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John Huston

Blu-ray Classics: John Huston’s WWII documentaries, ‘The Vikings,’ ‘Passage to Marseilles’

LetThereBeLightLet There Be Light (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – John Huston, like so many members of the Hollywood community, offered his talents to the armed services after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where he made four films. This disc features all four films, including a recently restored version of his final documentary for the armed services.

You can see his changing perspective on war through the productions, from Winning Your Wings (1942), a recruitment film narrated by James Stewart, to Let There Be Light (1946), his powerful portrait of the mentally and emotionally scarred men treated at a Long Island military hospital. Report from the Aleutians (1943) shows the routine of military life at a remote base in the frigid Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia (it’s also the only film shot in color), but his tone becomes darker in San Pietro (1945), which documents the battle to take a small Italian village from the occupying German forces. Huston provides the ironic narration himself over the record of destruction and loss of life on a single battle. The scenes of bombed-out ruins and dead soldiers are real but the battle itself was restaged by Huston for maximum dramatic impact. The military chose not to show the film to civilian audiences but new recruits did watch the film to understand the grueling ordeal awaiting them in battle. The film was voted into the National Film Registry in 1991.

Let There Be Light, his final film, is on the one hand a straightforward portrait of soldiers receiving help for “psychoneurotic” damage, what today was call post-traumatic stress disorder, and on the other a powerful portrait of the damage that war left on these men. It’s also a portrait of an integrated military, with black and white soldiers living and working in group therapy sessions together, before it ever existed in the barracks. The film was censored for 35 years and restored just a few years ago. This disc features the restored version.

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‘He’s from back home’: Man and Myth in ‘High Sierra’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

One of the most memorable scenes in High Sierra takes place when Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) is driving towards Camp Shaw high in the mountains of California after being released from prison. The camera sweeps the Sierra peaks and pans down to Earle’s car as he pauses at the junction of the dirt road leading to his destination. When he starts out we see him, the mountains, and a string of pack horses led by a couple of dude ranch cowboys who are moving slowly in the opposite direction, emerging from the world Roy Earle is about to enter. It is all somehow safe and reassuring, and yet in retrospect the image becomes a fatefully and fatally ironic premonition of Roy Earle’s death at the hands of a cowboy who perches on a rocky ledge above him and picks him off with a highpowered rifle and telescopic sight. The seemingly innocent picturesqueness of the scene perfectly indexes the illusory safety of the place to which Roy Earle is retreating, at the same time it suggests one of many aspects of the mortality which stalks through the movie. Walsh doesn’t invoke that oddly incongruous cowboy image by mistake; Roy Earle, who is himself a mythic presence, is shot by a figure who not only seems to belong in some other corner of history but who might more comfortably inhabit a different cinematic genre. Cowboys shouldn’t be any more “real” than the ancient race of gangsters to which Roy and Big Mac belong, and yet it’s a cowboy who destroys the man and momentarily diminishes the mythic aura surrounding Roy Earle.

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Big Shots: ‘The Roaring Twenties,’ ‘High Sierra,’ ‘White Heat’

[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]

While The Roaring Twenties is hardly a definitive history of an era, its chronicle of the intersecting careers of Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) and two buddies from the Great War has a sharp bite socially and more than a touch of tragic vision. Here as elsewhere, the Cagney character is the focal point of a deadly disparity between society and the man who lives by his instincts, and the elegiac tone which the film builds around him is a way of paying respects not to a bygone era, but to a naïvely vigorous man on whom time and change have tromped. Here the “Roaring Twenties” are more or less what happens in between an era that sets a man up (World War I) and an era that tears him down (the Depression), and the ultimate effect is one of waste, of quintessential vitality (Bartlett’s) squandered in a age too confused to find a place for it. In one sense the film spells out the limitations of Cagney’s film persona; but the downward spiral of Eddie Bartlett’s career and the upward spiral of his lawyer pal’s (from bootleg bookkeeper to assistant D.A.) also suggest that society’s values move in brutally indiscriminate character’s inability to find a suitable companion in life ultimately constitutes an important, though tacit, social problem as well.

