When director John Huston died in 1987 during post-production of James Joyce’s The Dead, filmdom lost its last reigning monarch—for Huston was the last of the Hollywood lions, harking from D. W. Griffith through Howard Hawks and John Ford. But if any made the screen equivalent of the “Great American Novel”, it was John Huston. He lived his life as if he were the most vigorous and most colorful character from that mythical novel, and it was Huston who successfully made over a couple of great American books– Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled classic, The Maltese Falcon (’41, WB), setting the tone for the noir-detective genre and creating the Bogie-cult in the process; and Moby Dick (’55 ), whose Ahab-Peck colored my vision even as I read Melville’s novel years later. His adaptation of B. Traven’s novel, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (’48, WB) is perhaps his version of the Great American novel, and says as much about American ideals and experience as say, Welles’ version of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons, which preceded it by several years. Welles and Huston also both made their first features in 1941—both dark commentaries on the American dream—Citizen Kane and the aforementioned …Falcon.
Yet unlike Ford and Hawks, John Huston was not simply a great American director, he was also the prototype of the new international director of the 1950s and 1960s. Treasure of the Sierra Madre (’48, WB) was the first Hollywood project to shoot the bulk of its length outside the U. S. (a location/studio version of Mexico that is still fixed in my mind as the true representation of the country) and during the fifties all of his films were shot and often produced abroad. It was Huston who would survive the studios’ collapse to turn out some of his most interesting films in the seventies and eighties: The Man Who Would Be King, Fat City, Wise Blood, Under the Volcano, Prizzi’s Honor. How’s that for a Hollywood Renaissance?
Huston was a survivor of many things: falls while hunting foxes in Ireland, numerous affairs and a handful of marriages, angry African elephants, boxing matches, a constant indebtedness that sometimes forced his hand into film projects he had no heart for, a near fatal swim through a canal sluice that might have killed him as a boy. He survived the “auteur theory”–as dubbed by Andrew Sarris in 1962 in his interpretation of the French “la politiques des auteurs”–an aesthetic notion that posited the director as author, based on the foundation of a recurring style and thematic. He survived it by continuing to choose as film material stories of a disparity not usually found in the oeuvre of noted auteurists—before he mined the literary echelons of Joyce in The Dead, he’d also yelled ‘action’ on Annie, and after that turned actor Albert Finney loose in Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, one of the most ponderously subjective novels of the 20th century. He shrugged off questions regarding style, since the style of each of his pictures had been determined by its content (from the steely look of Moby Dick to the coppery Moulin Rouge, in both the director battled studio and Technicolor to get the look he wanted) and location—putting the camera and crew in tough remote spots gave his films a kind of Hustonian authenticity. An extension of Huston’s combative personality was in fact his insistence on putting the camera in places where they’d never attempted to film before, an us versus the jungle, or desert, or sea mentality (i.e. his insistence on filming Moby Dick at sea necessitated a double decked rig, lost ships and mock whales, and insurance issues for cast and crew, but there’s so much of the book made visceral by the fact, the film virtually smells of salt).
No American director ever worked so hard to get “art” into his films as did Huston. He had a strong sense of composition and set-up and had sketched and painted his way thru hard times in Europe, was an art afficianodo; he had visited the great museums of the world, and could talk at length on Western and Eastern painting, and had a knowledge of pre-Columbian art as a collector.
Despite an early life of being on the move, Huston got a good dose of the classics, and read widely all his life; as a boy he especially enjoyed the heroic, exotic stories of Kipling, and later professed admiration for Joyce, Flaubert, de Maupassant, Balzac, Dreiser, O’Neill and Heminway, according to biographer Lawrence Grobel. He would dabble in the theatre, and write a sort of memoir of his travels and experiences—bullfighting and the Mexican cavalry, his bumming around Europe—but his professional life would begin at Warners. There, as a writer, he learned the art of collaboration, for writing at that time was a group project—with credits often shared amongst two, three or more writers. It was on action and dialogue that Huston would hone his skills: for the blue-collared WB his credits include Jezebel, Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, Juarez, Sergeant York, High Sierra, and at Goldwyn/MGM, Wuthering Heights. Later, he worked the same way as a director—hunkering down closely with writers like Ray Bradbury on Moby Dick, James Agee on The African Queen, Truman Capote on Beat the Devil. But the one thing that unites these titles is not so much the writing or the camera as the desperation of his recurring oddball characters and the impish, wrinkled grin of Huston behind them.
