John Huston: Withholding Judgment

[Parts of the article previously appeared in Cinemonkey and as program notes for Cinema 7]

Film critics have never quite known what to make of John Huston; whether his work has been praised or disparaged, it has almost always inspired critical overkill. After a striking debut with The Maltese Falcon (1941) and a pair of studio assignments, Huston made several highly-regarded war documentaries. His fourth feature, Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), widely acclaimed as authentic film art (at a time when the phrase had little currency in discussions of American movies), inspired the most eloquent and passionate of Huston’s early defenders, James Agee, to write a now-classic Life magazine article, “Undirectable Director” (1950) summarizing Huston as follows:

The Maltese Falcon is the best private-eye melodrama ever made. San Pietro… is generally considered to be the finest of war documentaries. Treasure of Sierra Madre… is the clearest proof in perhaps twenty years that first-rate work can come out of the big commercial studios…. To put it conservatively, there is nobody under fifty at work in movies, here or abroad, who can excel Huston in talent, inventiveness, intransigence, achievement or promise.

The Maltese Falcon: "the greatest
The Maltese Falcon: "the best private-eye melodrama ever made"?

Even at the time, Agee overstated Huston’s achievement and promise, both as to his career and individual films. And by the time of Moby Dick (1956), Huston had amply shown he could be erratic as well. But neither Agee nor anyone else could have predicted the calamitous late-50s decline that produced The Barbarian and the Geisha and The Roots of Heaven (both 1958), and The Unforgiven (1960), followed shortly by The List of Adrian Messenger (1963). Such a casually cynical mélange of the half-heartedly perfunctory and outright hackwork was bound to get a critical comeuppance. Andrew Sarris obliged, firing a famous broadside in the Huston chapter of the indispensable survey: The American Cinema. After casually noting that “James Agee canonized Huston prematurely” Sarris brought out the heavy artillery:

Huston is still coasting on his reputation as a wronged individualist with an alibi for every bad movie…Huston has confused indifference with integrity for such a long time that he is no longer the competent craftsman of The Asphalt Jungle, The Maltese Falcon, and The African Queen, films that owe more to casting coups than to directorial acumen.

Sarris has subsequently reconsidered his polemical hyperbole, and doubtless regrets the peculiar suggestion that skill in casting has nothing to do with “directorial acumen.”

But Huston’s work has remained maddeningly variable, sometimes blowing hot and cold in the same film, as in Night of the Iguana (1964), The Misfits (1961), discussed below, and most starkly in Moulin Rouge (1953) – a dismal first half at war with an evocative and intermittently moving second half. Huston’s late career produced two glorious masterpieces, Fat City (1972) and The Man Who Would Be King (1975). Another late film, Wise Blood (1979) is quirkily compelling. And his final film, The Dead (1987), is an unforgettably moving showcase for his daughter, Anjelica (she won an Oscar for work in a Huston film, but for her rather affected performance in the labored and oddly incoherent Prizzis Honor (1985)). And then there’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), a one-of-a-kind look at characters with assorted pathologies of a sort Huston finds mystifying (nude horseback riding, Huston might get, sniffing candy wrappers discarded by the object of an obsession, not so much). Brando’s fearlessly brilliant and inventive portrayal of a soldier torn by repression and confusion is erratic and deeply moving; Liz Taylor is wonderfully flamboyant as his frustrated and adulterous wife, and Brian Keith gives the performance of his life, as someone with scarcely a clue what is going on around him or what motivates it. Hard to call a great film, or even a very good one, and there are moments when it just doesn’t work, but it’s an extraordinary achievement, powerfully disturbing and evocative.