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Review: The Wind and the Lion

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

The opening shots of rolling sea and thundering Berber cavalry, well-handled as they are, don’t really hint that The Wind and the Lion is going to be a good—more precisely, a special—movie. They might presage any epic film (“epic” in the Hollywood sense) since Ben-Hur, getting off to an obligatorily actionful start, only to succumb to Charlton Heston monumentality, Philip Yordan poeticalism, or what Pauline Kael once exasperatedly termed David Lean’s “goddam good taste.” The first indication that John Milius has something distinctive going here comes after the Berbers have reached and breached their destination, a compound above Morocco where, on this pleasant afternoon in 1904, they propose to kidnap thirtyish American widow Eden Pedecaris and her two children.

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Review: ‘Breakout’

[Originally published in Movietone News 42, July 1975]

They were smart to change the title from The TenSecond Jailbreak. Even though Charles Bronson says he’s going to set his ‘copter down in the prisonyard for only ten seconds, we don’t dwell on that. If there were a title to remind us, though, we might irritably observe that minutes seem to pass by—and it’s not from suspense or Odessa-steps montage while those prison guards stare on with whuddafuck expressions on their mugs, deciding to open fire only after the whirlybird has all but made its belated exit. It must be well known to everyone who passed near a TV set during Breakout‘s opening week of summer business that this nice man who looks just like Robert Duvall has been tossed into a Mexican slammer on a trumped-up charge, and left to rot there by his business enemies, who happen to include Uncle John Huston, confirmed now in the nasty habits he picked up in Chinatown. Faithful wife Jill Ireland (who is also the faithful wife of Charles Bronson, and hence keeps working in her husband’s pictures) hires baling-wire airman Bronson to get him out somehow. Breakout isn’t nearly the offense against decency, not to mention narrative intelligence, that last summer’s saturation-promo action flick was—Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, if you’d forgot, and if you had, excuse me for bringing it up again. But Tom Gries, for whom many of us once had hopes, has unwisely decided to play most of this film as comedy, without knowing how; and if somebody says that that’s all the plot sounds worthy of, I have to point out that comedy doesn’t just happen automatically when melodrama trips over its absurdities—not comedy consistent enough to carry a whole movie. The actors are noticeably stranded by Gries’s decision and only Sheree North comes near wresting an integral characterization out of the mélange.
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Blu-ray: ‘The Wind and the Lion’

John Milius occupies a curious place in the culture of American filmmakers of the seventies. In the age of new, young, maverick voices, he’s the rugged American individualist with conservative politics and iconoclastic heroes. He’s fascinated with military culture and imperialist adventure, caught up in the tension between American isolation and intervention, in debt to the romantic ideals of honor and duty idealized in John Ford’s cavalry films, and celebratory of the glory of battle, whether in war, on a surfboard challenging waves, or swinging a sword in the age of barbarism. In an era of secular liberalism, he’s the wildman conservative of mythical heroes and combat veterans, but he’s also more than that, as David Thomson notes in his Biographical Dictionary of Film: “He is an anarchist, he is articulate, and he has an unshakable faith in human grandeur….”

The Wind and the Lion (1972), the sophomore feature of the film school-trained screenwriter turned director, takes on a romantic tale of rebellion and response, honorable ancient codes and modern military might, and the first stirrings of the United States of America, the modern, maverick young country in a political culture dominated by the history-seeped empires of old Europe, as a world power. And it does so in a cagily budget-minded take on the sweeping military epics and colonial adventures of the 1950s and 1960s, a sensibility appropriated in the opening seconds of the film as Jerry Goldsmith’s grandly dramatic score plays under the credits etched into the handsome parchment of a yesteryear Hollywood frame.

