The Criterion Shelf: Directed by John Huston

Three of That Shelf's writers examine eighteen films by the legendary filmmaker

One has a tough time deciding what theme or style to associate with director John Huston (1906-1987). However, one thing that stands out when taking in a number of his films at once is his lack of faith in happy endings. In one of his best works, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, the American flag that is raised in the final scene doesn’t find its pride of place in the centre of the widescreen frame as a beacon of patriotic glory. Instead, it keeps going beyond the top of the screen: victory in battle is just another part of the puzzle, not its solution. Reading the details of his biography and gleaning the sense of messy, sometimes life-threatening adventure with which he lived his entire life, it makes sense why his movies were often about more than just the finish line, rarely a noble quest to put things right but an exploration of worlds that have a good time going wrong: if Akira Kurosawa wanted to know why we’re all so cruel to each other, Huston wanted to know why the journey was so compelling. The characters in one of his best ensemble films, Key Largo, for instance, are in constant danger for their lives and every moment of that danger is thrilling, while Moby Dick’s Ishmael can’t contain his sense of wonder even when viewing Captain Ahab reach his eventual doom.

A big personality with a booming voice who loved his wine, his women, and a seat at the gambling table, John Huston’s existence was never one blessed with stability: his parents’ volatile marriage ended when he was six and he was sent to boarding school, spending vacation time either on the vaudeville circuit with his father, Toronto-born former civil engineer turned actor Walter Huston, or with his mother, former sports editor Rhea Gore, at the racetrack. Young John’s childhood was marked by illness, he was treated for an enlarged heart and kidney ailments but didn’t grow up to have much concern for his fragility, pursuing a career as a boxer as a teenager and ranking high as an amateur lightweight by the time he was fifteen.

In his film career, Huston’s interest in a diverse span of genres over his impressively long and rarely unsuccessful career likely began with the varied interests that he dabbled in before achieving success in Hollywood, including ballet, English and French literature, opera, horseback riding, and painting, which he studied in Los Angeles before going to Paris where he attempted a career as a fine artist (his sensitive understanding of the art form shows in the bold painting sequences in Moulin Rouge). After moving to Mexico, and becoming, as only this carefree adventurer could, an honorary member of the Mexican cavalry, he also began writing plays and short stories, eventually publishing them in magazines before going to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a writer.

By the thirties, Walter had also entered movies as an actor, becoming a late life movie star with his Oscar-nominated turn in Dodsworth in 1936 while his son slowly progressed as a screenwriter, remembered by his colleagues fondly as a “lusty, hard-drinking libertine.” In 1941, Huston convinced the studio to allow him to try directing one of his own scripts, “under the condition that his next script also became a hit”: his choice, an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, did just that, not the first film noir but certainly the genre’s first classic and box office smash (he would return to this style again with Key Largo and The Asphalt Jungle). The forties were a bountiful decade for the newly established director, earning him Oscars for writing and directing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (as well as earning an acting award for his father), but it only inspired him to reach for more, explore more and push the art form more.

Famous for creating his films while shooting them, Huston reportedly needed little time in the editing room, bringing such diverse works as Mr. Allison and Reflections in a Golden Eye to life with an equal confidence. After decades of working mainly behind the camera, he was convinced to appear in Otto Preminger’s 1963 drama The Cardinal, for which he earned an Oscar nomination for acting and which turned him into a beloved character actor in ferocious roles for the rest of his life (most notably Chinatown, but also Myra Breckenridge and Winter Kills, among others).

Not all of Huston’s films are classics, and not all of them were hits, but he was among the few filmmakers of the golden age of Hollywood who maintained a high profile without succumbing to ignoble projects to keep the cash flowing in his old age. Prizzi’s Honour, his penultimate film in 1985, was among the highest critically rated efforts of his entire career, earning daughter Anjelica an acting Oscar and making the Hustons the first and, until the Coppolas, only three-generation Oscar-winning family. Huston’s final film, an adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead, which he made while in a wheelchair strapped to an oxygen tank, is perhaps the most beautiful and cherishable efforts of his entire oeuvre.