After Wise Blood, Huston still incorrigibly unreliable, cranked out a second dismal three-film run: Phobia (1980), barely released or releasable, and then two grand pay-days, cringe-inducing big-budget spectacles: Victory (1981), a World War II POW break-out epic with an international cast featuring soccer star Pele and—uh—Sylvester Stallone, and the screen adaptation of the comic-strip-based stage musical Annie (1982) featuring that hoary perennial of stage and screen a loveable moppet. It all brings to mind Fritz Lang’s reported aphorism explaining An American Guerilla in the Philippines: “even a film director has to earn a living.” Virtually no one is immune to this—check out Cassavetes’ Big Trouble—but when the films are bad – or numerous – enough it is considered good form, if not de rigueur to act sheepish, maybe even apologetic. Not Huston. He showed heroic integrity in standing behind his political convictions fighting the 1950-era political witch hunts and blacklists that polarized and frightened Hollywood and ruined many careers. But integrity was negotiable where his talent was concerned, and enough digits in the salary could lure him almost anywhere if the run of bad gambling luck was long enough, or the need to maintain his Irish estate pressing enough. If Fassbinder hadn’t appropriated the title Beware the Holy Whore, Huston could have claimed rights to it—perhaps changing the adjective—for any number of films, Huston might even have used it for an autobiography if he had taken something other than the less-than-fully-forthcoming approach of his misleadingly-titled An Open Book .

Huston was consistently successful at staying famous and well paid. (Huston appreciates such two-fers: a boozing boxer in Fat City describes day labor as a harvest worker as “almost as good as road work for getting into shape, and you get paid for it.”) After narrating and acting in The Bible he peddled the authoritative sound of his majestically resonant voice far and wide, as the voice of Gandalf in an animated version of The Hobbitt and a pitchman for color televisions “getting better and better.” He hired out his shaggily craggy mug for Apple’s “Think different” ad campaign. And most conspicuously, after a well-received performance as a man of the cloth in Preminger’s The Cardinal showed him yet another road to an easy payday, he took on a series of acting roles.

John Huston as Noah Cross in "Chinatown"
John Huston as Noah Cross in "Chinatown"

This part of his career culminated in his (and director Roman Polanski’s) creation in Chinatown of Noah Cross, one of the cinema’s most remarkable and unforgettable figures: cheerfully unapologetic, incapable of self-doubt, his shambling manner shifting from comically mispronouncing a private eye’s name as “Mr. Gits,” to expressing the limitlessness of his acquisitive ambition—to control “the future, son, the future.” And then, most chillingly, he admits to an equally limitless amorality, impregnating his 15-year-old daughter; and offhandedly suggesting that only circumstance prevents most people from sharing the realization of being capable of doing “anything.” Part of what makes him so monstrous is that Huston doesn’t play him all that differently from his lecherously jolly reprobate cowboy movie parody hero Buck Loner in Myra Breckenridge. Huston also did screen turns in Candy, and as a family member in De Sade (where he did some uncredited directing—one shudders).

His directing projects, too, made great copy. Lillian Ross’s Picture, a definitive work on film-making, chronicles the misadventures of The Red Badge of Courage. Katharine Hepburn wrote about the making of The African Queen, and Ray Bradbury did likewise for Moby Dick. And occasional Huston collaborator Peter Viertel’s roman a clef White Hunter, Black Heart is a vivid portrait of a Hustonish figure working on an African Queen-ish project. The sinister portrayal evidently didn’t much bother Huston, who reportedly rather liked the novel; Clint Eastwood adapted it and cast himself as the Huston character.

So much for Huston as celebrity and all-around character; but what do we make of him as a filmmaker? Start with the obvious. Huston at his best doesn’t quite measure up to the standard Agee imagined, but The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Fat City, and the Man Who Would be King are masterly by any standard. Add in other films of power and imagination, with moments approaching or achieving brilliance, and grand ambition, keen observation and understanding and fearlessly heroic invention, including at least Moby Dick, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Red Badge of Courage (1951), Wise Blood and The Dead; give respectful nods to The Night of the Iguana, and the underappreciated trio of We Were Strangers (1949), A Walk with Love and Death (1969) and The Kremlin Letter (1970) (I’ve never much cared for The African Queen (1952)). That adds up—depending on how highly you rate Falcon—to four or five masterpieces, and a sizeable additional chunk of compelling work. Only a handful of American directors have done as much. But consider the glass as half-empty. That means full demerits for Barbarian, Sinful Davey (1969), The List of Adrian Messenger, any parts of Casino Royale (1967) Huston had anything to do with, and the aforementioned terrible trio of Phobia, Victory, and Annie. In This Our Life and Across the Pacific (both 1942), The Roots of Heaven, The Bible (1964) and even The Unforgiven may have their moments, but none of them ultimately do Huston much credit. And then there are the parts of Key Largo (1948) when Claire Trevor is doing her mawkish Oscar turn. To borrow from Sam Spade in Falcon: “All those on one side. Maybe some of them [have a few redeeming features]. I won’t argue about that. But look at the number of them.” And keep in mind that Huston only directed three dozen feature films altogether.