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Men on a Mission

‘Zero Dark Thirty’

First they made The Hurt Locker; then their blistering modern war film made them Academy Award winners. Even as they collected their Oscars, director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter-producer Mark Boal were already at work on something tentatively tagged “The Hunt for Osama bin Laden.” Following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, myriad arms of the U.S. military and intelligence services were overturning every stone, real and metaphorical, to find the al-Qaeda leader. Both hunts—the real-world one and the filmmakers’—were works-in-progress till May 1, 2011, when SEAL Team 6 terminated the perpetrator-in-chief with extreme prejudice. And Bigelow and Boal’s heretofore open-ended script took a new turn.

Zero Dark Thirty, as their movie was ultimately titled, focuses on the nearly decade-long pursuit of bin Laden from the perspective of a CIA analyst and her cohort. Yes, her: for the first time, the vibrant and versatile Jessica Chastain is tip of the spear of a major Hollywood production. Where the mission takes her, under arguably the best director she’s ever worked with, is mesmerizing to behold.

While waiting to follow along, let’s beguile the interlude considering some classic film quests by men on a mission. And by all means, the occasional woman on a mission, too. Embarkation is at zero dark thirty—you know, half an hour past midnight.

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Missions don’t come much bleaker than The Lost Patrol (1934), a primal tale of struggle for survival against implacable forces. During World War I, a handful of British soldiers are trapped at an oasis in the Mesopotamian Desert (Iraq to us) and slowly decimated by an unseen enemy. The strong visuals—baking sun, the undulating vastness of the dunes, the drift of ghostly mirages—befit a crucible of character-testing, with an unnamed Sergeant (Victor McLaglen) striving to keep at least one man alive as desperation, madness, and implacable snipers take their toll. This stark drama, free of box-office compromise and glib heroics, marked director John Ford’s decisive step toward establishing himself as a personal, semi-independent artist within the Hollywood system. The story by Philip MacDonald proved to be a durable archetype for filmmakers. It had already served as the basis for a 1929 British film (with McLaglen’s brother Cyril in the lead!), and RKO, which released Ford’s movie, would appropriate it five years later as the model for a surprisingly strong B Western, Bad Lands (Lew Landers, 1939)—substituting sheriff’s posse for an army patrol, and Apaches for Arabs. MacDonald himself borrowed elements of his own tale when writing the screen story for Sahara (Zoltan Korda, 1943), among the best contemporaneous World War II films. Incidentally, Ford’s doomed patrol includes Boris Karloff as a religious zealot who reckons their beleaguered oasis is none other than the Garden of Eden.

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Review: Wise Blood

[Originally published in The Weekly, May 28, 1980]

I preach that there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s, but behind all of them, there’s only one truth and that is that there’s no truth…. Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it. Where is there a place for you to be? No place.
—Hazel Motes in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, chapter 10

Brad Dourif as Hazel Motes

Throughout his career, John Huston has kept faith with a vision of mankind as a valiant, fumbling lot, and life as a mostly doomed quest after holy and unholy grails: truth, riches, peace of mind, personal and cosmic vengeance, kingly selfhood. His Homo sapiens is a quirky, charming, exasperating, sometimes weirdly noble species occupying a tenuous ascendancy in the evolutionary scheme of things. The director contemplates his protagonists’ foibles and virtues, triumphs and catastrophes, with equal indulgence, but he never suspends the rules of the existential game, never reaches in to prop his people up or knock them down. He just watches, sees the way things are, shows them as clearly as it is in his power to do, and then shares with us his sad, ironical smile.

Wise Blood tells the story of Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif), a fierce-eyed cracker who returns from an unspecified modern war, pensioned off because of an unspecified wound, to find the family homestead in ruins and his Georgia village permanently bypassed by the highway. Changing his Army uniform for an $11.98 suit at the general store, Hazel entrains for “the city” determined “to do some things I never done before.” These all have to do with his violent need to establish “a place to be,” not only in space—a klunker car and a rented room will serve for that—but also in spirit, which only a dismantling of the entire Judaeo-Christian worldview will achieve.

