Discovering John Huston

Earlier today, TCM ran The Asphalt Jungle, the great 1950 noir starring Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, and an early career making role for Marilyn Monroe.  The movie was directed by John Huston, one of the first directors whose career I chose to discover.  That is, once a became a full-fledged movie fanatic, certain directors (Orson Welles, David Lean, Federico Fellini) took up a special place in my heart and I decided to see as many of their movies as possible.  When I did that with Mr. Huston, the results were spotty at best, eternally frustrating at worst.  To this day, John Huston has one of the most indefinable directorial careers out there.  For someone seeking out consistency, it was a journey frought with peril.


I first came to John Huston through The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  I believe most people come to Huston through either that or The Maltese Falcon.  For me, it was Sierra Madre and when I saw it, all those many years ago, on television complete with periodic commercial interruption, it was so good that seeing it on television with periodic commericial interruption did nothing to diminish its power.  I’ve seen it since on every available format, including the big screen, and to say it holds up is to state the painfully obvious.  It is, quite simply, one of the best movie of the forties, or, let’s be honest, any decade.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a revelation to me on multiple levels.  Having only seen Bogart in Casablanca before that, I had no idea he could play such a weasel so well.  Since then, I have seen him play the weasel many times, especially in his pre-star days, and it still strikes me as substantially impressive that Bogart was so willing, so often, to play the weasel after he became a star.  Walter Huston was also a revelation with this movie being the first thing I ever saw him in and immediately became a lifelong fan of this amazing actor.  The final revelation was the director himself, John Huston.  I felt, in my undisciplined, movie buff youth, that the movie hit all the right notes, though I couldn’t say how or when or why.  I just knew that I wanted to see more, and soon!

I caught The Maltese Falcon next and, well, what can I say?  I thought it even better and would place on a short list of the greatest films I’ve ever seen.  When people complain about How Green was My Valley beating out Citizen Kane that year (1941, and for the record, I like Valley quite a lot), I always think, “And The Maltese Falcon!  Don’t forget about The Maltese Falcon!”

Then came the hit or miss years of my John Huston discovery.  There was Moby Dick which even before reading the book left me cold but after reading the book, I was aghast.  Then, thanks to early cable, I had the great misfortune of catching Victory, Phobia, and Annie which had me thinking maybe I was all wrong about this Huston guy.  Maybe I should pick another director because this later stuff had a real stench to it.  It seemed crazy to me that the same person that directed those two masterpieces could also be responsible for such dreck.  By this point I was reading as much criticism as I could (which, naturally, meant that I was parroting it as well) and Andrew Sarris seemed to be dismissive of Huston and perhaps I was starting to understand why.  But then the other movies started to stack up: The African Queen, Beat the Devil, Key Largo, and The Asphalt Jungle.  And then I saw two of the best movies of the seventies and both were directed by Huston: Fat City and The Man Who Would be King.



It’s true that for around ten years, after The Misfits and before Fat City, he directed very little of interest (though, I don’t care what anyone says, I love Reflections in the Golden Eye) but when I saw Fat City, I knew this couldn’t be the work of someone just competently stumbling along, as Sarris would have me believe.  And The Man Who Would be King remains one of the most rousing and darkest adventures I’ve ever seen.  In fact, all of Huston’s greatest works have in common a sinister quality just below the surface.  He directs his movies and characters in such a way that even the heroes seem untrustworthy, corrupted.  One of his best, even though his experiences with it caused him a lifetime of regret, is The Red Badge of Courage.  It is so simply and powerfully told that even in its heavily edited form, I prefer it to the classic novel on which it was based.

By the time I’d seen these masterworks, Huston had started to release more, like Under the Volcano, Prizzi’s Honor, and The Dead.  I saw them all and liked them (Prizzi’s Honor the least, despite its praise) and felt a real loss when he died.  I had finally come to know him and his works and then he left.  Same with Welles, Lean, and Fellini.  In the end, I ended up where I started; believing that Huston was a great filmmaker and that any one of his best movies could definitely be ranked among cinema’s best with little to no pushback.   Beat the Devil shows here at TCM in early October but if you have the time and the resources, I recommend seeing any one of the favorites I mentioned here today.

18 Responses Discovering John Huston
Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : September 17, 2014 2:30 pm

I never liked The Maltese Falcon as much as i should.
But The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Asphalt Jungle and Fat City
are absolute favorites of mine.
Also like The Asphalt Jungle much more than Kubricks The Killing.
Huston was a Giant.