Huston then, even more than Ford, presents a litmus test for how to judge films and filmmakers. Admirers, responding to and appreciating the things he does so wonderfully, can count him as near-great. But a detractor can just as readily emphasize the films that don’t work, using subtraction and cancellation to score him as a second-rater.

Huston had prodigious talents that he dissipated profligately but seemed able to retrieve, undiminished, for work that interested and engaged him. The pattern reflects a shortage of integrity and a streak of creative irresponsibility shocking in someone so gifted; something recoils from such cavalier treatment of a rare talent that lesser mortals would kill for. This casual corruptibility, which Sarris made so much of, has to be counted as a major flaw in the director’s artistic temperament. And that’s not just true of his willingness to take on dubious projects; many of even his better films suffer from the inattention to detail of an artist with a notoriously—and sometimes ruinously—short attention span, like a sprinter going through the motions of slogging toward the finish line of a marathon. Most famous is the storied mutilation of The Red Badge of Courage. After prodigious efforts in planning, writing, and directing this “dream project”, Huston simply lost interest in it and went to work on The African Queen, making no effort to resist the extensive and reportedly ruinous changes the MGM front office made on Badge. As a result, Huston more or less disowned the 69 minute released version of the film he once hoped would be his two-hour masterpiece. Sounds almost like Orson Welles on Ambersons.

Huston is a director of externals, preferring to shoot his films outdoors—preferably in exotic locales—and focusing as well on the exteriors of his characters. But that doesn’t always make him superficial or obtuse. He can be a keen observer, defining the physical world so clearly that it registers as a defining factor in human action; and the behavioral nuances of his characters, too, can register with a precision and clarity that elevates them into acts of self-definition.

Sarris claims that Huston’s “characters manage to be unlucky without the world being particularly out of joint”; that’s not really accurate. Even the openings of Huston films form a striking gallery of images of a world askew. Signs are shown backwards (The Maltese Falcon), cops search for a few harmless Indians instead of a ruthless gangster (Key Largo), houses of worship are the scenes of chaotic choir practices (The African Queen) or surreally secular sermons (Night of the Iguana), the tranquil beauty of a stream in a lyrical medieval landscape is marred by a floating corpse (A Walk With Love and Death). The opening of Fat City evokes life on skid row so compellingly, first in a montage of introductory shots—including one of Huston looking suitably down and out—then with a sustained take in a grubby hotel room, that it is easy to overlook the fact the fumblings of Billy Tully (Stacey Keach) during this unforgettably atmospheric shot are directed toward securing from his environment nothing more substantial than a match so he can have a cigarette without first getting dressed and going outside. When his world denies him even this modest request, he goes outside and starts the film in motion.

Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges killing time in "Fat City"
Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges killing time in "Fat City"

Fat City continually tracks hopes and aspirations colliding with reality. As a hopeful carload of young fighters prepares to set off for a night of boxing, the car’s trunk refuses to cooperate by staying closed, bouncing up each time it is slammed down, repeatedly, until the gag stops just short of slapstick. Later, we cut from pre-fight dressing room bravado and optimism to a post-fight meal of glum, swollen faces and shaking heads of defeat: they have all lost. Later, the young up and comer Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges)—dubbed “Irish” by a promoter to let fans know he is white—buys a fancy robe and trunks to mark his growing success. As he watches himself modeling the outfit in a store mirror, he raises his hands in triumph. But when he walks into the ring in the new outfit, he falls to the canvas, knocked out by the fight’s first punch.