Like most of his heroes, Huston was a bit of misfit, a rogue and a dreamer–self-imposed exile in Ireland as a gentried regular, disdain for the little bean counters of the studio yet needing those beans to support his extended familial obligations. He was addicted to gambling and horse racing (he once took a $40,000 advance on his next film to cover a bet in Vegas, flying roundtrip to SF overnite to get the money)—and perhaps it’s in this way that one finds the thread of the director running through the bulk of his forty-three films. It’s been suggested that Huston’s real art was the life he led, that his film output was but an avocation. Despite the tempests and the carousings, he managed to put his directorial stamp on the action-adventure odyssey, the caper, the detective noir, the dark comedy, the epic, and tackle some of the tougher adaptations. And that’s the half of it—he also acted in over 30 films, played Noah in his own adaptation of The Bible, was nominated as Best Supporting for Preminger’s The Cardinal, and who can forget his Noah Cross face-to-face with Nicholson’s Jake Gittes on tide pools and moral culpability in Chinatown? His documentaries produced for the War Dept. during WWII – Report from the Aleutians, Battle of San Pietro, and Let There Be Light - have been noted by critics and film historians. Yet since his death no major study of Huston has emerged (excepting Lawrence Grobel’s essential biography, The Hustons), no major retrospective mounted. John Huston’s films could stand looking over, before history overlooks his considerable talent and contributions.
In Hollywood it’s long been fashionable to label directors—Capra, “Master of the Screwball”, Hitchcock, “Master of Suspense”, Wyler, “Master of the Long Take”, Welles, “Master of the Baroque”, Hawks, “Master of Any Genre”. It’s perhaps to Hawks that Huston owes the most—a no-nonsense style of camera movement and framing that centers traditionally on the action and the dialogue, and exploits the actors’ talents, depending on the tone and story need. Like Hawks he would try his hand at many masculine genre forms, but also romantic comedy–his screwballer was The African Queen – and like Hawks seemed to leave no visual trace of his personality behind. What was Hustonian (or Hawksian) were the characters and their relationships and a code of behavior that transcended gender. A Daniel Boone of filmmaking, Huston liked remote locations – he spent his last years living alone on Indian lands in Mexico, reachable only by boat. Like Boone he appreciated “elbow room”, and set his stories of uneasy camaraderie on a frontier of busted dreams, be it an urban wasteland or an alkaline desert.
At Warners, Huston formed a friendship with producer Henry Blanke, which led to his first directing assignment, The Maltese Falcon (’41), a property WB already owned and which had been made twice unsuccessfully (in ’31 by the same title, in ’36 as Satan met a Lady). Huston’s idea was to minimally adapt Dashiell Hammett’s book, to lift whole passages of the book as it stood, and too excise the rest. The lean, constricted look and pace of the film are a perfect counter to the intricacies of the plot and the overly rich characterizations. The actors were almost all Warner regulars—Humphrey Bogart would get a break here, playing the tough detective Sam Spade after a near decade playing gangsters; it was a pivotal career move for the actor who would work with Huston five more times. Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet would also shine and the film would be a great success with critics and the public. In fact, Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade have become the archetypes for most of the detective films issued during the American film noir cycle of the forties and early fifties, and if Bogart did Marlowe, as in The Big Sleep, the crowd remembered Spade. And of course Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s Chinatown (’74), with Huston as the leering, ultra-malevolent Noah Cross, is a Watergate-filtered right-to-the-source homage.
The Maltese Falcon is a movie that continually satisfies, even today—Bogart’s cynicism, Astor’s always fatal femme, Elsiha Cook’s Wilmer, and the final line and repudiation of the American pursuit of happiness, after half a dozen murders to acquire a priceless yet ultimately worthless bird statuette—“It’s the stuff dreams are made of”. The falcon was a fake of course—and there’s Huston grinning off-camera. James Agee and Pauline Kael considered it the best private-eye film of all time.
