b. 5 August 1906, Nevada, Missouri, U.S,
d. 28 August 1987, Middletown, Rhode Island, U.S.
John Huston, the American director, writer and actor, was prolific, various and uneven. As a director, he worked in just about every known film genre except animation. If one discounts the films that, through miscalculation on his part or mutilation by a studio, turned out to be mediocre, there remains a huge body of superb and enduring work.
After several years in Hollywood as a screenwriter, Huston got to write and direct his first feature: Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective novel, The Maltese Falcon (1941). “In years to come,” wrote Lawrence Grobel in his definitive Houston biography, “the French would credit the movie with starting a new genre called film noir—dark, urban, brutal, disturbing, misogynistic stories focusing on private eyes. James Agee and Pauline Kael would continue to praise it as ‘The best private-eye melodrama ever made’ and ‘The most high-style thriller ever made in America.” 1 During World War II, Houston made three significant documentaries: Report from the Aleutians (1942), San Pietro (1944), and Let There Be Light (1945) (more about them below). In his first four years back in Hollywood after the war, he made four films that are each regarded as classics: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), for which he and his father received Oscars (John for best director and best screenplay; Walter for best supporting actor); the films noirs Key Largo (1948) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950); and the romantic epic The African Queen (1951), for which Humphrey Bogart received his only best actor Oscar.
The Asphalt Jungle, wrote Philip Kemp, “was the progenitor of a long cycle of ‘caper movies,’ in which a crime (here a million-dollar jewel theft) is successfully carried out by sympathetically depicted criminals, only to fail through subsequent ill-chance or internal dissension. Huston was breaking new ground in presenting crime as an occupation as any other…” 2. Marilyn Monroe, with whom Huston would later work on The Misfits, had her first important role in that film.
Late in his life, he made three superb independently financed films based on important works of 20th century fiction: Wise Blood (1979), Under the Volcano (1984) and The Dead (1987). Those films were made at a time when his failing health made him uninsurable, so none of the major studios was willing to risk a big budget on him. His penultimate film, the black comedy Prizzi’s Honor (1985), starring Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner, and Huston’s daughter Angelica, got made only because producer John Foreman (who had produced three earlier Huston films: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, 1972; The Mackintosh Man, 1973; and The Man Who Would be King, 1975) managed to have an insurable stand-by director. 3.
Anjelica Huston received a best supporting actress Oscar for Prizzi’s Honor, making John Huston the only filmmaker to direct both his father and his child in Academy Award-winning performances. In between and along the way, were films that were terrific and films that were flops not only financially, but critically. One, even Huston, himself, loathed: The Unforgiven (1960), a western that even a great cast (Burt Lancaster, Audrey Hepurn, Audie Murphy, Charles Bickford and Lilian Gish) couldn’t save. Huston found it “bombastic and over-inflated.” 4. Sometimes the fault was his; just as often, it was the studios making a sodden mess out of a film that might very well have worked had they just left it alone.
MGM, for example, cut Huston’s two-hour The Red Badge of Courage to 69 minutes and added a narrator to tell the audiences everything the shortened film couldn’t possibly show. Huston’s final version of Reflections in a Golden Eye was suffused with a golden glow throughout; the color was one of the characters in the film. Warner Brothers released it in blazing Technicolour instead 5. And John Wayne, without Huston’s consent or participation, insisted on reshooting and reordering scenes in The Barbarian and the Geisha so he looked better and had far more lines. 6.
In 1942, as he was about to finish shooting Across the Pacific, starring his pal Humphrey Bogart, Huston got orders telling him to report to the Army immediately. The director recalled:
The story involved a Japanese plan to pull a “Pearl Harbor” on the Panama Canal. Bogart had been captured by the Japanese—led by master spy Sydney Greenstreet—and was being held prisoner in a house near the Canal. I proceeded to make things as difficult as possible for my successor. I had Bogie tied to a chair, and installed about three times as many Japanese soldiers as were needed to keep him prisoner. There were guards at every window brandishing machine guns. I made it so that there was no way in God’s green world that Bogart could logically escape. I shot the scene, then called Jack Warner and said, “Jack, I’m on my way. I’m in the Army. Bogie will know how to get out.”