The Criterion Channel’s tribute to John Huston is a fine spread of his works that will give viewers an apt understanding of his skills, and will hopefully inspire the search for films that aren’t included, particularly Falcon, Sierra Madre, Prizzi, Beat The Devil and, for Canadian subscribers, The Asphalt Jungle.

Many thanks to Emma Badame and Marko Djudjic for contributing reviews.  All reviews by Bil Antoniou except where noted.

 

THE JOHN HUSTON MASTERPIECES

 

Moby Dick (1956)

Of the many projects that John Huston undertook to adapt “unfilmable” novels, this big-screen rendering of Herman Melville’s modernist masterpiece was his most ambitious. A box office hit but received only moderately by critics upon initial release, time has been generous to this haunting, gorgeously shot film that might not capture the very essence of the author’s contemplative prose but certainly exists in its atmosphere. An optimistic seaman (Richard Basehart) joins the crew of a whaling vessel whose captain (a painfully miscast Gregory Peck) abandons profit directives in order to follow the ultimate metaphor of obsession, hunting and killing the whale that did him harm. Huston and cinematographer Oswald Morris stripped the images of bright colours to create images meant to resemble the etchings and drawings of the period and, in doing so, create a mesmerizing work of art that often seems to be beyond its own time in cinema history. One of the director’s most incredible films.

 

Heaven Knows Mr Allison (1957)

Robert Mitchum, who named this reworking of The African Queen as his favourite of his own films, and Deborah Kerr have electric chemistry that Huston amplifies by repressing their attraction to each other while they are stranded on a tropical island during the second World War. He’s the survivor of a sunken submarine whose raft floats onto the shores of an Atoll inhabited solely by a nun, who arrived a few days earlier with a priest who quickly expired. The two of them make polite conversation until the arrival of Japanese army units forcing them into hiding in a cave and he, in between jaunts risking his life to steal tins of food from the enemy’s supplies, tries to get her to abandon the veil and love him instead of her heavenly husband. The lush backgrounds, shot in brilliant and colourful Cinemascope, provide an exquisite counterpoint to the darkness of the plot, while the two stars outdo themselves.

 

The Dead (1987)

Huston’s swan song is one of the greatest achievements of his career, scripted by his son Tony from the James Joyce story that concludes the Dubliners collection. At a Feast of Epiphany dinner hosted by two elderly spinster sisters and their maiden niece, a group of friends and family gather for dancing, drinking and dinner, sharing stories of memorable figures of their past who have gone before them. Huston’s daughter Anjelica, fresh off her Oscar win for Prizzi’s Honour, gives one of her most indelible performances as the character whose tale of a lost love is saved for the film’s emotionally devastating ending. The film hardly ever rises above a whisper, always elegant but emotionally overwhelming throughout, and one would never guess that Huston directed it while on a respirator and in a wheelchair. Legendary costume designer Dorothy Jeakins, a longtime collaborator of Huston’s and best friend of Anjelica’s late mother Enrica Soma, earned her last Oscar nomination for the wardrobe.

 

The African Queen (1951)

EMMA BADAME: Picking a favourite John Huston film is virtually impossible, but you certainly can’t go wrong with this award-winning adventure starring two of the biggest movie stars the world has ever seen–the top two, in fact, if you’re asking the AFI. Katharine Hepburn is perfectly cast as Rose Sayer, a Methodist spinster in World War I Africa whose missionary brother has been killed. Humphrey Bogart is likewise perfectly cast as degenerate Canadian steamer captain Charlie Allnut, the man offering her safe passage from the colonial German forces that killed her brother. Instead of fleeing, Sayer convinces a reluctant Allnut to work with her to destroy a nearby enemy gunboat. They bicker and fight enough to kick off their own war but eventually, these two opposites find love among the rapids. Based on a novel by C.S. Forester, Huston’s witty and absorbing Oscar-nominated adaptation–penned alongside James Agee, John Collier and Peter Viertel–gives the film’s star duo the perfect material to shine. Bogart, particularly, has never been better and deservedly won his only Best Actor Oscar for the role.  Even though The African Queen turns 70 later this year, it remains as thrilling and enjoyable as ever and a must have for any Huston aficionado.