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Review: The Man Who Would Be King

[Originally published in Movietone News 48, February 1976]

John Huston said recently he has made only three good films in the past decade: Reflections in a Golden Eye, Fat City, and The Man Who Would Be King. Though I’m still holding out—more or less alone, I think—for The Kremlin Letter to be included among his better works and I have serious doubts about Reflections, there is certainly no argument that The Man is one of the director’s finest achievements of any decade. It’s a pretty neat trick to make a film so completely faithful to the spirit of Kipling’s original story while not violating for even a moment the spirit of John Huston as well.

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Review: The Man Who Would Be King

[Originally published in Movietone News 49, April 1976]

It’s hard not to think about Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre after seeing The Man Who Would Be King, for reasons that range from their broadest similarities as adventure yarns involving men balancing vision against obsession and finally losing everything in their efforts to get everything, down to minor but perhaps tellingly matched details like the strings of frisky mules who in both cases wind up spilling fortunes of gold back into the wilderness from which they came. To enumerate a few other likenesses: one could easily see the Mexican Shangri-la that Walter Huston falls into in Treasure of the Sierra Madre as something of an incipient Kafiristan (who knows that Huston didn’t have Kafiristan in mind even then, if it is true that he’s had a film version of Kipling’s story forming in his head for some twenty years) and the schism that festers briefly between Peachey Carnehan and Danny Dravot when Danny decides to take a wife and remain a .king in Kafiristan as another version of the paranoia that alienates Fred C. Dobbs from his companions and finally leads to his death—as Danny’s much less self-destructive delusions lead to his. Cutting it a little finer, there is the director’s own little joke in Treasure when Bogart (who, interestingly, was one of the actors—Clark Gable was the other—Huston originally intended to play the roles in his version of Kipling’s story) keeps on badgering John Huston to “stake a fellow American to a meal” (Huston plays a small part as a moneyed American in a Mexican city full of penniless expatriates) until Huston gets pissed off and tells Bogart, “This is the last peso you’ll get from me; from now on, you’ll have to make your way through life without my assistance!” In The Man Who Would Be King Peachey Carnehan swipes a watch from Kipling—if not the auteur, at least the author who set Peachey and Danny out into the world and into Huston’s imagination.

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New on Blu-ray: Hitchcock, Huston and the First Oscar Winner

Hitchcock / Selznick: Rebecca, Notorious, Spellbound (MGM)

Hindsight is 20/20, but teaming of British perfectionist director Alfred Hitchcock and American iconoclast producer David O. Selznick was doomed to conflict. Selznick, who brought Hitchcock to Hollywood with an exclusive contract, was a director in all but name. He micromanaged his pictures down to the shot, rewriting scripts, reshooting scenes, relentlessly tinkering well into post-production. Hitchcock plotted and planned his films in detailed storyboards from the outset. He had no use for Selznick’s interference or his barrage of memos, but he needed the entry to America and relished the generous budgets and access to technology. Their partnership makes a simultaneous case for film as a collaborator’s artform, and as the domain of the auteur. Three of the four films from that strained partnership between the perfectionist British director and the micromanaging producer arrive on Blu-ray and you can see the two creative personalities battle for control throughout.

Welcome to Manderlay

The gloriously gothic melodrama Rebecca (1940), a handsome marriage of the literate and the visual, remains their most financially successful collaboration and Hitchcock’s most studio-like film. Laurence Olivier delivers a fine performance as the haunted de Winter, still under the shadow of his controlling first wife even after she’s died, while Joan Fontaine’s naïve little girl in the big mansion is a bit precious but effective nonetheless. It’s an elegant production, beautifully photographed and designed like a dream house shrouded in mourning, but it also favors the pictorial over the cinematic and surface over subtext. Ironically, Hitch’s only film to win a Best Picture Oscar winner, and the award went to producer Selznick; Hitch lost Best Director to John Ford for The Grapes of Wrath. Features commentary by film critic Richard Schickel, screen tests, two featurettes, three radio play adaptations, and archival audio interviews with Hitch.

