fast friends. Bogart was one of Huston’s “left-wing associations”. Huston was so sickened and enraged by McCarthyism and the HUAC witch trials that he permanently moved to Ireland in the early ’50s, eventually becoming a citizen of that country.

Ironically, though the original auteurists didn’t dignify him with coveted “authorship” status, he has always been one of America’s best known and loved directors. He was certainly one of the first I became familiar with as child, by virtue of The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Red Badge of Courage (1951), The African Queen (1951), Moby Dick (1956), The Misfits (1961), The Bible (1966), etc. Amazingly, Huston had one of the best stretches of his career at the end of his life, when I was a teenager and young adult, so I saw all of those films upon first run at the cinema or on TV soon after: Annie (1982), Under the Volcano (1984), Prizzi’s Honor (1985), and The Dead (1987).

Huston also worked a lot as an actor, which raised his profile even more than his directing: one saw him in such things as Candy (1968), Myra Breckinridge (1970), his own The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), Battle for the Planet Apes (1973, under a mask as The Lawgiver), Chinatown (1974), Sherlock Holmes in New York (1976), the preposterous Jaws rip-off Tentacles (1977), and The Hobbit (1977, as the voice of Gandalf), among other things. A glorious treat has come to us in recent years: his lead performance in Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, which was shot in the ’70s, and released in 2018. Huston had dabbled in acting since his youth, one of the many reasons he knew how to communicate so effectively with his players. He had one of the most amazing voices in show business, better even than (and quite different from) his father’s, though he wasn’t nearly as good a thespian. In fact, his screen presence was pretty weird; between that deep, somewhat affected voice, combined with a leering, almost simian face, it made him seem almost a self-caricature. Clint Eastwood paid homage to that persona in Black Hunter, White Heart, released in 1990, just a couple of years after Huston passed.

Huston, of course was a hunter and outdoorsman, and all around active guy in real life. In his youth he had served in the Mexican cavalry. During World War Two he was drafted by the War Department to make documentaries/propaganda films. As a teenager he was a champion amateur boxer, a subject he explored with much humanity in Fat City. He once engaged in a fistfight with Errol Flynn over the honor of Olivia de Havilland. Boozing often got him into trouble. In 1933 he drunkenly crashed a car, badly injuring his passenger Zita Johann, who was his paramour at the time. Huston was married five times, and had a child with a sixth. His third wife was actress Evelyn Keyes (who had quite a lively marital history herself). His fourth was prima ballerina Enrica Soma, who gave him two children. The oldest, Walter “Tony” Huston was born just nine days after his grandfather Walter Huston passed away in 1950. Anjelica Houston was born the following year. She was only 18 when her father starred her in her first movie A Walk With Love and Death (1969), a predicament not unlike Sophia Coppola’s appearance in Godfather III, although with better histrionic results. She also appeared in Prizzi’s Honor (winning an Oscar for her efforts) and The Dead (1987), her father’s last film.

Or was it? In a way, John Huston’s last film may be said to be the posthumous Mr. North (1988). This movie has a special place in my heart, set as it is in my old stomping grounds of Newport, Rhode Island, and featuring some of my old Trinity Rep cohorts in bit parts and extra roles. This movie, based on Thornton Wilder’s 1973 novel Theophilus North, was a true family affair, directed by John’s son Danny Huston, and also featuring Anjelica Huston and Allegra Huston in the cast, as well as Danny’s future wife Virginia Madsen. John Huston co-wrote the screenplay and was set to play a major part in the film, until his chronic ephysema prevented it, necessitating his replacement by Robert Mitchum (who’d been in Huston’s 1957 Heaven Knows, Mr, Allison). At any rate, it is due to his being on location for this shoot that John Huston passed away in Middletown, Rhode Island, alongside the bones of my ancestors.

One happy miracle about Huston — unlike many directors of his generation, who sort of got drowned in the aesthetic changes that happened in the ’60s and never quite recovered (Cukor, Wyler, Hitchcock), after an ugly awkward middle period, Huston managed to rebound, starting with the highly personal Fat City (1972) and go out on a high note. It’s an ending I imagine he would have written for himself.

Good Lord, there’s so much more to be said, I’ve left out many a film, but this is a blogpost, not a book. It’s a testament to the scale of what he accomplished that it could never be crammed into a few paragraphs. More will assuredly follow. Oh! I almost forgot! Criterion’s streaming platform is currently showcasing a bunch of his films at present, some of them pretty obscure. At this writing I’ve seen about 2/3 of his nearly 40 films, so, I for one, intend to check some that have been on my “to see” list.