Huston’s replacement, Vincent Sherman, had “one of the Japanese soldiers in the room go berserk. Bogie escaped in the confusion, with the comment, ‘I’m not easily trapped, you know!’ I’m afraid, from that moment on, the picture lacked credibility.” 7 The gags stopped after that. Huston did some minor film work for the army, then directed and narrated three documentaries: Report from the Aleutians (1942), about fighter and bomber pilots fighting the Japanese and the weather in Alaska; San Pietro (1944, released to the public in 1945, sometimes listed as Battle for San Pietro), about the liberation of one small Italian town; and Let There Be Light (1945), about soldiers stateside trying to cope with what is now generally referred to as PTSD.
During the Aleutians work, Huston went up with fighters and with bombers. He wrote, about one of his flights:
Zeros attacked us. I was trying to photograph over the shoulder of the waist gunner. Presently my camera wound down, and I lowered it to rewind. The waist gunner wasn’t there. I looked down and saw him lying dead at my feet. The belly gunner motioned me to take over his gun while he took the waist gun, which was the most important defensively. In order to facilitate his firing, he had to stand with one foot on the body of the waist gunner. 8
“The war in the Aleutians,” Huston writes, “was…bitter and costly, with disproportionate casualties because it was waged by aircraft in literally the worst flying weather in the world.” 9. (An Eskimo elder I talked with in Nome in 1998 spoke of the young pilots he watched take off from Aleutian airbases during that war. He still, he told me, had thoughts of them, dead deep in the cold water. “I’d watch them go out and I’d count them; then I’d watch them come back and I’d count them.” He pointed to the air with his index finger, as if he were counting the planes. “There’s a lot of dead men out there.” He nodded toward the sea.)
The army was displeased because so much of the film portrayed dull routine. Must of the airmen’s lives in the Aleutians of course was dull routine. Only a fraction of anyone’s time was spent on actual bombing runs or in dogfights with Japanese Zeros. But they released the film anyway. Like all Department of Defense films of the time, there were no individual credits, so the film’s nomination for the 1943 Academy Award in documentary went to the United States Army Pictorial Service.
There are conflicting versions about how San Pietro was made. Huston, in his autobiography and elsewhere, seems to claim he was there for all of it. Peter Maslowski, in his 1993 book Armed With Cameras: The American Military Photographers of World War II, argues otherwise. He says that when Huston and his crew reached San Pietro the battle was pretty much over, so some of the scenes were reenacted. 10
What to make of this? If Huston wasn’t there for the battle, someone obviously was. Some of the scenes may have been reenacted, but not all or even most of them. In any case, Huston and his crew made a film that remains one of the most powerful documentaries of World War II. It shows, among other things, one of the most important aspects of war: for historians and generals, wars and battles are big things, taking place in complex contexts. For the people on the ground (or in the cockpit), war is this day, in this place.
In the mid-1980s, at the screening room of film historian James Card, I watched San Pietro with a man who had been in that battle. “I’ve always liked this film,” he said. I asked why. “Because that’s how it was.” For the War Department, Huston’s film was too much like it was:
Sure enough, by the time I got back to my desk, furious complaints had started coming in. The War Department wanted no party of the film. I was told by one of its spokesmen that it was “anti-war.” I pompously replied that if I ever made a picture that was pro-war, I hoped someone would take me out and shoot me. The guy looked at me as if he were considering just that.
The film was classified SECRET and filed away, to ensure it would not be viewed by enlisted men. The Army argued that the film would be demoralizing to men who were going into combat for the first time.
Yet San Pietro grained a certain amount of notoriety within the military establishment, and perhaps for that reason General of the Army George C. Marshall asked to see it. His official comment upon viewing the film was that “this picture should be seen by every American soldier in training. It will not discourage but rather will prepare them for the initial shock of combat.” With that, the whole scene changed. The sheep fell into line. Everyone praised the picture. I was decorated and promoted to major. 11
Let There Be Light, a 58-minute documentary filmed in 1945 at Mason General Hospital in Brentwood, New York. The film depicts combat veterans being treated for what was then called “battle fatigue” or “shell shock.”
