As I write this, the Film Society of Lincoln Center (FSLC) here in New York is in the midst of a complete John Huston retrospective (December 19 – January 11). The series includes thirty-seven features and five documentaries directed by Huston, plus several of the many films he acted in, most notably Chinatown (1974), and less notably Tentacles (1977). For my money, John Huston is one of the best American directors, along with Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick, Robert Altman, and Martin Scorsese. If I had to choose, I’d say my favorite Huston films are The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and Fat City (1972). They are, without qualification, very close to perfect from beginning to end.
By the time he came to make The Maltese Falcon, Huston was already an established screenwriter at Warner Bros., having written or co-written Jezebel (1938), Juarez (1939), Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940), High Sierra and Sergeant York (1941). He had a clause put in his contract that if he stayed on at Warners, they would give him a chance to direct. Huston said in 1969, “I saw no great dividing line between writing and directing…The directing of a film to me is simply the extension of the process of writing.”
Huston’s film of The Maltese Falcon is one of the most faithful adaptations of a novel ever made. I’d seen the film several times before reading the novel, and was surprised to see just how true to the book it was, particularly in the dialogue. “Dashiell Hammett’s book had been filmed twice before, but the previous screen adaptors didn’t have the faith in the story that we did. Our script simply reduced the book to a screenplay, without any fancy additions of our own.” (Huston, 1973) “I considered the Hammett novel practically a screenplay, and we had a wonderful time making the movie, no sense of making a classic, of course. Everybody just had a lot of fun doing what they were doing and liking themselves doing it.” (Huston, 1979)
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like The Maltese Falcon. It’s endlessly watchable, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. The story and characters may not seem all that real, but after all these years it’s almost like a fairy tale. Sam Spade is one of Humphrey Bogart’s most iconic roles, along with Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946) and Rick Blaine in Casablanca (1942). The Maltese Falcon established the archetypal Bogart persona and made him a star.
It’s interesting to see how the film is sensationalized in the following trailer from the original release.
The Maltese Falcon was an auspicious and audacious directing debut for Huston, one that set the bar high for his future work. He certainly matched the promise of that film with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948. Seeing it again recently confirmed for me just how great it is. The film received many awards, including Academy Awards to John Huston for Best Director and Best Screenplay, and his father Walter for Best Supporting Actor. In an interview from 1973, Huston is asked, “If you could put just one scene from any of your films in a time capsule and label it John Huston, director, what would it be?” Huston answered, “Well, it would have to be my old man dancing in The Treasure of Sierra Madre.” The following clip shows that scene, and it is a wonder — Walter Huston at his best.
And then there’s this scene with Alfonso Bedoya as a Mexican bandit and his famous “No stinking badges!” dialogue.
Two years later Huston delivered another great film, The Asphalt Jungle, an important work of classic film noir. It has an especially strong cast, including Marilyn Monroe in her first real screen role. The film is anchored by Sterling Hayden in a role similar in appearance and behavior to his character in the equally great The Killing, directed by Stanley Kubrick in 1956 (see my previous post on The Killing – 4/2/13).
The plotting of The Asphalt Jungle, which tells the story of the detailed planning of a robbery and its aftermath, is as tight as it could be. We always know who’s doing what and where we are. Huston’s often unusual compositions add to the tension and uneasiness of the scenes, which can be seen in this shot of Marilyn Monroe and Louis Calhern.
In 1973 Huston had this to say about his use of the camera in his films. “…I look upon the camera as still another actor on the set. The relationship between the actors is important but the relationship between the actors and the camera is also important. The camera can be as eloquent as the finest actor if you know how to use it…good camera work should be unobtrusive. One set-up should naturally lead to the next without anyone noticing – it’s like a ballet. A good scene tells you how it should be shot…A bad scene is the most difficult to shoot, since there is no way you can shoot it to make it look any better than it is.” The following clip from The Asphalt Jungle is an excellent example of this approach.
In the 1970s and 1980s John Huston turned out an unusually strong run of films, beginning with Fat City in ’72, and ending in 1987 with The Dead, his glorious final film, a poetic and meditative swan song based on James Joyce’s short story. In between were The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Wise Blood (1979), Under the Volcano (1984), and Prizzi’s Honor (1985).
I watched Fat City recently on DVD. I hadn’t seen it since its original release, but had remembered being strongly affected by it. It has a straightforward, almost documentary, approach to the material, which focuses on the down-and-out world of amateur boxers in Stockton, California. The film is objective, non-judgmental, and views the people of this world with an unsentimental respect. The alcoholic rawness of the relationship between Stacey Keach and Susan Tyrell is like something out of a Charles Bukowski story. This is very much a film of the 70s.
The IMDb bio of John Huston refers to him as “an eccentric rebel of epic proportions…” That’s not far wrong. He certainly went his own way, all the way to the end. While filming The Dead, he was wheelchair-bound and constantly hooked up to oxygen to combat chronic emphysema.