During WWII, Huston, like most of Hollywood and America, was part of the Allied effort. Under the auspices of the Office of War Information and Frank Capra, Huston and Anatole Litvak produced three wartime documentaries – Report from the Aleutians, and Let There Be Light, the latter perhaps the most significant. A cutting-edge chronicle of veterans being rehabilitated in a military hospital state-side, using modern psycho-therapeutic methods, it was filmed with hidden cameras and microphones. At a screening for the Pentagon in ‘46, an angry general huffed, “He’s made an anti-war film, a goddamn anti-war film”, to which Huston sarcastically replied, “If I ever make a pro-war film, take me out and shoot me”.
With the acquisition by WB of Maxwell Anderson’s play, Key Largo, Huston would work again with Bogart only this time with his new wife, Lauren Bacall, and the legendary Lionel Barrymore, old screen gangster figure Edward G. Robinson, and Claire Trevor as Robinson’s ex-babe, a role for which she took the Oscar. The film unfolds like a play, set in a hotel during a hurricane until the plot boils over into the Gulf, but what makes it work is Huston’s use of camera and his rapport with actors. Bogart, Barrymore and Bacall are adequate here, but it’s Robinson as the reptilian Johnny Rocco (who can forget his thick torso in a bathtub, surrounded by suds with a fat stogie in his mouth?) and Trevor as the singer-girlfriend that makes this a joy to watch. The ending is Hemingway-esque and owes a lot to Hawks’ version of To Have and Have Not; in fact, it could have been the ending to any of a number of Hemingway’s own stories.
His next project would reunite him with his father–Walter, who cameo’ed as the skipper in The Maltese Falcon, and was one of America’s top stage leads– in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (’48), based on a book by the reclusive, practically nonexistent author, B. Traven. Traven, an exiled German Communist living in Mexico had produced an action-adventure novel, clumsy with political allegory. Huston’s version sidesteps the rhetoric that cluttered the book and concentrates on the dream of riches and the saga of odyssey. Treasure… is the basically the same story Huston always tells: a group of oddball dreamers striving for something ultimately unattainable. This plot thread runs from The Maltese Falcon through The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, Beat the Devil, Moby Dick, The Man Who Would Be King, Fat City, and certainly The Misfits. Huston again expanded the range of Bogart (as Dobbs, the heavy, a role he wasn’t overly eager to play), and Tim Holt was as usual, adequate in his way. But it was from his father that Huston got a great performance. The elder Huston was one of our stage’s legendary performers, but his film roles are remarkably few. Son John had him play the old timer without his false teeth, but Walter got his laughs when he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. The film was shot by Gabriel Figuerora, and manages to successfully intercut the studio sets and actual locations, evoking a sense of Mexico both real and mythic. Noteworthy are the shots of the fist fight in the cantina – quite groundbreaking for the time, extremely striking in composition and cutting. One is struck by Huston’s (and some of this owes to Traven) sympathetic portrayal of the country and its people – the Indian peasants are honest and intelligent and proud. Both men had lived and traveled in Mexico extensively—Traven was married to a Mexican, and Huston lived by special arrangement on the seaside of native reserves in Las Caletas in latter life. In pre-production Huston tried to rendezvous with the mysterious Traven in Mexico, but was only met by his “agent”; later, Huston would insist that the agent was really the author in disguise! Also of note, the thousands of air miles Huston logged scouting locations—typical of his thirst for adventure and of travel. Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of our classic adventure-odyssey pictures, and one with more of a message than most. (It is not as some assert, a Western, but a protracted “caper”; by mere presence of Bogart as much as anything.)
