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Hot Movie Takes: John Huston, an appreciation


Hot Movie Takes 
John Huston, an apprciation 

By Leo Adam Biga, author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

When I originally posted about the subject of this Hot Movie Take, the late John Huston, I forgot to note that his work, though very different in tone, shares a penchant for unvarnished truth with that of Alexander Payne. Huston was a writer-director just like Payne is and  he was extremely well-read and well-versed in many art forms, again just as Payne is. The screenplays for Huston’s films were mostly adaptations of novels, short stories and plays, including some famous ones by iconic writers, and the scripts for Payne’s films are mostly adaptations as well.  Huston also collaborated with a lot of famous writers on his films, including Truma Capote and Arthur Miller. The work of both filmmakers shares an affinity for ambiguous endings. I think at his best Huston was more of a classic storyteller than Payne and his films more literate. Where Huston mostly made straight dramas, he showed a real flair for comedy the few times he ventured that way (“The African Queen,” “Beat the Devil,” “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” and “Prizzi’s Honor”). Payne insists that he makes comedies, though most would say he makes dramedies, a terrible descriptor that’s gained currency. More accurately, Payne’s comedy-dramas are satires. I think he’s more than capable of making a straight drama if he chose to, but so far he’s stayed true to himself and his strengths. If Payne is the ultimate cinema satirist of our tme, and I think he is, then Huston stands as the great film ironist of all time. With one using satire and the other using irony to great effect, their films get right to the bone and marrow of characters without a lot of facade. Just as it was for Huston, story and character is everything for Payne. And their allegiance to story and character is always in service to revealing truth.

 

 

Of all the great film directors to some out of the old studio system, only one, that craggy, gangly, hard angle of a man, John Huston, continued to thrive in the New Hollywood and well beyond.

It’s important to note Huston was a writer-director who asserted great independence even under contract. He began as a screenwriter at Universal and learned his craft there before going to work at Warner Brothers. But Huston was an accomplished writer long before he ever got to Hollywood. As a young man he found success as a journalist and short story writer, getting published in some of the leading magazines and newspapers of the day. Indeed, he did a lot things before he landed in Tinsel Town. He boxed, he painted, he became a horseman and cavalry officer in the Mexican uprisings, he hunted big gamma he acted and he caroused. His father Walter Huston was an actor in vaudeville before making it on the legitimate stage and then in films.

What he most loved though was reading. His respect for great writing formed early and it never left him. Having grown up the son of a formidable actor, he also respected the acting craft and the power and magic of translating words on a page into dramatic characters and incidents that engage and move us.

He admired his father’s talent and got to study his process up close. Before ever working in Hollywood, John Huston also made it his business to observe how movies were made.

But like most of the great filmmakers of that era, Huston lived a very full life before he ever embarked on a screen career. It’s one of the reasons why I think the movies made by filmmakers like Huston and his contemporaries seem more informed by life than even the best movies today. There’s a well lived-in weight to them that comes from having seen and done some things rather than rehashing things from books or film classes or television viewings.

Because of his diverse passions, Huston films are an interesting mix of the masculinity and fatalistic of, say. a Hemingway, and the ambiguity and darkness of, say, an F. Scott Fitzgerald or Eugene O’Neill. I use literature references because Huston’s work is so steeped in those traditions and influences. In film terms, I suppose the closest artists his work shares some kinship with are Wyler and John Ford, though Huston’s films are freer in form than Wyler’s and devoid of the sentimentality of Ford. As brilliantly composed as Wyler’s films are, they’re rather stiff compared to Huston’s. As poetic as Ford’s films are, they are rather intellectually light compared to Huston’s.

At Warners Huston developed into one of the industry’s top screenwriters with an expressed interest in one day directing his own scripts. Of all the Hollywood writers that transitioned to directing, he arguably emerged as the most complete filmmaker. While he never developed a signature visual style, he brought a keen intelligence to his work that emphasized character development and relationship between character and place. He made his directing invisible so as to better serve the story. When I think of Huston, I think of lean and spare. He perfected the art of cutting in the camera. He was precise in what he wanted in the frame and he got as close to what he had on the page and in his head as perhaps anyone who’s made feature-length narrative films. He did it all very efficiently and professionally but aesthetic choices came before any commercial considerations. He was known to be open to actors and their needs and opinions, but he was not easily persuaded to change course because he was a strong-willed artist who knew exactly what he wanted, which is to say he knew exactly what the script demanded.