The tensions (and I mean creative, not psychological tensions) are far more fraught in Spellbound (1945), an ambitious psychological thriller inspired by Selznick’s adventures in psychoanalysis and mystery as ludicrous as it is intermittently stunning. Gregory Peck is the tortured doctor with a repressed secret that psychiatrist Ingrid Bergman helps him unearth, with the help of dream therapy. The push-me, pull-you relationship can be seen in Hitch’s attempts to visualize heady concepts in bizarre dream sequences (designed by Salvador Dali) while the dialogue drags it all back to literalness. With commentary, two featurettes, a radio play adaptation and an archival audio interview with Hitch among the supplements.

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It’s Twilight Time: The Kremlin Letter and Violent Saturday debut on DVD in limited editions

The debut release from Twilight Time

The DVD debut of John Huston’s sprawling, globetrotting 1970 espionage thriller The Kremlin Letter is also the debut release of Twilight Time, a new boutique DVD label (that’s actual pressed DVDs, not DVD-R or MOD) featuring limited run releases of select titles from the 20th Century Fox library. The creation of Warner Bros. veteran Brian Jamieson and filmmaker/music restoration specialist Nick Redman, the label is initially slated to release one disc a month (and later perhaps more), all from the 20th Century Fox catalogue, all from Fox digital masters, all in limited edition runs of 3,000 units.

“All our releases will be properly manufactured DVD’s and Blu-Rays – we were not interested in the DVD-R’s, as we feel they do an injustice to the titles in the long run,” explains Brian Jamieson. “While I’m sure collectors will find they fill a void in their collections, but we wanted to deliver a quality product, something that meets our own expectations and something we could be proud of. We love the old Fox film classics, especially from the 50’s.”

John Huston has been accused of cynicism in his films but The Kremlin Letter, a complicated plot of Cold War spy games is the most cold-blooded portrait of an mercenary world he’s ever presented. Charisma-challenged Patrick O’Neal is the ostensible leading man here, playing a career Navy officer coerced into joining a covert private team and go behind the Iron Curtain to retrieve a diplomatically dangerous letter, but in the scheme of things he’s just another player in a big, messy, tangled ensemble piece. Richard Boone is the standout as a hearty bear of an intelligence veteran who mentors O’Neal in the insidious games played in the name of counter-intelligence, and George Sanders (first seen in drag playing piano in a gay lounge), Nigel Green (a pimp in Mexico), Dean Jagger (hiding out a country vicar) and Max Von Sydow (as a deadly Soviet assassin who, haunted by his past, may be the most human figure in the bunch) fill out the deadly rogues gallery.

The colorful figures and their elaborate schemes (involving extortion, seduction, prostitution and the drug trade) is like Mission: Impossible in the unforgiving culture of international espionage of John Le Carre’s double agents and plots-within-plots. This is not a world where trust gets you anywhere and even the so-called good guys resort to subterfuge and manipulation in dealing with their own people. The personal endgames drive the international agenda and the players are expendable pieces in the elaborate international chess match.

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When noir was noir

[Originally published in Seattle Weekly, July 21, 1999; written in anticipation of a noir package on Turner Classic Movies]

The great French director Jean Renoir, obliged to become a great American director by the German occupation of his country, records in his memoirs a moment around the end of World War II when his two nationalities drolly intersected. It seems that a film festival was showcasing The Southerner, his pantheistic 1945 movie about a Texas sharecropper, when a French correspondent phoned in the news to his paper. But hélas, between the reporter’s pronunciation and, perhaps, the susceptibilities of the guy on the copy desk, “The Southerner, un film de Jean Renoir” became “Le Souteneur [The Pimp], un film de genre noir.” Something was definitely lost in translation.