His work with crime novelist W. R. Burnett on High Sierra would pay off again with the co-written The Asphalt Jungle in 1950. The opening shots are as grey and dismal as any noir cityscape and the plot twists tighter and tighter like a vice on the caper—a heist of half-million dollars worth of jewels through manholes, sewers and basement walls. Sterling Hayden played the hooligan hooked on the horses, Sam Jaffe the professor and brains of the outfit who had a yen for young girls, Louis Calhern the corrupt attorney who was suddenly short of cash, Jean Hagen as Hayden’s loyal love interest and Marilyn Monroe debuted as the naïve, sexy temptress who fondly called her keeper—Calhern–“Uncle Lon”. Cappy, played by Marc Lawrence outdistanced the rest of the cast with his nervous, sweating bookmaker, and James Whitmore did a nice take on the humpbacked diner operator with a real chip on his shoulder. The film seems almost formally perfect on every level; it’s only real weakness is the didactic DA played by John McIntire, ensuring the American public that crime doesn’t pay. Today it’s considered the prototype of the “big caper” film influencing later capers like The Killing, Ocean’s Eleven, The Getaway, and Reservoir Dogs.
His next, also for MGM, was a pet project, The Red Badge of Courage, based on Stephen Crane’s Civil War classic; in which Huston cast authentic WWII hero Audie Murphy in the title role over the objections of the studio. He also cast GI-cartoonist/ journalist Bill Maudlin, and when he couldn’t shoot in Virginia (where the story was set) he shot on a California ranch he’d once owned. Though a low-budget novella of a film, Huston still tried for a type of naturalism, pointing his cameraman to Mathew Brady’s photographs and a bright, stark finish—it plays like a newsreel from 1864. After a preview screening, audiences and critics were unmoved and MGM proceeded to cut the film virtually in half. So what remains is one of those cinematic curiousities like Greed or The Magnificent Ambersons, whose duration was dramatically excised without the participation of the director. Huston couldn’t figure out what went wrong but in various biographies mentions it with fondness. It must be remembered that Huston was, like Maudlin and Murphy, in WWII and under fire with his camera crew—his sequences in Battle of San Pietro have a similar starkness, and cold immediacy, and his respect for Crane’s story makes for a very personal film. It would be an apt double bill with Jean-Luc Godard’s Les Carabiners.
Perhaps Huston’s softest romantic take would be The African Queen, which he co-scripted with the equally hard-drinking James Agee. It’s known he wanted a darker ending – the German boat torpedoed only after Hepburn and Bogart had been executed as spies. Producer Sam Spiegel was probably right about the ending though, as the film has gone on to be one of America’s classic romantic comedies, with conventional antagonisms between gender, class and world-view; plus it featured Katherine Hepburn, a natural screwball heroine. Shot on various locations in Africa and later wrapped on-stage in England, the woes of the production have been widely documented—the boat was a big problem, the weather, and Huston’s insistence on combining business with pleasure, i.e. big game hunting. Eastwood’s White Hunter, Black Heart, based on a script by Huston confidante Anthony Veilier, is probably as close to the drama -and for Huston, one suspects the drama in real life was keenly important – and the truth as any other account. The fact is that Hepburn herself went hunting at least once with the director and that Huston had accidentally endangered his hunting companions, hoping for the big score. Bogart was anxious to get out of the jungle and back to civilization and the studio, where he could film the leech sequence with fakes in a tank. Huston continued however to tease Bogart that the scene needed real leeches to succeed, to the point that Bogart threatened to walk off set.
Who would you hire to write a script based on Moby Dick? Perhaps one of the best young sci-fi writers around, say Ray Bradbury? So he had Bradbury (who refused to fly) take a boat to London where he would hammer out a half-dozen screenplays. Huston had his hands full dealing with logistics – i.e., Huston insisted on filming on an actual sailing ship which necessitated a double decking, one for camera and the upper for actors, and his running battle with Technicolor for a cooler (no reds or yellows) palette. The casting of Ahab initially had some resistance, but now it’s hard to imagine anyone but Gregory Peck in the role – and he has several commanding moments, as when he nails the gold doubloon to the mast, or as he goes twirling off to oblivion ensnared by his own harpoon to the whale’s hide. Orson Welles has a powerful cameo as Father Mapple preaching from the pulpit-bow, and one of Huston’s old cronies, Count Friedrich Ledebur plays Quuequog quite convincingly. Richard Basehart however, as narrator Ishmael, is clearly too old to play the part, and seems as out of place as he did in Fellini’s La Strada; born in 1914, he was forty-two years old and actually two years older than Gregory Peck. The cinematographer was Oswald Morris of the BSC, and it was his dedication, along with the director’s that produced a look as icy and as dispassionate as Melville’s voice. The film came in finally at $4.5 million, fifty percent over budget, but the reviews were stellar – Newsweek called it “one of the greatest pictures of the decade, if not the century”. These accolades were nothing new; Huston had been garnering great reviews for the past decade and more.