His films are among the most literate of their or any era, yet they rarely feel stagy or artificial. From the start, Huston revealed a gift for getting nitty gritty reality on screen. He was also very big on location shooting when that was still more a rarity than not and he sometimes went to extreme lengths to capture the real thing, such as encamping in the Congo for “The African Queen.” Look at his “The Man Who Would Be King” and you’ll find it’s one of the last great epic adventure stories and Huston and Co.really did go to harsh, remote places to get its settings right.

The realism of his work is often balanced by a lyrical romanticism. But there are some notable exceptions to this in films like “Fat City.”

He sometimes pushed technical conventions with color experiments in “Moulin Rouge,” “Moby Dick” and “Reflections in a Golden Eye.”

As a young man learning the ropes, he reportedly was influenced by William Wyler and other masters and clearly Huston was a good student because right out of the gate with his first film as director, “The Maltese Falcon,” his work was fully formed.

In his first two decades as a writer-director, Huston made at least a half dozen classics. His best work from this period includes:

The Maltese Falcon
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Asphalt Jungle
Key Largo
The Red Badge of Courage
Heaven Knows Mr. Allison
Beat the Devil
Moby Dick
The Unforgiven

Huston remained a relevant director through the 1960s with such films as:

The Misfits
Freud
The List of Adrian Messenger
The Night of the Iguana
Reflections in a Golden Eye

But his greatest work was still ahead of him in the 1970s and 1980s when all but a handful of the old studio filmmakers were long since retired or dead or well past their prime. Huston’s later works are his most complex and refined:

Fat City
The Man Who Would Be King
Wiseblood
Under the Volcano
Prizzi’s Honor
The Dead

I have seen all these films, some of them numerous times, so I can personally vouch for them. There are a few others I’ve seen that might belong on his best efforts list, including “The Roots of Heaven.” Even a near miss like “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” is worth your time. And there are a handful of ’70s era Huston films with good to excellent reputations I’ve never gotten around to seeing, notably “The Kremlin Letter” and “The Mackintosh Man,” that I endeavor to see and judge for myself one day.

 

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

Three star-crossed iconic actors with Huston, Arthur Miller, Eli Wallach and Co. on the set of “The Misfits”

 

It would be easy for me to discuss any number of his films but I elect to explore his final and, to my tastes anyway, his very best film, “The Dead” (1987). For me, it is a masterpiece that distills everything Huston learned about literature, film, art, music, life, you name it, into an extraordinary mood piece that is profound in its subtleties and observations. For much of his career, Huston portrayed outward adventures of characters in search of some ill-fated quest. These adventures often played out against distinct, harsh urban or natural landscapes. By the end of his career, he turned more and more to exploring inward adventures. “The Dead” is an intimate examination of grief, love, longing and nostalgia. Based on a James Joyce short story, it takes place almost entirely within a private home during a Christmas gathering that on the surface is filled with merriment but lurking just below is bittersweet melancholia, particularly for a married couple stuck in the loss of their child. It is a tender tone poem whose powerful evocation of time, place and emotion is made all the more potent because it is so closely, carefully observed. Much of the inherent drama and feeling resides in the subtext behind the context. Discovering these hidden meaning sin measured parts is one of the many pleasures of this subdued film that has more feeling in one frame than any blockbuster does in its entirety. “The Dead” is as moving a meditation on the end of things, including human life, that I have ever seen.

Huston made the film while a very sick and physically feeble old man. He was in fact dying. But it might as well be the work of a young stallon because it’s that vital and rigorous. The fact that he was near death though gives his interpretation and expression of the story added depth and poignancy. He knew well the autumnal notes it was playing. The film starts his daughter Angelica Huston. It was their third and final collaboraton.

If you don’t know Huston the writer-director I urge you to seek out his work and even if you do you may discover he made films you didn’t associate with him. Just like we often don’t pay attention to the bylines of writers who author pieces we read and even enjoy, some of us don’t pay strict attention to who the directors of films are, even if we enjoy them. Some of you may even be more familiar with Huston’s acting than his directing. His turn in “Chinatown” is a superb example of character acting. My point is, whatever Huston means or doesn’t meant to you, seek out his work and put the pieces together of the many classics he made that you’ve seen and will make a point to see.

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