Huston watches without patronizing or commenting, but we can infer a wry chuckle of complicity. Like the surviving gold-miners in Treasure, and other characters in Beat the Devil, and The Kremlin Letter, Huston finds relief in laughter—rollicking perhaps, but ultimately of a resignation that acknowledges the humor, as well as the pathos and ultimate futility, in the plights of his characters. Huston has an almost limitless capacity for appreciating humanity in all its follies, eccentricities, and failings. And an important source of that appreciation is a reluctance to judge. As a corollary, he is often hardest on his most judgmental characters: at the end of The Asphalt Jungle, the police commissioner describes one of the jewel thieves as a vicious, hardened killer; the words ring false, facile and demagogic, because we have seen the character, played by Sterling Hayden, as a man of principle and sensitivity, mortally wounded and gamely struggling to return to and die among the horses he loves.

For Huston, the complex business of living makes facile judgments among human beings (identical in the basic fact of their common mortality) impossible. Even villainy, pursued with the screwball flair of Joel Cairo insisting on his need to search Sam Spade (Falcon) earns the detective’s—and the director’s—ironic respect.

Consistent with his observational approach, Huston tends to leave his actors alone, relying on his skill at matching actors with roles. This has occasionally misfired (ruinously with John Wayne in The Barbarian and the Geisha), and actors who need help often don’t get much. But Huston’s films are full of extraordinary performances, as he handles actors, and their screen personas, with the virtuosity of a master strategist, as with Humphrey Bogart’s iconic performances in The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of Sierra Madre, and The African Queen. Seasoned pros, like Walter Huston (Treasure), and Michael Caine and Sean Connery (The Man Who Would Be King), have likewise fared exceptionally well in Huston films. For that matter, virtually the entire casts of The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, Beat the Devil, The Kremlin Letter, Wise Blood, Fat City and The Dead and—intermittently—Night of the Iguana, have done glorious ensemble work, often better than what the individual actors have done elsewhere.

The Misfits nicely showcases Huston’s work with actors, starting with the extraordinarily apt casting. Screenwriter Arthur Miller tailored one part for his wife, Marilyn Monroe, and a second for his friend, Montgomery Clift. In retrospect (leading man Clark Gable died before the film’s release, Monroe did not live to complete another film, and Clift made only two more before he died), The Misfits has an unusually strong sense of mortality; the precariousness and vulnerability of human endeavor seem almost tangible. In no small part, this reflects the emotional state of Monroe, the film’s central presence. Shooting on the project was suspended when she suffered a nervous breakdown, and her very being seems to radiate not only the nervously sensuous energy and vulnerability that made her a star, but also the sense of someone living on the edge and not quite certain she isn’t about to fall off.

Arthur Miller and John Huston pose with the cast of "The Misfits"
Arthur Miller and John Huston pose with the cast and crew of "The Misfits"

Miller, Monroe’s soon-to-be-estranged husband, used his screenplay as an opportunity to embody in the character of Roslyn some of his romantic misperceptions about the Goddess/Woman he loved but could not live with. Unfortunately, the screenplay, the only one attempted by playwright and Serious Literary Person Miller, reflects, along with the author’s feelings and insights into his wife, his fundamental mistrust of, and occasional contempt for, the medium of film. Thus The Misfits is full of clunky lines that talk about Roslyn’s “gift for life,” but sound hollow and pretentious next to the cinematic fact of that gift; the words seem to assume that film viewers would be too obtuse to see the vibrant energy and urgency that Monroe gives off in every frame.

The problems of literalness and verbal redundancy recur throughout the film, but two examples are particularly striking. In one scene, fairly late in the film, Roslyn is tentatively moving toward an emotional commitment (and therefore vulnerability) to Gay Langland (Gable). At the end of the long, slightly macabre sequence, much of it in a single take, where unraveling bandages become a kind of crazy joke, Roslyn is left standing alone, leaning her back against the wall of a house while the shadows of a nearby tree play on her body in the moonlight. Finally, she looks upward and sighs “Help me.” The redundancy of the line betrays a fundamental mistrust of the expressive capacities of film. The words are unnecessary; Roslyn’s fear and vulnerability, implicit in the situation and the way the sequence is photographed, are directly communicated in the way she moves. Worse, the redundancy of the words violates the integrity of the character as fundamentally non-verbal, misusing Monroe’s talents by asking her to communicate primarily through dialogue. Something similar happens even more emphatically in another scene, much earlier in the film, where Roslyn is sitting in a bar; as she talks about her mother, her fidgeting fingers tellingly evoke unresolved feelings and the pain of an insecure childhood. But then she redundantly speaks the words, “All of a sudden I miss my mother.” The line, far from revealing anything about the character, forces the actress to repeat an emotion, and, in the struggle to avoid mere repetition, Monroe reaches for an emotional level beyond the range of the character. As a result, one of the most effective scenes in the film degenerates into fleeting self-parody. The problem comes from the evident fact that Miller conceives communication verbally, through lines of dialogue, while Monroe doesn’t “conceive” it at all; she simply does it, with gestures, expressions, and her screen presence.