Unfortunately, his next four pictures, in the last half of the 1950s, would represent a downturn in his career, capped by a particularly disastrous picture with John Wayne, The Barbarian and the Geisha. Huston frequently clashed with The Duke, who had his own ideas about script and camera, and was being paid nearly $750,000 to star. Huston, with his usual ambiguous direction, and constant rewriting, drove Wayne nuts. Originally scripted as The Townsend Harrison Story, the title was changed by Fox before release, and disowned by Huston.
In the late fifties, Huston read an Arthur Miller story about washed up contemporary cowboys who made extra cash by mustanging wild horses for the dog food factory. At the time, Miller, along with Tennessee Williams (with whom Huston would work on Night of the Iguana in a few years), were America’s most important playwrights, and the collaborative possibilities intrigued Huston. (Note: he’d also recently met with the esteemed existential writer/philosopher Jean-Paul Satre about a script on Sigmund Freud, and now he could be working with Miller.) So Miller went to Ireland and came up with the initial script for The Misfits, after Huston clarified his characters as misfits, anti-heroic types who refused to sell-out. Miller’s script would arguably give his wife, Marilyn Monroe, and Clark Gable, their finest roles. It would also be their final roles. The shoot was rife with tension from the onset since Miller was losing Monroe, and Monroe was ever dependent on her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, wife of method guru Lee Strasberg. Strasberg, dressed in long black robes and pointed hats, stood off-camera during every shot Monroe was in, infuriating Huston. He complained that Monroe was taking all her cues from Strasberg, while Gable was forced to wait hours in the hot desert sun for Monroe to finally emerge from her dressing trailer. Expectations were high based on the assembled cast, and everything Monroe did was news—the entire production was under scrutiny by one publication or another—so Huston hit the gambling casinos by night. Yet what came out of it was a fine, fine picture. For Huston, he’d stumbled back into his old magic, no matter how tough the production nor the acrimony on and off set, there’s always the possibility that what you were doing was worthwhile. Like every Huston film, the actors sparkled, veterans all, with Thelma Ritter’s performance as memorable as the leads, and Monroe’s hair shone bright platinum against the desert night in Russell Metty’s photography. Huston had shot the film chronologically nurturing the off-set tensions and pulling a performance from Clark Gable many were surprised to see. Going against the studio’s wish for a color picture to flatter the stars they’d lined up, Huston insisted on B & W, the color, he said, of “waste” (at $4 million, it was the most expensive B & W film ever, mostly due to star salaries. The B & W also reinforces the film’s connection to Stroheim’s Greed, the desert setting certainly but more to the point that characters at the edge/end of the frontier in both tales are desperate!). Westerns then were big-budget color epics, and Huston and Miller knew what they had was a smaller, character-driven story, a post-Western look at say, Ford’s Ethan Edwards, from The Searchers, finally ready to settle down, if he could have only met Monroe’s character about eighty years earlier. There’s a leanness, and a meanness and an aura of defeated sadness in The Misfits, a feeling that anticipates Ritt’s Hud with Paul Newman (also in B & W). Both chronicle the demise of the Western male in terms of domesticity, both display a bitterness and a resignation at the prospect of “Western life” in the future, both end with “new beginnings”. Gable was proud of doing most of the stunts himself – when asked how fast to drag Gable behind the stunt truck resembling a runaway mustang, Huston supposedly responded, “why 30-35 mph”, as fast as a horse gallops. No one knew more about horses than Huston, who’d broken his leg just months earlier in a fall during a hunt in Ireland. Clark Gable would die just weeks later of a heart attack, exacerbated by his drinking and smoking, and some said, the rigors of the The Misfits shoot. Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe divorced shortly after; Marilyn, who’d gotten her first role in Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle in 1950, died in 1960 before playing in another picture, but she’d saved her best for last.