 

Key Largo (1948)

MARKO DUDJIC: One of Huston’s darkest films, Key Largo features a pitch-perfect cast—including Oscar-winner Claire Trevor—wading through noir’s murky waters. As a hurricane rages outside the Hotel Largo, a group of gangsters (Edward G. Robinson, et al) holds the hotel’s proprietor (Lionel Barrymore), his daughter-in-law (Lauren Bacall), and a visiting soldier (Humphrey Bogart) hostage. Through unsettling closeups, thick shadows, raw violence, and the pounding hurricane itself, Huston viciously washes away Florida’s stereotypically sunny façade, replacing it with a claustrophobic air oozing with cruelty. The film touches on themes of morality, Indigenous and immigrant relations in America, and a soldier’s place during peacetime (the “soldier-as-civilian” motif), all wrapped in a humid noir setting. The film’s prevailing sense of dread further accentuates one of the most oft-repeated themes in Post-War American cinema: what does it mean to do what’s right, vs. what’s necessary? Huston doesn’t offer any clear answers, but what he does present will make your blood run cold.

 

The Man Who Would Be King  (1975)

EMMA BADAME: It took John Huston twenty years to make what many consider to be one of his very best films. He tried to get it going initially with Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart but Bogart died before they could make it work, then he tried again with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, Peter O’Toole, and Richard Burton, and then again with Paul Newman and Robert Redford (no, really). When The Man Who Would Be King was finally released in 1975, both audiences and critics agreed that it had been well worth the two-decade-long wait with a starring duo to die for in Sean Connery and Michael Caine, great turns from Christopher Plummer as a slightly bewildered Rudyard Kipling and an excellent Saeed Jaffrey as Gurkha soldier Billy Fish. The old-fashioned adventure tale is unabashedly entertaining and exciting. Based on a short story by Kipling, the film follows the exploits of two enterprising English officers stationed in India—Peachy Carnehan (Caine) and Daniel Dravot (Connery). Bored of their lives in the military, the two look elsewhere for opportunities and find themselves conning in the isolated Kafiristan, where Dravot is taken for a god and made their king. The movie went on to earn four Oscar nominations, including one of the last for costume powerhouse Edith Head, who was fresh off a win for The Sting. A successful callback to the sandy epics of the ‘30s and an excellent illustration of the adage “be careful what you wish for,” it’s no wonder that both Caine and Connery have listed The Man Who Would Be King among their very best films.

 

 

WORTHY

 

Let There Be Light (1946)

John Huston took leave from his Hollywood career to film the war in Europe. He’s one of the directors covered in Mark Harris’s brilliant book Five Came Back, and among his accomplishments was this searing documentary whose effect was so strong that the military suppressed its release. Using only unstaged footage (a standard not common at the time, including Huston’s previous war docs), it examines soldiers with battle fatigue being treated at a psychiatric hospital after coming home. A range of treatment including talk therapy and group exercises are employed as the subjects reveal deep emotional trauma well before popular culture had common buzz words for what they were experiencing. For Huston, it was one of his proudest achievements and he was disappointed when the U.S. military, wanting to protect its reputation and, they said, to protect returning servicemen (none of whom gave their permission to be filmed) from being discriminated against in their opportunities for employment, didn’t let it be seen by the public until 1980.

 

Moulin Rouge (1952)

Unlike Baz Luhrmann’s later exercise in anachronistic excess, John Huston’s Oscar-winning romantic drama has the famed Pigalle nightclub as a briefly visited reference point, a symbol of the era that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec defined in his art but didn’t quite benefit from in his personal life. Lautrec, played by a wonderful Jose Ferrer, is the son of aristocratic wealth whose growth is stunted by an accident (and inbreeding, actually), spending his carefree nights watching the girls dance at the Moulin Rouge and creating images that later became synonymous with the Belle Epoque (his work is the focus of some beautiful standalone sequences). The bright colours in his paintings mask his bitterness, trying to reject his familial privilege but insecure about pursuing happiness, throwing away affection on a harsh street walker (Colette Marchand) and ruining a potentially good love affair with a beautiful model (Suzanne Flond, also one of Huston’s big love affairs). Zsa Zsa Gabor adds sparks as a performer and the Oscar-winning sets and costumes are stunning.