In an interview, Huston stated that he was commissioned to make the film because at the time, returning soldiers with nervous and emotional problems were not getting jobs. “And there was no more disgrace to this discharge than if the man had been a physical casualty–had lost an arm or a leg.” …The film was withheld from general release by the War Department, ostensibly because the rights of the men in the film had been violated, even though they had signed releases, according to Huston. … “It was banned, I believe, because the War Department felt it was too strong medicine.” Huston requested and received permission from Army public relations to show the picture at MOMA in the summer of 1946. Moments before the program was scheduled to start, however, the print was confiscated. 12
The film was not shown public until January 16, 1981. What frightened the War Department so? Americans had plenty of experience seeing screen depictions of men in war, but there were no screen depictions of the invisible and enduring scars of war before Let There Be Light. That was a secret the War Department, and later the Department of Defense, preferred not be told. What changed? It wasn’t just lobbying by MPAA president Jack Valenti. Rather, by that time what had never been spoken of by veterans of World War II and the Korean Conflict had been brought to public attention by Vietnam veterans. The condition had a new name—Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—but it was exactly the same thing. And by 1980, the Defense Department had lost control of that ugly secret.
Two of Huston’s later films would be specifically indebted to his wartime experience: Freud, and The Red Badge of Courage. The latter, to go by all accounts, fell afoul of the preview audiences and the studio because it cut too close to the bone. It was a film about fear and coming to terms with fear and that just wasn’t movie-movie enough for the random audiences who hadn’t a clue what they were about to see, or the studio moguls who couldn’t see beyond that kind of audience. No one will ever know what fate John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage might have had if had it been marketed for the film it was: that film does not exist. All that exists is the 69-minute studio version.
Huston’s mother was a journalist who often took him on her travels; his father was in vaudeville, later in legitimate theater. When he was three, his parents separated, after which he shuttled between them. In both milieux, language, performance and art were constantly in the air. Huston names as one of his formative experiences the period in his late teens, beginning in 1924, when he was with his father when Walter was acting in the Provincetown Players’ presentation of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms.
“At first I wanted to become a painter,” he told interviewer Dan Ford, “but meeting O’Neill in New York, when my father was doing Desire Under the Elms, first drew me to the theater. I think I learned more about films from O’Neill than anyone—what a scene consisted of and so forth. By the time I came to Hollywood as a writer I was conscious that I wanted to direct. Working with such greats as Wyler and Howard Hawks only served to reinforce it. It was not easy to jump from writer to director in those days. There was just one other man who had made the jump [Preston Sturges], and I wasn’t able to do it until much later, of course.” 13
Houston’s autobiography, An Open Book, lists few actors among his close friends and visitors to his Irish Estate, St. Clerans. Rather it is e.e. cummings, Robert Capa, George Gershwin, Carson McCullers, Gene Kelly, Irwin Shaw, Art Buchwald. One Christmas, he got his friend John Steinbeck to dress up as Santa for the party at St. Clerans.
His last film, an adaptation of James Joyce’s poignant story, “The Dead,” at first seems to center on a jolly family Christmas dinner, but what it is really about is a marriage that on the surface is doing well enough but which, in fact, suffers an unbreachable chasm lodged in distant memory neither member of that marriage can address: one can only remember it, the other can only not be part of it. The last image of the story is the husband, who has just understood all of this, standing on a Dublin balcony watching snow fall and feeling at one with the countless dead that snow gently covers, as far as the eye can see and beyond.
It is one of the most subtle and poignant short stories in twentieth-century English literature. It should, by all the usual markers, be unfilmable. Huston filmed it. His daughter Angelica starred in that film, and his son Danny was in it. During the making, Huston was on oxygen because of his emphysema. He died soon after it was finished. A man with his life-long love of literature could not have been unaware of the connections between that story and his own. The Dead is at once a love letter to his family and his own obituary.