A short while later, Huston would hook up with a Tennessee Williams story, Night of the Iguana, about an ex-New England minister turned tour guide in Mexico. Huston had been spending time there since his youth and knew and loved the country. The film would be a wild bus ride with Huston as the driver and Richard Burton as the defrocked master of ceremonies. Elizabeth Taylor would be there too as wife (supposedly to keep the hard drinking Burton in line, while shooting he stuck to beer), along with actresses Deborah Kerr, Ava Gardner and Sue Lyons of recent Lolita fame. Gardner had a great time as the hotel owner and for the naughty midnight swim managed to get over the hump with a few suggestions from the director, but Burton was the whole show, and his exuberant performance probably tickled the hell out of Huston. It’s not just the irreverence (Huston was a professed atheist), but the fact that Huston was an actor in real life himself, not just on screen where he was quite successful (an Oscar nomination for Preminger’s The Cardinal) but seemingly in the dramas of his life and career, where the sticky situations of Burton’s character had a precedence. Plus the reputations for living large, that he shared with the actor. Though Burton was Welsh, Huston saw himself as a kindred spirit having lived a great deal in Ireland. Still, the film has a feeling of spontaneity that was lacking in most Hollywood productions—because the wild bus ride was an actual, crazy wild bus ride, you are in Mexico not in a Hollywood back lot–it seems a film that somehow anticipates when everything studio began to break apart. The film would seem a companion to Under the Volcano, made two decades later; Albert Finney was also allowed to chew up the set and his fellow actors, as Malcolm Lowry’s alcoholic Consul. Yet Night of the Iguana (also shot in B & W) has an uncharacteristic, un-Hustonian balmy fecundity; maybe the warmth I feel for this picture has to do with the fact that my father considered Richard Burton the greatest actor of his generation, and that’s good enough for me.
During the rest of the sixties Huston’s choice of work went in boundless directions, from The Bible (he played Noah) to Casino Royale, Sinful Davey,and the gimmicky The List of Adrien Messenger. In 1967 Reflections in a Golden Eye was released – its production had paired Huston with Southern writer Carson McCullers, who visited the director at his Irish estate. An eerie Gothic piece almost now forgotten – the film has the look of murky pond water and feels like its played underwater – a typical brooding role by Marlon Brando as an Army base commander with a fixation on another GI (his homophobic voyeurism echoes Psycho or Peeping Tom), Elizabeth Taylor plays the wife and, oh yeah, there’s a horse involved. The accents are not right, and there’s a heck of a lot wrong with it, but as a curio Reflections retains a kind of morbid fascination with its own tragic telling. And it’s probably more McCullers than Huston. Later, in 1979 Huston would film fellow Southerner Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, one of the most offbeat films of the entire offbeat decade.
The success of Fat City and The Man Who Would Be King, one critical, one commercial, got Huston off to a rousing start in the seventies. Stacy Keach stars as a washed-up boxer who takes a kid (Jeff Bridges) under his wing in the washed-out looking Fat City (’72). The low-budget film has an atmosphere akin to a Bukowski saloon, with characters who are too worn down to get up and leave. There’s a brilliant scene at the end with Keach and friends drinking in a bar, and for a second, or maybe two, everything just STOPS – a crystalline moment for Keach’s character when he sees the depravity and broken promises of his life frozen on the end of his fork. A moment not unlike beat writer Kerouac’s analogy of a “naked lunch”, which was appropriated by William Burroughs for his book. It wasn’t a freeze frame, for the smoke was drifting. Huston claimed the idea just came to him, that the Devil inside him made him do it. Improvised or not, it worked beautifully. This picture, photographed by veteran Conrad Hall, put himself and his director on the carpet- Columbia was worried about the look of it, but released it as Huston and Hall intended. The finished film premiered at MOMA in NY and critics approved, taking note of Keach’s and newcomer Bridge’s performances. Fat City is one of the really great films of the seventies, a decade which would find Hollywood and Huston revitalized.