Huston’s role in all this is problematic. The published screenplay tends to idealize Roslyn into a perfected abstraction. But Huston prefers his characters imperfect and specific. Monroe’s physical, non-verbal intensity, which gives her a specific identity as a complex individual rather than an abstract Life Force is consistent with the individuated performances Huston prefers. But if Huston deserves a share of the credit for Monroe’s singularly forceful performance, he must also accept some of the blame for its limitations. Trusting her genius for non-verbal communication only halfway, and declining to re-shape the screenplay more decisively reflects a failure of directorial nerve.

A comparable tension between verbal abstraction and behavioral concreteness is present in several other characters in the film. Guido (Eli Wallach) continually speaks the words of a man of passion and sensitivity, often with genuine feeling and conviction. But even as he means the words, he is also using them as strategic ploys to attract Roslyn, to entice her into what we can see would be the kind of life of flat tires and danceless evenings that destroyed his first wife. Significantly, both the sincerity and the calculation are true to the character’s perceptions and values.

Montgomery Clift
Montgomery Clift

Even more complex is the treatment of Perce (Montgomery Clift), the Victim of Maternal Betrayal. By 1961, Clift was well on the way to destroying his own career, and he plays Perce as a man whose self-destructive tendencies flow from within as much as from his surroundings. The character, living always on the edge of self-pity, speaks of the time before his father’s death when his mother was an ideal figure (“like a saint”). But she re-married shortly after her husband’s death and, compounding Perce’s feeling of betrayal, the new husband offered him “wages” to work on the ranch his father had wanted him to have. Speaking the words of the screenplay, Perce explains that his mother did nothing about this because “She don’t hear me” (emphasis on “hear” would make her failure almost a positive act). In the film, though, Clift’s delivery is so drunkenly low-key that the word “hear” gets almost no special emphasis (implying that he may not have done much to make her “hear” him). This change adds retrospective emphasis to his earlier characterization of his mother as a “saint”, an ideal figure without human impulses or limitations; her betrayal of her son begins to sound like the product of his own disillusionment, as a wound that may be self-inflicted; whether or not it is, it could be.

Gay Langland, too, despite his apparent self-sufficiency, is unable to reconcile himself to the mutability of the world around him. The central metaphor for this is the ritual of catching the wild horses. It “beats wages”—the loss of independence—and there is a certain romantic appeal to the notion of rugged individualists hunting free animals to preserve their own independence. By the end of the film, though, it is clear that catching the horses has been “changed around”: the horses are now generally pursued by airplanes and trucks instead of wranglers and instead being sold as pets for children they are slaughtered and used for dog food. Huston likewise strips the physical process of the hunt of any mythic dimensions by presenting it almost clinically: he breaks the action into a chillingly mechanical series of brief, discrete shots that drains any exhilaration from the process of capturing the horses. The most striking images in the hunting sequences are the horses, pathetic, wildly struggling for survival, so thin their ribs are visible, tripping over networks of ropes until they are finally, ignobly subdued.

Like many Huston couples, Gay and Roslyn have great difficulty overcoming a sense of estrangement and mistrust; their quarrels about the horses become the focal point for that difficulty. The night before the hunt, they have an argument, ending in a long, single-take sequence. Roslyn lies on her side on the back of a flat-bed truck, facing the camera, at about her eye level, as Gay stands behind her. As they talk, he reminds her of how often the things people do, like her dancing, are falsely judged, adding “I could’ve looked down my nose at you… but I took my hat off to you.” The line, of course, could be Huston addressing virtually any character in his work. Roslyn responds with a gesture of conciliation, turning onto her back and looking up at Gay standing above and behind her. This pose, with one character in the foreground on his or her back and a second character above and beyond the first, is a recurring Huston visual motif. Although the reconciliation in the sequence may prove transitory, the visual image is evocative. Huston’s characters inhabit a casually indifferent world that offers, at best, the hope of finding, in a moment of despair or sickness or impending death, a comforter, a moment of peace or sanctuary.