The six pages of chapter 35 of An Open Book 14 have a tone and address different from any other chapter in the book. There are hardly any stories there. It is Huston’s primer on filmmaking, his rules of the road. It is virtually unremarked in reviews of the book, but it is the clearest and most succinct statement of his practice he or anyone else ever made. He discusses camera placement, cutting, shooting, working with actors, and chance. In it, he says many of the things he says in a score of interviews, but he says them better in chapter 35, and they are grounded in a context of his, not an interviewer’s choosing. The first paragraph is perhaps the most succinct challenge to auteurism by a working director:
I read without discipline, averaging three to four books a week, and have since I was a kid, Gram used to read aloud to me books by her favorite authors: Dickens, Tolstoy, Marie Corelli. She also read speeches from Shakespeare to me, and had me repeat them to her. When I was in my early teens, we’d talk about the “style” of an author. I was puzzled over the meaning of the word. Was an author’s style his way of arranging words to set himself apart from other writers. An invention, so to speak? Surely there is more to style than that! One day it came to me like a revelation people write differently because they think differently. An original idea demands a unique approach. So that style isn’t simple a concoction of the writer, but simply the expression of a central idea.
I’m not aware of myself as a director having a style. I’m told that I do, but I don’t recognize it. I see no remote similarity, for example, between The Red Badge of Courage and Moulin Rouge. However observant the critic, I don’t think he’d be able to tell that the same director made them both. Bergman has a style that’s unmistakably his. He is a prime example of the auteur approach to making pictures. I suppose it is the best approach: the director conceives the idea, writes it, puts it on film. Because he is creating out of himself, controlling all aspects of the wok, his films a unity and a direction. I admire directors like Bergman, Fellini, Buñuel, whose every picture is in some way connected with their private lives, but that’s never been my approach. I’m eclectic. I like to draw on sources other than myself….
I have been speaking of style, but before there can be style, there must be grammar. There is, in fact, a grammar to picture-making. The laws are as inexorable as they are in language, and are to be found in the shots themselves. When do we fade-in or fade-out with a camera? When do we dissolve, pan, dolly, cut? The rules governing these techniques are well grounded. They must, of course, be disavowed and disobeyed from time to time, but one must be aware of their existence, for motion pictures have a great deal in common with our own physiological and psychological processes—more so than any other medium. It is almost as if there were a reel of film behind our eyes. . .as though our very thoughts were projected onto the screen.
Motion pictures, however, are governed by a time sense different from that of real life; different from the theater, too. The rectangle of light up there with the shadows on it demands one’s whole attention. And what it furnishes must satisfy that demand. When we are sitting in a room in a house, there is no single claim on our awareness. Our attention jumps from object to object, drifts in and out of the room. We listen to sounds coming from various points; we may even smell something cooking. In a motion-picture theater, where our undivided attention is given to the screen, time actually moves more slowly, and he action has to be speeded up. Furthermore, whatever action takes place on that screen must not violate our sense of the appropriate. We accomplish this by adhering to the proper grammar of film-making.
For example, a fade-in or a fade-out is akin to waking up or going to sleep. The dissolve indicates either a lapse of time or a change of place. Or it can, in certain instances, that things in different places are happening at the same time. In any case, the images impinge . . . the way dreams proceed, or like the faces you can see when you close your eyes. When we pan, the camera turns from right to left, or vice versa, and serves one of two purposes: it follows an individual, or it informs the viewer of the geography of the scene. You pan from one object to another in order to establish their spatial relationship; thereafter, you cut. We are forever cutting in real life. Look from one object to another across the room. Notice how you involuntarily blink. That’s a cut. You know that the spatial relationship is, there’s nothing to discover about the geography, so you cut with your eyelids. The dolly is when the camera doesn’t simply turn on its axis but moves horizontally or backward and forward. It may move closer to intensify interest and pull away to come to a tableau, thereby putting a finish-or a period—to a scene. A more common purpose is simply to include another figure in the frame.
After several more pages of succinct comments about film making and film form, he concludes:
Given time and freedom, the actors will fall naturally into their places, discover when and where to move, and you will have your shot. And given all those shots, cut together, you will have your microcosm: the past on the winding reel; the present on the screen; the future on the unwinding reel…inevitable…unless the power goes off.
These observations are seldom remarked upon by picture-makers. They are so true, I suppose, that they are simply accepted without question as conventions. But they are conventions that have meaning—even for mavericks.”