Huston’s love of Rudyard Kipling was what kept The Man Who Would Be King (’75) project alive, that and the enthusiasm of actors Michael Caine and Sean Connery. Caine had nothing but respect for Huston and was thrilled to be working with him—his admiration went back to his teenage years when he had watched Treasure of the Sierra Madre at his neighborhood theater six days in a row. Huston found a couple of drinking buddies and Connery the role of a lifetime as the King’s sergeant, deluded and ultimately done in, by his self-promoted throne. Caine serves as narrator and royal sidekick, and a framing device attempting to tie the work to Kipling (played by Christopher Plummer) seems arbitrary and clumsy, but the thrust of the film is typical Hustonian tragedy on a grand scale. The film was shot in Morrocco (for India) and was one of the more rugged terrains Huston had ever shot in. It would be one of the last of Huston’s large-scale, commercial successes, released by Columbia, featuring two mainstream stars.
In 1978 he would commit to a small-scale vehicle produced by Michael Fitzgerald, featuring the up and coming Brad Dourif (then a recent Oscar nominee for his performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) in the lead role. It was to be based on Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, shot on a shoestring of one million dollars, and would not only be one of the strangest films Huston ever made, but one of the real curios of American cinema.
The film was to be shot in Macon, Georgia, with a supporting cast of Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Ned Beatty and Daniel Shor. The script had been finished for some years as producer Michael Fitzgerald tried to line up the financing. Story goes that Huston told him he’d direct it for $100,000 if he ever got it lined up. So in the fall of ’78 atheist Huston found himself directing a film about religion again, this time featuring a Christ-like Hazel Motes who returns from the service to confront his fundamental Baptist past (Huston even played the bit of the grandfather preacher). As Motes tries to out-martyr every other “pretender”, he ends up self-blinded, with his chest self-encased in barb-wire. There was some rewriting evidently on the ending, and when Huston saw the final pages he remarked, somewhat surprised, that, “Jesus had won.” The plot itself (which features a fake gorilla and a stolen-mummified baby Jesus) is but one of the curious aspects of Wise Blood - the flat, drab set pieces which seems as timeless and unmemorable as the buildings in a Hopper painting, the tone of the film which veers from black comedy to outright farce and slapstick. Even the score is a little goofy. But underneath is the performance of Dourif, whose stricken look of hurt and outrage powered the film. Huston got another bravura performance from his lead actor even if he did not quite understand O’Connor’s novella. The finished film puzzled some critics, delighted others. Gavin Miller in the British Sight and Sound, declared Motes “the ultimate Huston protagonist. He manages to do what Ahab was trying to do in Moby Dick – beat the devil. But for the first time the Huston misfit drive himself, comically or tragi-comically, not toward survival, but to extinction”. I first saw this film in Paris in ‘79 where the line for Wise Blood was dwarfed by the line down the street for Apocalypse Now. Judging from their reactions the French audience loved it, and so did I. Still do, it’s way up high on my inner cult list. Even watching it now though, my laughs are uncomfortable, as if wondering if it’s OK to laugh. (footnote: Grobel mentions in his book, The Hustons, that actor Dourif had countered to screenwriter/ producer Fitzgerald that maybe Motes should’ve laughed at Stanton’s Asa Hawks character, instead of taking him seriously, that his performance would be less “flat”, and the film more “poetic”, to which Fitzgerald replied that that was what one got from author O’Connor, “there was nothing poetic about Flannery. It is as black and brutal as you can get”. Which explains the protracted deadpan that is the inner joke.
Into the eighties Huston was as busy as ever—and would direct three important films—Under the Volcano (’84), Prizzi’s Honor (’85) and The Dead (’87). But first in ’82, there was Annie. Featuring child-star Aileen Quinn in the title role, it boasted a solid supporting cast with Albert Finney in a surprisingly good fit as Daddy Warbucks and tasty roles for Carol Burnett and Tim Curry. What attracted Huston to a musical? Remember even action director Howard Hawks had turned to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes late in his career, and for Huston it was perhaps a kind of challenge as his health was declining and emphysema had him attached to oxygen tanks. For a man who loved adventure and high risk, maybe Annie was all the risk he could afford to take. Perhaps he saw something very American in the funny page story of the the red-haired orphan girl who was a pop icon of the 20s and 30s, as well known as Mutt and Jeff and the Katzenjammers. And certainly there was the money. Huston’s mercenary choices of film vehicles through out his career certainly links him to the characters in his fictions. But at the same time, the movie worked, was a hit and still enjoys annual sales.
