Posted by Greg Ferrara on September 17, 2014
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.
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