 

Fat City (1972)

MARKO DJUDJIC: Dirty, unsettling, and bruised, John Huston’s 1972 boxing drama starring Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, and Susan Tyrrell is chaos personified. The film follows Billy Tully (Keach), an alcoholic ex-boxer trying to restart his career, as he takes on various odd jobs to survive, befriends and moves in with tempestuous fellow drinker Oma (Tyrrell), and attempts to mentor newcomer Ernie Munger (Bridges), who sees the aging Tully more as a cautionary tale than a champion. Huston voyeuristically observes the messy lives of his characters, yet remains completely empathetic and nonjudgmental; like a prizefighter, his direction is simultaneously loose and focused, bloodied but relentless. The washed-out cinematography perfectly complements the gritty, frenzied fight scenes, while Keach is brilliant in the lead role, taking shots—both kinds—with equal gusto. Be prepared to squirm.

 

Under The Volcano (1984)

Another intelligent, challenging literary adaptation, this time Huston takes on the ferociously self-destructive Malcolm Lowry and elicits one of Albert Finney’s most powerful performances. He plays a British consul who gives up his post because he no longer feels passionate about the job but, in actuality, it’s so that he can spend his days wandering the Mexican village of Cuernavaca in a drunken stupor. His best friend Anthony Andrews tries to woo him back to sobriety, as does his estranged wife (Jacqueline Bisset), who previously left him because of his drinking but now hopes to save his life. Observing as someone slowly kills themselves for two hours isn’t exactly escapist cinema, but evocative cinematography and rich performances make a very hard story go down easily.

 

FOR THE CURIOUS

 

Across the Pacific (1942)

Production was already underway when the events of December 7, 1941 forced Huston and co. to change their “fantastical” plot about Bogart preventing an attack on Pearl Harbour. The script was rewritten though the title was not, so we watch as Bogart, playing a disgraced U.S. army soldier, goes undercover to stop Sydney Greenstreet and his Japanese accomplices from bombing the Panama Canal, undertaking a journey by boat that goes nowhere near, let alone across, the Pacific Ocean. Huston reunites cast members from The Maltese Falcon (Mary Astor as the love interest from Medicine Hat, Alberta) but the film only reaches intrigue, not excitement, and the racial stereotyping plays awkwardly today despite an attempt, forward-thinking for its time, to give Americans a more nuanced understanding of their fellow American citizens of Asian descent.

 

The Night of the Iguana (1964)

Richard Burton plays a defrocked minister who now hosts tours in Mexico but is haunted by his past, the latest group he is escorting through sun-burnt villages a perfect storm to really bring him to his lowest point: among the ladies is a dewy young teenager (Sue Lyon, fresh off her performance as Kubrick’s Lolita) who tempts him but has a ferocious protector in Grayson Hall (who received an Oscar nomination for her performance). Ava Gardner shines as the alcoholic old flame who hosts the group at her resort, as does the a prim but, as always, deeply intuitive Deborah Kerr as the daughter of impoverished painter. The play isn’t Tennessee Williams at his finest, but John Huston shapes it into something dynamic and exciting, focusing on the rich performances that make for more than just exploitation of the film’s smutty story elements.

 

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)

John Huston boldly adapts Carson McCullers’ tale of southern gothic madness, but he can’t quite make the pieces fit. Elizabeth Taylor is up for all brands of craziness, giving an earthy, almost campy performance as the sexually frustrated wife of an officer, played by Marlon Brando, who oversees the military post where they live. Brando gets sweaty every time he sees young private Robert Forster’s privates, the young man has a habit of riding horseback while nude, while Julie Harris is excellent as another army wife who has taken her tragedies out on herself. The cinematography by Aldo Tonti, which flecks the images with golden hues, is inspired, but the weirdness never reaches the point of sexy, emotional satisfaction, and it’s one of Huston’s most unwieldy films. That said, it has to be seen to be believed.

