John Huston: the Unappreciated Director

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At the present time when there are would-be mavericks (not necessarily confined to Hollywood!), there is a director—underestimated to this day, as this article argues—who was a bona fide maverick to his core. As a boozer, a womanizer, a gambler, a brawler, John Huston more than qualifies. In more respectable areas, including the arts, he was a painter, a bullfighter, a poet, a prizefighter. An Ernest Hemingway type. Like Hemingway, whom he knew, he was a macho man and a writer, perhaps a near-genius at both.

Huston won a number of amateur boxing titles in his early years, and joined the Mexican cavalry while in his twenties. During WWII he served in the U. S. Army Signal Corps as a photographer, seeing action in the Aleutians, San Pietro and other areas, and making three harrowing documentaries about war, its horror and aftermath. Of his five marriages, one ended with death (Ricki Soma), the rest in divorce. His best-known wife was Evelyn Keyes—Suellen O’Hara in Gone with the Wind—who died in 2008.

In the early ’30s, Huston made the rounds of the studios, even Gaumont-British in London, as a dialogue polisher and script writer, until he earned his first screenplay credit—shared with Clements Ripley and Abem Finkel—at Warner Bros. for Bette Davis’ Jezebel in 1938. Later, then an established director, he had a nocturnal fist fight with Errol Flynn in the garden of David O. Selznick’s home. Flynn went to the hospital that night, Huston to a different one the next day.

He even acted in nine of his own films, sometimes without credit. In other directors’ films, he received two supporting actor nominations—in Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal (1963) and in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974).

Huston, who died in 1987 shortly before his 81st birthday, was part of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the great directors of the time—William Wyler, Michael Curtiz, John Ford, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and George Cukor. And John Huston was a great director, as a sampling of his best films proves: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon, The Night of the Iguana, Key Largo, Prizzi’s Honor and The African Queen. Among his few bombs, only two come readily to mind, The Kremlin Letter and A Walk with Love and Death.

A study of his film catalogue reveals an amazing variety: high adventures, detective and mystery, literary classics, stage dramas, espionage thrillers, social and environmental protests, psychological biographies, comedies and, yes, one musical. Possibly this diversity contributes to many critics’ complaint that Huston has no deliberate style. As Roger Ebert and others have said, Watch a minute of a Hitchcock film and you know it’s Hitchcock. Not so a Huston movie.

A surprisingly large portion of his efforts are adaptations of plays, novels and short stories. A macho man he might have been, but, like John Ford, he was an avid reader and listed among his friends many of the great writers of his day.

As a painter, he is often concerned about the hue and tint of screen colors. Three examples must suffice: In Moulin Rouge (1953), he uses colored filters and smoke-filled sets to simulate the richness of Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters. Quite an opposite process, that of desaturated colors, is the objective in Moby Dick (1956), to give, as Huston said, “ . . . the strength found in steel engravings of sailing ships.” And, with the help of famous cinematographer Jack Cardiff, the rich, green jungle is captured in The African Queen (1952).

In striving to perfect his art and express himself, Huston had more than his share of bad luck. The Red Badge of Courage (1951) was denied its potential as a masterpiece when M-G-M inflicted drastic cuts, reshot scenes and added a cumbersome narration. The African Queen was a miserable shoot in Africa—just read Katharine Hepburn’s book about making the movie! In Moby Dick, star Gregory Peck almost drowned when the fake whale to which he was strapped remained stuck underwater. John Wayne tampered with The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) after Huston had finished it, the director contemplating a law suit. The Roots of Heaven (1958) was plagued by restricted shooting due to the African heat and illnesses and, even, in the case of a crew member who refused his malaria pills, death. And perhaps to prove he could direct a musical, Huston, in his third-to-last film, made something of a misstep with Annie (1982), proving, instead, that the genre was not one of his fortes.

Stars with a variety of uncooperative dispositions seemed a part of the territory. Montgomery Clift—twice, in and The Misfits (1961) and Freud (1962), filmed back to back—proved mentally unstable and dependent on an acting coach. Although she had too small a part in The Asphalt Jungle (1950) to cause trouble, Marilyn Monroe was a disaster by the time of The Misfits eleven years later, arriving late on the set and causing a two-week delay due to pill-popping.

Further, in The Night of the Iguana (1964), as Huston wrote in his excellent biography, An Open Book, “The tangled web of relationships among the . . . principals set something of a record.” There were Richard Burton, Deborah Kerr, Ava Gardner and Sue Lyons; Elizabeth Taylor, though still married to Eddie Fisher, accompanied Burton. Believing things would break loose sooner or later, Huston gave each individual a gold-plated derringer, with four gold bullets engraved with the names of the other four. Fortunately, as John Huston wrote, “There were no fireworks. All the members of the cast—especially our stars—got along famously.”

From the opposite perspective, the making of many of  John Huston’s films were sources of much pleasure and great camaraderie, perhaps, in part, because of the relaxed atmosphere on the sets and the director’s openness to suggestions. The Man Who Would Be King, Casino Royale, The List of Adrian Messenger and Key Largo are among the “happy” films. Mostly lightweight, these movies provided the director an almost necessary respite after a complicated or problematic predecessor. Making The African Queen, despite the initial disdain Katharine Hepburn had for drinkers Huston and Humphrey Bogart, and the tricks they played on her, established life-long friendships, first between Kate and Lauren Bacall. When Bogart was dying in 1956-57, Kate and Spencer Tracy were almost nightly visitors.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) was Huston’s directorial début. And what a début! With the knowledge that they were doing something brilliant and epoch-making (perhaps the masterpiece detective flick), the director and his close-knit cast often filmed in secret, rehearsed tirelessly and would meet afterward for late-night suppers. Falcon introduced to film history Sydney Greenstreet, one of the great supporting players of that Golden Age. So successful was the “team,” that the stars—Bogart, Greenstreet and Mary Astor (sans Peter Lorre)—appeared the next year in Huston’s Across the Pacific.

One parting Huston triumph. Despite the personality tension on the set, The Night of the Iguana is one of his best films, one of Burton’s two best performances—the other being Becket that same year—and one of the best of the many screen adaptations of Tennessee Williams. Although considerably reworked, principally to add humor, the overall spirit of the play remains. Williams, who unexpectedly appeared on the set, wrote a new scene for Burton and Lyons, where Burton, agitated by Lyons’ nymphomaniac attentions, walks in his bare feet on broken glass.

John Huston has been unappreciated, often omitted unconscionably from the pantheon of great directors. This could be because his films were seldom main stream and because he usually made films he wanted to make, regardless of potential profits. Or, perhaps, because of that lack of an esthetically distinctive style. Maybe the style was in the variety and contrasts seen on screen. Whatever, he left the world no less than five undeniable masterpieces, was himself nominated fifteen times for direction, screen writing and acting and guided fifteen of his stars to Oscar nominations, with four wins.

And his greatest film? For the argument here, it goes, hands down, to The Maltese Falcon, the film with which he began his career.