John Huston: Teller of Tall Tales
After forty years as a director, during which a bare half-dozen of his films have been acclaimed as masterpieces, Huston is today reckoned as little more than a story-teller. But posterity may well agree with James Agee that he was 'the most inventive director of his generation'
One of John Huston's most engaging characer creations is Huston himself: the tall, craggily handsome, elegantly loping, irresistibly charming man with an insatiable zest for life - for horses, women, booze, gambling, adventure, work, reading, art, the Irish, and for almost everything else in the world.
It must be confessed that Huston's incorrigble love for a character and his seductive gift as a story-teller may have slightly obscured the record of his early life; and pleasant tales like that of the grandfather who won and lost townships at poker seem to have only flimsy foundations.
The clear facts are that Huston was on August 5, 1906, in Nevada, Missouri, and christened John Marcellus. His father Walter Huston (1884-1950) moved from engineering to vaudeville and by the Twenties became a distinguished stage actor. With the coming of sound, the elder Huston drifted, inevitably, to Hollywood. John's parents separated when he was still a child and he divided his boyhood between his father's theatrical lodgings and the hardly less erratic life of his mother, a newspaper-woman with a passion for travel and horses which she passed on to her son. As a child he was delicate; he once told the critic James Agee that he had cured himself - and at the same time acquired his life-long delight in adventure - by breaking out of a sanatorium nightly to plunge into an icy stream and shoot a waterfall.
In his teens he was a boxing champion. At 20 he made the first of several marriages. On account of his horsemanship he briefly held a commission in the Mexican army. He wrote a book which retold the story of Frankie and Johnny and is said to be a mature and accomplished work; this led to the publication of several of Huston's short stories in major magazines. Still restless, he lived as a café sketch artist in Paris, moved in the fringes of the Bohemian set in London, acted a bit, edited a New York magazine and finally arrived in Hollywood, where he married for the second time, in 1931.
Thanks to the influence of his father, who had so risen in the ranks of Hollywood actors as to have played the title role in DW Griffith's Abraham Lincoln (1930), Huston was take on as a writer at Warners. His first assignment was to work on the script of A House Divided (1932) directed by William Wyler, who was only four years his senior but whom he came to regard as his master. The list of scripts on which Huston worked at Warnes was impressive: Robert Florey's Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), Wyler's Jezebel and Anatole Litvak's The Amazing Dr Clitterhouse (both 1938), William Dieterle's Juarez (1939) and Dr Ehrlich's Magic Bullet (1940), Raoul Walsh's High Sierra and Howard Hawks' Sergeant York (both 1941). Henry Blanke, who produced several Huston films, remembered him on his arrival in Hollywood as 'just a drunken boy; hopelessly immature. You'd see him at every party... with a monkey on his shoulder. Charming. Very talented, but without an ounce of discipline in his make-up.'
By 1941, however, Huston had clearly convinced Warners that he was mature enough to be trusted with direction. Jack Warner told him that if he could make a screenplay out of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon - already filmed twice before - he would let him direct it. Huston's version of the story is that as a first step he and the writer Allen Rivkin began simply breaking the novel into separate scenes and dialogue, but eventually left the task to Huston's secretary. This mechanical breakdown fell into the hands of Jack Warner, who pronounced it 'great' and told Huston to go ahead. Huston undoubtedly likes to give the impression that his work has been the result of this kind of 'accident' and chance and gag; but it seems a tallish story - particularly since on other occasions, more recently in Wise Blood (1979), Huston has avoided reworking to an unrecognizable degree the work of famous authors, but has chosen novels from which he can cleanly extract his scripts.
More convincing is Huston's account of his producer Henry Blanke: 'Shoot each scene as if it is the most important one in the picture. Make every shot count. Nothing can be overlooked, no detail overlooked.' The advice was evidently followed; the casting was perfect and Huston's first feature film remains, after 40 years, a classic.
Huston's succeeding films did not sustain the first promise. In This Our Life (1942) was a Bette Davis vehicle hurried out in the wake of the success of Jezebel and The Little Foxes (1941). Across the Pacific (1942) was a spy comedy-thriller reassembling most of the team from The Maltese Falcon to no great effect. Huston was then called to war service and made three short films for the army - Report From the Aleutians (1943), San Pietro (1945) and Let There Be Light (1946). The last, which dealt with mentally affected war veterans, was never shown; but it did provide Huston with valuable material and inspiration when he came to make Freud (1962) 16 years later.
