Friday, January 25

The Directors: John Huston

We're starting a series on movie directors.  Most are not as well known as actors but many will be known to you... at least their names.  Movies are said to be a director's medium.  You usually do not see them on screen but they're right there in the midst of most scenes.  (There are second-unit directors who go off and film scenes usually not involving actors.)  The director is essential to the overall artistic vision of the film.  He is the one who guides the actors and the crew; some do it with a strong hand, others more loosely.  The director decides how the film will look.  Once it is completed, he is involved in post-production work.  Whether you like or dislike a film, it is chiefly due to the director.  Let's get you acquainted with some of them.   

The movies were in John Huston's blood. He was the son of esteemed character actor Walter Huston. He would grow up (although some say that never happened) to become a valuable screenwriter, an accomplished actor and a compelling director. I would go so far as to accuse him of being one of the best directors there ever was. He certainly was among the most famous. He saw to it. He lived larger than life for 81 years. He wouldn't have known how to do it any other way.

 He loved making movies. Most of the time he would latch onto some project and it would become the center of his world.  He was given to great dramatic flourishes. When he fancied a project or a woman or a wine or a country, he swooped down on them and made them his own. Like a child, his attention to matters could also be short-lived. If the passion remained, he ran with it. If it didn't, he could scarcely recall his involvement. Sometimes the planet was simply not big enough to house him.

We will not be discussing his acting career but rather his directing, which was considerable, formidable, important.  He made some clunkers along the way.  (I think he made one of the worst movies I have ever seen in 1954's Beat the Devil.)  But his track record of valuable, successful, exciting films is most impressive and we shall discuss a few of them.


Huston was born in, of all places, Missouri, but he traveled around the country performing with his parents on the stage.  As a young adult he became pretty good at boxing and worked a spell as a reporter and then an actor.  Then he rather fell into screenwriting (he fully believed there wasn't anything he couldn't do nor anything he shouldn't try) and he got an immediate Oscar nomination for writing (Sergeant York).

Huston would come to earn 15 Oscar nominations and would win twice.  He liked writing about immoral and amoral people, men and women.  He liked his characters to have secrets and hidden passions.  He liked anti-heroes.  In his films characters rolled around in drama, much as Huston did in real life.  Huston was a man's-man.  He liked projects about men.  He understood the macho male psyche far better than he understood women.  He had five marriages, numerous longtime romances, affairs with his actresses.  He had a complicated relationship with his first female ever-- his mother-- and he never again engaged in a relationship with a woman that wasn't very complicated.

He rather fell into directing with 1941s The Maltese Falcon.  He had written the screenplay of Dashiel Hammett's detective novel and was now going to direct.  It was in the film noir realm and had the amoral (the detective) and the immoral (the girl) that he liked so much.  This also began Huston's long and successful collaboration with Humphrey Bogart.  Bogart was in so many ways Huston's kind of actor and Huston was Bogart's kind of director.  They both were independent, full of themselves, cynical, creative, playful boozers.  Each owes his success in large part to the other.

They worked together again in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1946) for which Huston won best screenplay and best directing Oscars in a story of man's cruelty to man in the Mexican desert.  Father Walter was in the picture and won a supporting Oscar for his role.  (Many years later Huston would direct his daughter Anjelica in Prizzi's Honor where she won a supporting Oscar.)

Then came Key Largo, 1948, a particular favorite of mine.  Some thugs hold an innkeeper, his daughter-in-law and a family friend captive in their Florida hotel during a storm.  It would be the fourth and final teaming of Bogart and wife Lauren Bacall.  It was also resplendent with top actors like Edward G. Robinson, Claire Trevor and Lionel Barrymore.  It was a good v. evil struggle that Huston seemed to understand very well.

He used mainly B-actors for 1950s The Asphalt Jungle... Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe.  It was all about the plotting of a robbery.  Huston often laid out his films intricately... sketching out each shot, laying out all the camera angles, etc.  It was like a big puzzle to him, which he thrived on figuring out.  This film itself was also like that... the heavy plotting of the crime.  No wonder Huston liked this film so much and it was very popular with the public and critics alike.

Many books have been about The African Queen (1951).  It was quite the experience for Huston, writer Peter Viertel (later the husband of Deborah Kerr), Bogart again and Katharine Hepburn.  I think it is one of the best films ever made and starring a screen pair for the ages.  Hepburn was the perfect actress to have in this part and she is to women what Bogart and Huston are to men... professional, independent, confident, full of herself, kicking ass and taking names later. 

The African Queen experience was so famous that years later Clint Eastwood starred as John Huston in another film I quite admired, White Hunter, Black Heart, about the making of The African Queen.

In 1957 he made a film with another actor who was quite like him in so many ways, Robert Mitchum.  The movie, also starring Deborah Kerr, was Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.  They were a nun and a tough marine stranded on a Japanese-held island, falling a little bit in love with one another.  Huston could often be tough on his actors but he loved Kerr and Mitchum and the three of them had a ball making this film which was well-received by critics and public alike.

The Unforgiven (1960) starred Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepburn, Audie Murphy, Charles Bickford and Lillian Gish.  The plot dealt with racism and specifically whether a white family's adopted daughter is really an Indian.  Huston often said it was his least satisfying film, but I liked it because it was an unusual western and showcased a uncommonly fiery Audrey Hepburn. 

The following year Huston made The Misfits, another film that has had much written about it. I've always said it's a movie about sad people.  The story is several people at loose ends in the Nevada desert rounding up wild mustangs.  With a cast like Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter, nothing could have kept me from it.  It was a painfully difficult shoot but I think Huston got the best performances out of Monroe and Gable that they ever gave.

Deborah Kerr, anxious to work with Huston again, was happy about being signed on to The Night of the Iguana (1964).  How she kept her ladylike sanity in the boozy company of Huston, Ava Gardner and Richard Burton can only be imagined.  Based on a Tennessee Williams' work and shot in the Mexican hamlet of Puerto Vallarta, it was about booze and lust and mismanaged emotions at a hotel closed for the season.  Mmmm, is my room ready?

Not particularly successful at the time but now considered one of Huston's best works is 1975s The Man Who Would Be King.  This was high adventure, based on Rudyard Kipling's novel, that Huston had wanted to film for decades.  He first envisioned Bogart and Gable in the leads and years later Burton and Peter O'Toole.  He ended up with Sean Connery and Michael Caine, delivering dazzling performances, who are taken for a god and his sidekick (!) by Afghan tribesmen.  What a glorious film.

These are my favorite Huston films.  But there are more, most not without their flaws, but Huston's work is always worth a look.  Consider Moulin Rouge, Moby Dick, The Red Badge of Courage, The Roots of Heaven, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Freud, The Bible and Under the Volcano

This was a director of incomparable passion for storytelling who moved about a man's world with unbridled lust and emotion.  A student of good films would be wise to become familiar with the work of John Huston.

Coming in February

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