Huston would team up with Albert Finney again in 1984 in Under the Volcano, with a script by Guy Gallo from the Malcolm Lowery novel. The collaboration quite likely enabled Finney to his best acting performance as that of the alcoholic Consul, who pontificates and reels into his death in 1930s Mexico. Once again Huston found an actor who he could let go on the set, and Finney was doing his best Burton, and again in a Mexican setting. Jacqueline Bisset flitted through the film as the Consul’s wife, and Andrew Stephens played the younger brother Hugh, but their performances are mere background for Finney’s revels. Gallo’s script from the densely subjective Lowery novel is nothing short of art itself, and Huston knowing a good script when he had one made the most of it. Still the ending is drearily final. Where was the one glimmer of hope, of ironic optimism, so much a part of earlier Huston films?
Darkness, albeit comic, abounds in Prizzi’s Honor , his next film starring Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner as two smitten-mobsters hired to off one another. It had an excellent role for Angelica Huston too, who would get the career boost she needed from her director father and win an Oscar. Nicholson would go against character as the slightly-dim, Charley, his jowls and waistline thick with Jerseyese; and Turner, who’d only acted in a handful of films at the time, would solidify her comedic talents under the director’s tutelage. Nicholson, who’d had a long relationship with Angelica and was practically Huston’s son-in-law, was awed by the ease with which the director put the actors through their paces. Prizzi’s Honor was well-received: Huston won the NY Film Critic’s award for Best Director, and the film received eight Academy nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor. But it won only one—the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress went to Angelica Huston, and the father-daughter tandem everyone hoped for failed to happen. Nevertheless, it’s one of the director’s best efforts, and perhaps only Huston could fully exploit the sly, dark humor in Richard Condon’s and Janet Roach’s script (from Condon’s novel).
By this time Huston was living alone in Las Caletas, Mexico, in a hacienda accessible only by boat. He spent his time writing a memoir, painting, mulling new projects. His health had worsened and he was no longer able to indulge his beloved cigars. Yet he pushed on—with an adaptation of James Joyce’s The Dead, from a script by his son Tony, with a choice role for daughter Angelica, and a heavily Irish cast. Everything was coming full circle—Ireland, and the dark Catholic musings of Joyce on love and marriage. From the Dubliners collection, the fairly plotless story is set on Christmas day and climaxes with a confrontation between husband and wife; it was perhaps this commentary on fidelity that attracted Huston, or more a chance to be reunited with his children. His spirits were high, but during production work was halted at times by Huston’s emphysema, and his receding energies. Finally, it was decided that Tony would finish the shoot. Upon its release, The Dead brought in excellent reviews, making many critic’s Top 10 lists for the year. The old guy was going out on a roll!
John Huston died on August 28, 1987 in Los Angeles at the age of eighty-one.
His directorial career spanned forty-six years; forty-six years of the rockiest in American studio history. Yet, despite occasional lulls, he managed to produce quality titles throughout that span, finishing strong with some of his best work in his sixties and seventies. The filmmakers Huston was known to admire were D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa; directors admired for the depth of their characters and breadth of their story-telling talents—to his private pantheon let us add one more.
– Mike Jones
(footnote: There was a film released in 1972, Never Give an Inch, directed by and starring Paul Newman, Henry Fonda, Lee Remick, Michael Sarrazin, and it feels like a John Huston film. It was based on Ken Kesey’s sprawling novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, the story of a renegade logging family headed by stubborn patriarch Fonda. It stands as Kesey’s contribution to the idea of the Great American Novel, featuring fiercely self-reliant generations, against the backdrop of progress and wilderness. The movie ends with Fonda’s death but with his amputated arm nailed to the logging boat, his dead hand formed into the finger, with son Newman grinning underneath those squinting eyes. The impish, rascally end of the film, as well as the characterizations, making me wonder if Huston had ever seen the script by way of Newman, maybe even discussed it. Paul Newman had starred that same year you see in Huston’s parodic Western, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, when director and actor got along famously, mutually enjoying the antics of Huston’s pet-dancing bear!) .