He returned to Warners to make another classic in 1948. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, based on a novel by the mysterious writer B Traven, had a theme which recalled The Maltese Falcon story and recurred throughout Huston's later work - a group of people in passionate, even murderous, quest for some object which will in the end prove only an illusion. Humphrey Bogart was teamed with Walter Huston in his most memorable performance. Huston's last assignment for Warners was Key Largo (1948), which had a fine cast (Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Edward G Robinson and Lionel Barrymore) but remained an essentially stagebound adaptation of a pre-war play by Maxwell Anderson.
Huston's next film, We Were Strangers (1949), was less than successful, although a good deal of vitality remains in its story of Cuban revolutionaries tunneling, for slightly obscure reasons, through a graveyeard. At MGM Huston enjoyed some success and won Oscar nominations for The Asphalt Jungle (1950), a taut story of urban crime filmed in the hard realistic style of the period. MGM, despite Louis B Mayer's reservations, next permitted Huston to direct a favourite novel - Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1951). Lilian Russ's book Picture, a day-by-day account of the making of the film, tells how it fell victim to studio politics in the days of MGM's decline, eventually emerging in a heavily cut 69-minute version. Still, much of the quality survives in the portrait of a boy's reactons to war and in the performance of Audie Murphy, a World War II veteran who was launched by the film into short-lived stardom.
The African Queen (1951), scripted by Agee from CS Forester's novel - with Bogart as the boozy riverboat captain and Katharine Hepburn as the starchy missionary who becomes his unlikely ally against the Germany army in Africa - was to be one of Huston's most successful films. It was also the first of several times that cast and crew suffered from his delight in adventure. He insisted on filming in the Congo, despite the heat, insects and disease which afflicted the unit - though not, apparently, the director. Errol Flynn, Trevor Howard and the unit of The Roots of Heaven (1958) were later to suffer even more in Chad.
Established as a major Hollywood director, from this point Huston seemed to lose clear direction and cohesion. Despite his feelings for art, the next film Moulin Rouge (1952) - with José Ferrer stumbling about on his knees in impersonation of the stunted Toulouse Lautrec - was a conventional Hollywood biopic. Beat the Devil (1953) - evidently seeking to retrieve the lost times of The Maltese Falcon, with Bogart, Peter Lorre and Robert Morley as a latter day Sydney Greenstreet - had the sort of slackness that has sometimes seemed symptomatic of Huston's tendency to see a film as a personal party. Moby Dick (1956), despite Huston's subsequent loyal defence of Gregory Peck's wooden performance, was a pale shadow of Herman Melville's novel. The bold experiments with colour, made in collaboration with the English cameraman Ossie Morris, were to be developed later in Reflections in a Golden Eye.
Huston's next major achievement was The Misfits (1961), which emerged from a stormy and much publicized production period as a sad, elegaic drama of doomed people - a divorcee and three men hunting mustang in Nevada. Perhaps only Huston could have survived the constant attention of the press and nursed his ailing cast through Arthur Miller's script. There was Marilyn Monroe, suffering from acute personality disorders and drug dependence; Montgomery Clift in a comparable condition; and Clark Gable who was to die from a heart attack almost immediately after shooting was completed.
Huston also directed Clift in the actor's last major film role, Freud (1962), which failed to gain critical or commercial success. The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) was a gimmicky thriller; but Huston's adaptation of Tennesse Williams' The Night of the Iguana (1964) had at least a picturesque cast (Richard Burton, Ava Gardner and Deborah Kerr) and a good deal of vitality. Thereafter Huston lent himself to two costly commercial follies; Dino De Laurentiis' production of The Bible - In the Beginning (1966) and the James Bond film Casino Royale (1967), on which he was one of five directors.
Just when it seemed he was no longer an artist to be taken seriously, however, Huston returned to the peak of form with the haunting Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), in which he won memorable and complementary performances from Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando, Brian Keith and Julie Harris. Of the two failures that followed, A Walk With Love and Death (1969) had at least ambition to commend it - which Sinful Davey (1969), a prankish period comedy, did not. The Kremlin Letter (1970) was a comedy-thriller in the style of the period.