It’s hard to pin Huston down. In 1973 he said, “Critics have never been able to discover a unifying theme in my films. For that matter, neither have I…I don’t seek to interpret reality by placing my stamp on it. I try to be as faithful as I can to the material I have chosen to film. Everything technical and artistic in the picture is designed to depict that material for an audience.” It’s interesting that the vast majority of his films were adaptations of novels, short stories, and plays. Huston drew on the works of Dashiell Hammett, B. Traven, Maxwell Anderson, Stephen Crane, Rudyard Kipling, Flannery O’Connor, Malcolm Lowry, James Joyce, to name a few.
I really like this quote from an interview in 1974. I think it says a lot about the way Huston made movies. “The greatest piece of advice I ever had…When I went to make my first film The Maltese Falcon, Henry (producer Henry Blanke) said, ‘Just remember one thing John: all I ever need to tell you…each scene, as you make it, is the most important scene in the film. Whether it’s somebody getting out of an automobile or whatever – it’s the most important scene at that moment.’”
The following clip is of Huston’s speech accepting the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1983. It’s just beautiful.
Angelica Huston on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
John Huston on Marilyn Monroe in The Asphalt Jungle
John Huston on Fat City
TCM Tribute to John & Walter Huston
All of the quotes in this post, including the ones that follow, are taken from John Huston Interviews, edited by Robert Emmet Long, published in 2001 by the University Press of Mississippi as part of their excellent “Conversations with Filmmakers” series.
“The one thing I always try to experiment with is accepting suggestions from people who work with me. I don’t like to dictate, I like to receive stimuli from all: not only the cameraman and the actors, but the grips and the script girl, or the animal trainers in the case of The Bible. I try to create an atmosphere on the set where everyone feels he can participate.” – 1965
“The trick is in the writing and casting. If you cast the right people, using only good actors, and adjust the script to suit the actors you’ve chosen, then it’s best to leave them to work out their own gestures and movements. Your job is to explain to them the effect you want, and your skill lies in being to do that exactly and vividly. Then, if they’re good actors, it’s best not to interfere in how they get your effect across – you’ll only throw their natural performance out of gear if you try.” – 1952
“I believe the most important part of picture making is the casting – matching the actor to the proper character and making sure the actor understands the character.” – 1972
“Acting is part intuitive and part technical. The English train their actors to be superb technicians. Americans tend to rely on charisma.” – 1972
“I direct actors about as little as possible. The better an actor, the less I have to direct. I want to get as much out of the actor himself as I can. Because wonderful accidents occur. I guide an actor rather than direct; expand a performance or reduce it. So far as the mechanical element goes – why, that’s just being a traffic cop.” – 1972
“I choose an actor as a rule for his…no, not as a rule, but always…for his kinship to the role. I cast personalities rather than actors. Then if they’re superior actors, why that’s so much velvet.” – 1972
“The very best actors, the ones that fill me with admiration, are those that furnish surprises.” – 1972
“I like working on location. The location, just like an actor, gives something to the picture and helps to color it, you know, envelop it in an atmosphere.” – 1973
“I don’t make a distinction between writing and directing. But to write and direct one’s own material is certainly the best approach.” – 1977
“The films that were well-written and well-prepared beforehand had fewer of the kinds of problems that are really disturbing than the ones that weren’t. The ones that got you down were those where you were working with material that wasn’t very good – and you were trying to hide from the audience the fact that what they were seeing was not all that good.” – 1977
“I always do as little directing as possible. Always. Because I don’t want to color characterization with my own personality. I try to get as much out of the actor as possible and tell him as little as possible.” – 1977
“I don’t tell them (actors) what to do to begin the scene, I just say go ahead and show me. And with a rehearsal, as a rule, they fall right into the right positions. You don’t have to tell them. Just let nature take its course. Sometimes of course you have to give some help, but generally speaking they present you with the scene and then you discover what is the best set-up to photograph the scene. As a result you get something that isn’t mechanical – that isn’t done for the camera. And because it’s true, you can just naturally introduce the camera into the scene.” – 1977
“Making a film is like every other undertaking in life. Its success depends on whether or not you’re equipped for it. And I’m not referring to learning. I don’t know that I’ve learned a hell of a lot. I think I was probably as good a director at the beginning as I am now.” – 1977
“The cameraman is of course cast for the picture just that same as an actor would be.” – 1977
“…I don’t look for certain themes. I don’t even read with the intention of finding material, I just read out of interest…But there are also those films I do for money, and not for any other reason.” – 1977
Michael Caine (co-star with Sean Connery in The Man Who Would Be King) re Huston: “Most directors today don’t know what they want – so they shoot everything they can think of. They use the camera like a machine gun. John uses it like a sniper.” – 1981
The John Huston films referenced in this post are available for streaming, rental, or purchase from Amazon and Netflix. – Ted Hicks