Posted By Ghijath Naddaf : September 17, 2014 2:34 pm

Also the Bar fight in Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the
greatest ever. And its not in B.Travens Book.
Quite brutal for 1948.

Posted By Marty : September 17, 2014 2:36 pm

I have always enjoyed Huston’s screenwriting and directing…
the Warners “greats” and the later “personal taste greats.”
I can watch Treasure weekly and the same for Key Largo. The African Queen, Moby Dick, Beat The Devil are part of that 50s Americans-abroad movement (mostly for tax purposes, although the law was overturned).
Hepburn said that Huston had given her the best piece of direction ever — when she was struggling with her character in Queen, Huston told her to play it as if she was Eleanor Roosevelt!
Huston also originally wanted to make The Man Who Would Be King with Gable and Bogart.

The there is Prizzi’s Honor, which is one of my favorites.
“Argh, you mean you lost Filagi AND the money?”

Posted By Arthur : September 17, 2014 3:15 pm

Yes to the RED BADGE OF COURAGE and THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE. They were truly outstanding. And the latter also was my intro to Walter Houston. The other John Houston films, for me, though interesting were not on that level. And THE KILLING and ASPHALT JUNGLE looked like pretty much like the same film to me. Though the smoldering scene with Marilyn Monroe in ASPHALT JUNGLE is forever stamped in my memory.

Posted By johnnytoobad : September 17, 2014 4:05 pm

And someone should mention — The Night of the Iguana; the original & only worthy Moulin Rouge; and the Misfits — all superb in their own different ways …

And I’m also a big admirer of the List of Adrian Messenger (a sort of perverse puzzle for the audience) — & of his peculiar, but fascinating bio-pic of sorts of Freud — quite an interesting counter-point to Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” I found …

Posted By Andrew : September 17, 2014 4:10 pm

I realize I am projecting my personal opinions onto a man I know nothing about but that is why they invented the Internet. When I kook at his career as a whole, it feels like the body of work of someone who just liked making movies. Sometimes he got the great cast and script, other times, not so much. He made the picture he could with what he had. No overall design, no worries about tarnishing his image. Michael Caine feels like the equivalent as an actor.

Martin Scorsese feels like the direct opposite. Things feel very planned, for awhile there was a very specific part of human interaction that was his focus, then some deliberate attempts to try this, then that. I feel like his movies always have the potential to be a classic.

To go whole hog with the projection, “Hugo” feels like Scorsese decided to make a childhood fantasy and then spent years getting the perfect story, then the script, then the cast, then the F/X so he could make a masterpiece his way. “Annie” feels like someone happened to catch Huston in the mood to make a lighthearted move and he figured why not this one, lets see what we can do with it.

Posted By swac44 : September 17, 2014 4:29 pm

Treasure of the Sierra Madre is my favourite movie of all time, and The Man Who Would Be King is my second favourite (I have original posters for both on my wall), which I guess makes Huston my favourite director by default. I can always find something to enjoy in his films, but keep in mind I have yet to see Phobia.

Posted By swac44 : September 17, 2014 4:33 pm

Also, I saw Prizzi’s Honor in the theatre when it came out, probably the first time I caught a Huston film in its initial release, and have a soft spot for it, although I haven’t watched it in decades. But I’ll always remember Nicholson’s line, “If (your husband’s) so f@#$in’ smart, how come he’s so f@#$in’ dead?”

Posted By Marco : September 17, 2014 5:27 pm

The best reason for watching a John Huston film is that they are all different from one another. None of them follows a pattern or routine. Even the bad ones are more interesting than any other director’s best failures. Huston brought to life the characters in his movies that he encountered in his life, and he lived one of the most interesting lives of anyone involved in the movies. I have every book written about Huston, and I have read several of them many times. I especially like “Dangerous Friends” by Peter Viertel, and “Huston We Have A Problem” by Oswald Morris. His autobiography, “An Open Book” is a great pleasure and very insightful. I’ve seen every movie he ever made more times than I can remember, and I always find something remarkable about his work. In the four or five movies that were mangled by post production editing or doomed from the start, there are scenes or characterizations that hold my attention with every viewing. The barroom brawl in THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE is one of the most authentic fight scenes ever filmed. In fact, everything about this movie is entirely accurate, except for the ending. The bandits would have recognized the gold, and even if they didn’t, the gold would not have blown away, just the lighter quartz. Nevertheless, it’s the best movie about prospecting and mining ever filmed. I would love to watch all of his movies on a TCM Huston movie marathon.