Then in 1972 came the second of the intermittent masterpieces which had marked the latest period of Huston's career. The virile, elegiac Fat City (with marvellous performances by Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges and Susan Tyrell) is a very personal reminiscence of Huston's youthful period in the world of professional boxing. Huston remained curiously erratic, following up the film with the too easy-going The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) - for once a writer, in this case John Milius, complained that Huston had betrayed his script - and an indifferent thriller, The Mackintosh Man (1973).
Huston nevertheless responded to a chance to film a long-cherished project - The Man Who Would Be King (1975). Rudyard Kipling had been his favourite boyhood reading; he had planned to film the book several times before - intending it, in turn, for Walter Huston, for Gable and Bogart, for Sinatra, for Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole. The parts of the two English soldiers in India who briefly become rulers of a lost kingdom were finally played (after Paul Newman had turned down one of the roles) by Sean Connery and Michael Caine.
At the age of 74 Huston was to emerge as the director of a new and majestic work - Wise Blood (1979) - adapted from Flannery O'Connor's novel about the Southern 'Bible Belt' and with a script that follows its original almost as loyally as the secenario for The Maltese Falcon, made four decades before.
Huston, who began his career as a writer, has retained a deep respect for the script. His best films have been taken from writers of the first rank and adapted with sincere appreciation and understanding of the originals. After Huston had filmed A Walk With Love and Death, its author Hans Koningsberger commented: 'Real books are seldom seen circulating in the movie world; its dealings are with the story outlines ... Huston wanted to film a novel; not the movements of the people in a story, but the idea of the book.' Koningsberger found, indeed, that Huston's critical analysis put the book and its author to strenuous tests.
Journalists around a Huston set are always annoyed because there is really nothing of Huston's direction to see. The director tends to stand on the edge of the crowd and apparently leave things to the first assistant and the cameraman. 'I see my role', he said at the time of The Mackintosh Man, 'as that of the innocent bystander.' The fact is that his creative contribution to the performances starts early. 'The trick', he told Karel Reisz who interviewed him on the set of The African Queen and remarked how he simply left Hepburn and Bogart to get on with their performances on their own, 'is in the casting'. Whether dealing with a major star like Hepburn or comparatively unknown faces like Audie Murphy in The Red Badge of Courage or Brad Dourif in Wise Blood, with major roles or one-line supports, the very confrontation of the actor's personality and the part is a creative action. Marilyn Monroe, who played a small role at the start of her career in The Asphalt Jungle and made her last screen appearance in The Misfits, said with characteristic perception: 'John watches for the reality of a scene, then leaves it alone.'
Part of this skill is no doubt due to his massive, affectionate curiosity about people and his delight in eccentrics - whether in real life or in fiction. And this quality is one aspect of his dominating gift as a story-teller. Like Hitchcock, his own curiosity infects the spectator, forcing him into a hunger to know more about each character, a compulsion to know what happens next - the true purpose of suspense.
When Agee wrote a Life profile of Huston - 'Undirectable Director' - in 1950, he had few reserves: 'The most inventive directory of his generation, Huston has done more to extend, invigorate and purify the essential idiom of American movies, the truly visual telling of tales, than anyone since the prime of DW Griffith.'
'To put it conservatively,' he wrote elsewhere in the article, 'there is nobody under 50 at work in movies, here or abroad, who can excel Huston in talent, inventiveness, intransigence, achievement or promise.'
Agee was perhaps too close to his subject: he was shortly to start work with Huston on the script of The African Queen (1951); still, most critics of that period would have endorsed, more or less, his view. Thirty years and twenty-four films later, critical opinion has shifted. For the critic Robin Wood, Huston is only a story-teller; no artist because 'an artist must impress himself as a particularized individual voice, whether through style or through recurrent or developing themes; usually both'. So Huston falls short.
Agee saw certain dangers for Huston, it is true. He called him 'one of the ranking grasshoppers of the western hemisphere', who had 'beaten the ants at their own game'. He saw the dangers of a dilettante approach, saw qualities in his work that were 'free and improvisatory' and yet which could lead to a 'startling irresponsibility in so good an artist'. In the long view of history it seems likely that Huston's best work will be valued nearer to Agee's qualified acclaim than to the severer contemporary view.