Still, the confusion tells us a lot about that moment in film history and about how pervasive had become the phenomenon everybody and his brother now glibly calls film noir—”black film,” “dark film,” but by any name, fragrantly exotic film about an irredeemably fallen world. Back then, no one this side of the Atlantic used, or knew, the term—not the Hollywoodians who were making film noir nor the reviewers, who with few exceptions scorned the movies in question as cheap, vulgar, unpleasant, and otherwise regrettable. The films couldn’t even claim to belong to a proper genre: Some were private-eye pictures (The Big Sleep), some were period romances (Gaslight, So Evil My Love), some semidocumentary crime-fighting movies (T-Men, Street with No Name), some mysteries (Laura), some “women’s pictures” (Mildred Pierce). But the French could see, as six years’ worth of embargoed American cinema washed across their screens following the liberation, that the mood and politics and look and tone of Hollywood’s output had changed radically: it was darkened, bleaker, and yet more dynamic. As Paul Schrader would exult a quarter-century later, “American movies [were] in the throes of their deepest and most creative funk.”

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The Maltese Falcon

[Originally written for the National Society of Film Critics anthology The A List: 100 Essential Films (2002)]

In 1539, the Knight Templars of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels – but pirates seized the galley carrying the priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day.

The black bird
The spell cast by the black bird

That crawl appears following the opening credits of The Maltese Falcon, set to dreamy-sinister music and laid over a dark image of the peregrine statuary seemingly poised in some undiscovered tomb. The grammar is regrettable (surely it should be Knights-Templar?), and suggestive of some haste. Was the foreword perhaps added at the last minute, in an act of desperation, after preview audiences had grown fidgety with reel upon reel of baroque conversations and ornately peculiar comings and goings in a collection of offices and hotel rooms purporting to be modern-day (1941) San Francisco? More than half the film elapses before anyone even mentions the titular bird, let alone accounts for its immense value and lurid history. Yet strike the keynote with that one-sentence prelude and the mantle of legend settles over the entire proceedings.

Of course, The Maltese Falcon has become positively encrusted with legend in the six decades since its release. It’s the classic hardboiled private-eye movie; the nervy maiden offering of its celebrated director, John Huston; the first glamorous star vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, an icon of American cinema and the 20th century’s definition of existential cool; and still the most triumphantly well-cast movie from Hollywood’s golden age (rivaled only by Casablanca). Watching The Maltese Falcon now, everybody and his brother know they’re in the presence of something extraordinary. But it’s tantalizing to contemplate how easily the brass ring might have been missed – how close the picture might have come to being just another detective thriller, like the two previous screen versions of Dashiell Hammett’s groundbreaking novel (respectively so-so, in 1931, and ludicrous, in 1936).

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DVDs of the Month: The African Queen and Bigger Than Life

One of the most beloved and cherished Hollywood adventures ever made and long the top of every list of DVD requests, The African Queen (Paramount) makes its much anticipated debut on DVD and Blu-ray simultaneously. It was worth the wait: this is a stunning presentation, but more on that later.

Down the river with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart
Down the river with Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart

The pedigree is impeccable: Sam Spiegel, a headstrong independent producer, bought the rights to C.S. Forester’s novel (it had been kicking around Hollywood for ten years) and John Huston, arguably the greatest Hollywood writer/director of literary adaptations, brought on James Agee (the most celebrated film critic of his age) as his screenwriting partner. The fears that audiences wouldn’t be interested in a romance between a pair of middle-aged characters was allayed when Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn were cast (and in hindsight, they seem like the ONLY actors for these parts). Bogart plays Charlie Allnut, the hard-drinking captain of a sputtering steam-powered boat that gives the film its title, and Katharine Hepburn is Rose Sayer, a spirited missionary spinster who came to German East Africa with her brother (Robert Morley) and, in September 1914 (the early days of World War I), watches German soldiers march off the local natives and burn down their huts, breaking her brother’s spirit (fatally, it turns out) in the process.

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