© 2009 David Coursen


3 Comments

  • Mike Krainak

    May 15, 2009

    David…I much appreciate your thoughtful essay on my favorite film director, John Huston. But, unless I missed something, you failed to mention anything on one of his best achievements, “Under the Volcano,” an incomparable film, if for no other reason, because others “attempted” to film it and simply gave up. Adding that film to his oeuvre would surely launch the flawed filmmaker into the pantheon that Agee predicted despite the missteps of his career as you pointed out. Yes, Huston disappointed. Can you honestly think of a “great artist” who did not? I think it a huge mistake to ultimately judge an artist by his failures or losses along with his successes as if he were a sports team. Art is not a game or a competition whereby we judge greatness on a winning percentage. We must be grateful for the successes and judge them accordingly. Furthermore, popular art and culture are at a huge disadvantage under analysis and judgment because the missteps of a popular artist such as a filmmaker are seen by viewers and critics. Yet, the truly gifted and unique film artists are artists. Would we think any less of a Rembrandt or Picasso if we saw all the “crap” they hid or destroyed or do we judge them on what they succeeded at? Hopefully, artists will be judged on what they show, and if they fail occasionally, their failures will be put in proper context. As I mentioned, Huston made some inferior films….he knew that…play past them and recognize the quality and quantity of his successes. He had an amazing career, but there will always be those critics who denigrate him because he made films about flawed “heroes” many of whom failed at their endeavors…yet attempted them nonetheless, something that America can’t seem to tolerate. Huston was a superior visual storyteller, something else some critics forget when writing him off as a good “casting director” which you also accurately point out with Sarris. As an example, I would point to the first reel of “Moby Dick” as one of the greatest examples of visual storytelling and continuity in film history, an incredible and beautiful example of film imagery in a narrative context. And this in a “flawed” film. Given the challenge the text presented, the film should be applauded and enjoyed for its achievement. Lastly, as a film instructor and historian at the local university, I would add only this. Huston’s films, his good ones, age well, and are always watchable for their quality. How many filmmakers do you know who can boast 10 great or near great films, “Maltese Falcon,” “Treasure of Sierra Madre,” “Battle of San Pietro,” “Let There Be Light,” “Asphalt Jungle,” “Fat City,” “Man Who Would Be King,” “Wise Blood,”Prizzi’s Honor,” and “The Dead,” and 15 flawed masterpieces, “Moby Dick,” Key Largo,” “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” “Red Badge of Courage ( A film, despite its history and Huston’s culpability, I could watch once a month for its beauty and natural performances…if the original print of this film were ever found, it would forever cement Huston’s caree), “The Misfits,” “Moulin Rouge,” and “Night of the Iguana.” That is a total of 17 worthy films. If greatness were a quantitative issue, I wonder if Ford and Welles could boast the same much as I esteem both. But of course it is not, yet Huston’s 17, individually and totally “speak” for themselves. He belongs in their company as Agee predicted, not for what he didn’t accomplish, but for what he did. You and I could rattle off the names of any number of directors in the past 30 years who have been crowned by critics. How many made 17+ worthy films? How many will still be directing superior work in their 70s. Huston’s career was as predictable as the stock market, something Agee understood. It’s valued because of the averages, forgetting that it is achieved by a series of ups and downs, often severe. We revere the highs, forgetting and forgiving the inevitable lows, just as it should be. It can’t be directed either…Mike Krainak

  • Mike Krainak

    May 15, 2009

    I would only add that the above should read “7 flawed masterpieces” rather than 15…my bad…Mike K.

  • David Coursen

    May 22, 2009

    Thanks for your thoughts. Sounds like I should take another look at Under the Volcano.

Comments are closed.