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John Huston

Review: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]

Curious that both films built around the legendary Judge Roy Bean, self-styled purveyor of Law West of the Pecos, should suffer so grossly from mode trouble. The Westerner, directed by William Wyler in 1940, featured one of the all-time great performances on screen in the presence of Walter Brennan (nominally a “supporting actor,” in which category he copped a richly merited third Oscar); Brennan’s irrepressible craziness as the lethal scoundrel with an unreasoning devotion to the beauty of Lily Langtry and an ill-advised sentimental tolerance of drifter Gary Cooper, who ended up killing him, almost saved this confused western that vacillated without conviction between freakishly comical behavioralism and socioeconomic sanctimoniousness about farmers in cattle country, and, visually, between the near-stereoscopic crispness of Gregg Toland’s realistic cinematography and some jarringly pointless and punk process work. John Huston’s new Roy Bean film has no problems as gross as that, but neither has it anything as potently good as Brennan’s characterization to recommend it. Paul Newman can’t resist waving his professional integrity like a flag, and this generally works for the worst (e.g., the hysterical and monolithically conceived WUSA); here integrity takes the form of flamboyantly trying on an unglamorous character part and, moreover, playing it in a single comic key. As George Roy Hill remarked in his documentary about the making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Newman can play comedy successfully only when he doesn’t remember to tell himself he’s playing comedy. (There is, incidentally, an unforgivable Son of Butch Cassidy number involving Newman, Victoria Principal, a bear, and a song about the marmalade, molasses, and honey that keep falling on my head.)

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Meet the Trailblazers of Documentary Activism

We think of the cinema of activism in documentary filmmaking as a relatively modern phenomenon, something first awakened in the 1960s and 1970s and popularized by the likes of Michael Moore and Laura Poitras and Alex Gibney. But the success films like Bowling for Columbine (2002) and An Inconvenient Truth (2006), both Oscar winners and box-office hits, not to mention such devastating investigative documentaries as The Cove (2009), the Oscar-nominated The Invisible War (Independent Lens, 2012), which directly led to a change in policy towards the prosecution of rape in the military (2012), and The Hunting Ground (2015), were built on a tradition that goes back decades.

Here are some of the landmarks in the cinema of advocacy and activism: documentary as investigative journalism, as an educational tool, as exposé of injustice and inequity, and as a vehicle for political or social change. [Note: All these films are available on various streaming services and DVD rental, while the first two are in the public domain.]

The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) / The River (1938)

In The Plow that Broke the Plains and The River, both directed by Pare Lorentz and funded by the U.S. Government, two currents of non-fiction filmmaking met: the educational project and the propaganda film. These were pro-New Deal films but they addressed the dangers of over-cultivation of American farmland. The Plow casts its lens to the Dust Bowl and The River on the Mississippi River, each documenting the specific conditions that caused the ecological devastation of the regain and offering a more sustainable approach to farming. Both films are in the National Film Registry, and Lorentz now has a filmmaking fund named after him. [Watch The Plow That Broke the Plains and The River]

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Out of the Past: The Maltese Falcon

[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]

The Maltese Falcon showed up in the area recently, for the hundredth time. Hohum? Far from it! Let there be a hundred more! Huston’s first film set the standard for his later work, a standard of excellence that has rarely been matched by his more recent films. In The Maltese Falcon Huston was already developing the pattern that would characterize his finest films: the introduction of an intrigue-suspense plot that’s soon completely subordinated to characterization. In films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen and The Kremlin Letter, we become so taken with the characters, the human truths they represent, and the stylish manner in which they are portrayed, that the actual plot line becomes insignificant; and if the Maltese Falcon or the Kremlin letter should prove to have been red herrings all along, it matters not a whit.

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Blu-ray: John Huston’s ‘The Asphalt Jungle’

The Criterion Collection

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) is one of John Huston’s rare forays into the genre that would later be called film noir. His first, The Maltese Falcon (1941), helped set the template of the PI noir. Ten years later, working from an adaptation of the caper novel by W.R. Burnett scripted in collaboration with the author, he essentially launched the heist film as a genre of its own and set the blueprint that all subsequent heist dramas built upon.

Sterling Hayden took his first leading role as Dix Handley, the former country boy turned angry urban thug in self-destructive cycle of small-time robberies and compulsive gambling, and he’s hired to be the muscle in a crew put together by heist mastermind Doc (Sam Jaffe), who has just been sprung from prison with a massive jewelry robbery he’s been waiting years to put in action. He inspires his brotherhood of thugs (Doc’s team is filled out by getaway man James Whitmore and safecracker Anthony Caruso) to reach for the stars—the biggest haul of their career—with a meticulously worked plan that calls on each of them to do what they do best, and do it better than they ever have before.

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Review: The Mackintosh Man

[Originally published in Movietone News 27, November 1973]

John Huston’s newest, a spy thriller of sorts, had a short first run downtown and has slipped almost unnoticed to the neighborhood circuit. It’s just as well. Reviewers have criticized The Mackintosh Man‘s convoluted plot, but the principal weakness is a slowness of pace which allows even the moderately intelligent viewer to stay well ahead of each complication and resolution. Every twist and surprise is so over-prepared that any possibility for suspense or shock is eliminated. A motor chase through Irish mountain roads, which could have been gripping or at least flashy, is dragged out to the point of boredom. An equally promising finale, expressing Huston’s customary ironic view of the respective moralities of good guys and bad guys, is executed with a total lack of inspiration, becoming pedestrian and predictable. An impressive cast, ranging from good to excellent, is totally wasted.

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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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