Posted By Richard Brandt : September 17, 2014 6:55 pm

I’d just like to point out that I’m the first one here to mention WISE BLOOD.


That is all.

Posted By Emgee : September 17, 2014 7:27 pm

Not even the greatest artists only produce masterpieces, and judged by his best work Huston is one of the greats.
One thing i like about his work is he’s never sentimental , a trap that many directors fall into.
But i seem to be alone in not getting Beat the Devil At. All.

Posted By Doug : September 17, 2014 9:29 pm

For Marco and all others interested in more Huston lore:

Check into the story of George Hodel as written by his son Steve Hodel in a few books. Fascinating possibilities.

Posted By LD : September 17, 2014 9:31 pm

Billy Wilder once said “You’re only as good as the best thing you’ve ever done.” If it’s true that makes Huston one of the great directors.

Posted By Arthur : September 17, 2014 11:22 pm

LD, that is why Welles need not have fretted at all after
CITIZEN KANE. In fact, I forgot who it was who told him, “Quit now while you are ahead.” “Masterpiece” means just that, the highest work of a master of the art.

Posted By Gamera2000 : September 18, 2014 2:55 am

One of the great directors, despite, or maybe because he went in so many directions. There are the obvious classics: The Maltese Falon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre,The Asphalt Jungle, The Dead, The Man Who Would Be King, The African Queen, The Red Badge of Courage and Fat City.

But I am also a big fan of Moby Dick, which has grown on me to such a degree I never miss it when it pops up on television. The movie has a singular look and texture, the same as Moulin Rouge. The List of Adrian Messenger a wonderfully twisted mystery while Wise Blood is an fascinating take on O’Connor and
Prizzi’s Honor is a terrific Condon adaptation.

I also enjoyed some of his other films Beat The Devil, Night of the Iguana, Freud, and Under the Volcano. If you actually think about it, it is an impressive body of work.

On a side note I always thought he lucked out that he couldn’t film The Man Who Would Be King until 1975. While Gable and Bogart would have been okay, I can’t imagine that great combination of British satire and adventure could have worked any better than with Caine and Connery.

Posted By tdraicer : September 18, 2014 4:10 pm

I’m also a fan of Moby Dick (but I haven’t read the book) and particularly of Peck’s Ahab. Like many actors, Peck was influenced by critical reaction and decided he had failed in the role, but I think it is one of his finest performances.

Posted By James : September 18, 2014 9:02 pm

The Dead is a truly sublime and beautiful film. I suspect Joyce is not easily adaptable (guessing this, as I haven’t seen the two Ulysses films), though “The Dead” is a reasonably straight-forward story, in terms of narrative. Huston’s conception of the final paragraphs of the story, in cinematic language, is absolutely perfect.

Posted By Marco : September 18, 2014 9:59 pm

Two of Huston’s admitted failures were THE UNFORGIVEN and THE ROOTS OF HEAVEN. One is a Western and the other is a plea for ending the senseless slaughter of African elephants. Both of these movies don’t satisfy a viewer’s movie palate, because there are several obvious problems with the tone and structure of these movies. But the Western is full of authentic details and wonderful characters. Audrey Hepburn doesn’t make a convincing Indian brung up as a white girl, but the rest of her adoptive family are very believable. The Zachary Family (brothers, Burt Lancaster, Audie Murphy, Doug McClure and their redoubtable mother, Lillian Gish) seems to be an early example of cinema Frontier Family Disfunction, but they all seem believable given the circumstances of their coming apart at the hands of the vengeful Abe Kelsey. I’ve always loved the role that John Saxon played as the half-breed Indian who rides down Kelsey (played to the hilt by a sword wielding Joseph Wiseman). Huston walked away from the movie before it was edited, and claimed that he hated the film. The African adventure story was decades ahead of its time, and it’s even more poignant considering how many of these magnificent animals have been slaughtered since it was made. Any movie with the cast of this film is worth watching, even if it’s painful watching the aged Errol Flynn sagging under the weight of his wicked, wicked ways.

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