 

A Walk with Love And Death (1969)

Huston’s teenage daughter Anjelica wanted to accept Franco Zeffirelli’s offer of the lead in his 1968 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, but the seventeen year-old was denied paternal permission in favour of making her debut in her father’s own less successful medieval romance. Set during a fourteenth century peasant revolt with the Hundred Year war in the background, it has Anjelica, who has yet to really take hold of all her powers as a screen presence, wander a landscape of rundown castles with the companionship of a Parisian university student (Assi Dayan) who has sworn to protect her from harm. The two fall in love but their affection can’t guarantee a happy ending in a world in a downward spiral of destruction. The critical lambasting that the film and its female lead took at the time wasn’t deserved, but it does suffer from an ambivalence in tone, harsh in its depiction of the period while also struggling to include touches of storybook beauty.

 

Wise Blood (1979)

Another day, another literary adaptation. This time John Huston takes on short story master and foremost Southern Gothic artist Flannery O’Connor, perfectly capturing her flavour of eccentricity but, by putting her on film, losing the spiritual devastation embedded in her prose. Brad Dourif is unforgettable as an ex-army man who comes to the big city to make something of himself, eventually deciding to start a church of the Truth Without Jesus in an attempt to get beyond the shallow rhetoric that the people around him use to communicate. Along the way he comes across a series of characters even more ill-fitting in society than himself, including a “blind” preacher (Harry Dean Stanton), his amorous, oddball daughter (Amy Wright) and an instantly devoted, sweet and simple disciple (Dan Shor). O’Connor was always fascinated by interpersonal facades, usually expressed through idioms and small talk, and what her main character finds here is that in trying to get beyond people’s false social constructs, he instead creates his own.

 

SKIP IT

 

In This Our Life (1942)

John Huston agreed to make this trashy adaptation of Ellen Glasgow’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel partly as a favour to his screenwriter friend Howard Koch, and mostly to be around Olivia de Havilland, with whom he was then having a passionate affair. Bette Davis, as always the cautionary tale for young women who might enjoy the self-sufficiency of wartime employment too much, plays a spoiled southern belle who runs off with her sister’s husband (Dennis Morgan) the night before her own marriage to George Brent, only to then come home and find that her sister (de Havilland) has fallen in love with the jilted fiancé. Having always had her whole family wrapped around her finger, Davis is forgiven and welcomed back to the fold, but after she kills a little girl in a hit and run accident and tries to get the son (Ernest Anderson) of her Black maid (Hattie McDaniel) to take the blame, she finds she might have pushed her luck past its limits. The film presents its African American characters more three-dimensionally than was common for the time, but what might seem like a lecture on white privilege is actually a warning about being bad white parents, and despite a host of great actors keeping things from getting too crazy, it’s mostly melodramatic nonsense. Davis later said that she was once accosted in a supermarket by author Glasgow, who berated her for having ruined her book.

 

Freud (1962)

Huston once again challenges himself to film the unfilmable, this time attempting a visual language for the subconscious mind as investigated by the famous Viennese doctor whose curiosity changed the world. A number of sequences work, particularly the fascinating dreams that young Susannah York describes to Sigmund Freud (Montgomery Clift) in an effort to understand why she has psychomatic bodily ailments that can’t be cured through psychical treatment.  The rest of it is cold biopic prestige that doesn’t find enough interpersonal conflict to make the dramatization of the subject’s research feel like anything other than homework. Clift, who reportedly struggled to get through the shoot, looks worn out and Susan Kohner can’t get much out of her weakly written role as his wife.

 

Annie (1982)

The popular Little Orphan Annie comic strip that debuted in 1924 and continued for 86 years was adapted into a hit Broadway musical in 1977, then turned into one of Huston’s most harshly received works. Any hopes that the film, whose rights were purchased for a record $9.5 million, would resurrect the popularity of the big-budget musical were quashed by its mediocre showing at the box office. A red-headed moppet (Aileen Quinn) melts the heart of a billionaire (Albert Finney) who originally only asked to have an orphan stay with him for a Christmas publicity stunt, but must first outwit the greed of Miss Hannigan (Carol Burnett), the woman running her orphanage.  Today the film has its admirers (among them my six year-old niece) but even the most generous viewer must admit that Huston overloads the screenplay with too many plot twists and extra characters instead of just focusing on the charm of the songs by Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin. Burnett overdoes it, but she’s committed, while the supporting characters, particularly Tim Curry, Bernadette Peters and the late, great Ann Reinking, shine like gold.

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