The Huston Touch
Andrew Sarris “dismisses Huston as ‘less than meets the eye’ because his films lack an overarching unifying vision. For Sarris, Huston is guilty of the cardinal sin against auteurism: he ‘displayed his material without projecting his personality.’” 15
Sarris is right: Huston’s films aren’t about his personality. Putting his personality on the screen was something in which John Huston had no interest whatsoever. There is no Huston visual or even narrative style; nothing on the screen marks him as auteur, nor, as he said in that long quotation above, would he have wanted it to. If you were to see a Huston film with no foreknowledge of it and no credits, you’d have a hard time knowing it was a film by John Huston. What Sarris missed or, rather, dismissed, is what Huston was doing: he wasn’t making films to document himself; he was telling stories.
He was the most literary of twentieth-century filmmakers. All but three of his thirty-seven feature films are adaptations; he wrote, co-wrote, or had a significant hand in the scripts for nearly all of them. Many films are adapted from books, short stories, plays and other sources. But no filmmaker other than Huston has selected so many works to be adapted and had a critical part in the adaption itself.
These are some of his adaptations/collaborations between his first film, The Maltese Falcon (1941, based on the 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammett and his last (The Dead, based on the final story in James Joyce’s Dubliners, 1914): Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, based on the 1927 novel by B. Traven), Key Largo (1948, based on the 1939 play in blank verse by Maxwell Anderson), The Asphalt Jungle (1950, based on the 1949 novel by W.R. Burnett), The Red Badge of Courage (1951, based in the 1894 novel by Stephen Crane), The African Queen (1951, based on the 1935 novel by C.S. Forester), Moby Dick (1956, based on the 1851 novel by Herman Melville), The Misfits (1961, based on an original script by Arthur Miller), The Night of the Iguana (based on the 1961 play by Tennessee Williams), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967, based on the 1941 novel by Carson McCullers), The Man Who Would Be King (1975, based on the 1888 story by Rudyard Kipling), Wise Blood (1979, based on the 1952 novel by Flannery O’Connor), Under the Volcano (1984, based on the 1947 novel by Malcolm Lowry), and Prizzi’s Honor (1985, based on the 1982 novel by Richard Condon).
The reason, I think auteurists like Sarris couldn’t respond to Huston is his process began far earlier than they ordinarily started paying attention. They were interested in the look and feel of a film; his films came out of his responses to works of literature. Most of the time, it was years before his responses to those works got the point where he could think about translating them to film.
The vision that Huston has for each of the films were, in large part, in place before the locations are scouted or the rehearsals begin. The choices during the shooting are an extension of that. He was, in a very real way, doubly or triply involved in the realization of nearly all of his films. Réalisateur—one of the French terms for director—seems particularly appropriate for him.
Filmmaking is always a collaborative process. For Huston, that process extended in time and sensibility. By the time he set about writing a script, or collaborating with someone else on a script, he had been living with and imaging the original work for years. He wasn’t simply translating a written work into a filmed work. He had experienced a written work; his films were a visual rendition of that experience.
Critics who fault him for leaving this or that out or putting this or that in, or for altering an ending, miss the point. He was not doing films that set out to document fictions. His films were collaborations with those fictions. He was never after a good rendition or translation of a story, book or play. He was always unambiguous in what he was about: he wanted a good movie on the screen in that darkened room. All that other stuff was elsewhere.
He doesn’t simply adapt a short story or book to film. He collaborates with it: “collaborate” because, in transporting a narrative experience to a schematic for a film, he seems to have no compunction about altering significant parts when those alterations make for a better screen story. The differences for him between a read narrative and a narrative experienced on a screen were both enormous and specific.
He made the ending of Night of the Iguana far more upbeat than Tennessee Williams, who was on the set, would have liked, and he changed the ending of The African Queen entirely. [I’ve been told, more than once, that C.M. Forester saw the film and approved of Huston’s change. I haven’t been able to confirm that in print] He and his script collaborator, Richard Brooks, moved Maxwell Anderson’s 1930s verse play into the present: “As Brooks and I wrote it, Key Largo had a stronger dramatic line than Maxwell Anderson’s original 1930s play, and we brought it up to date. The high hopes and idealism of the Roosevelt years were slipping away, and the underworld—as represented by Edward G. Robinson and his hoods—was once again on the move, taking advantage of social apathy We made this the theme of the film.” 16
Huston’s shooting style is spare: he would often move on after a single take. 17 He refused to shoot “master scenes,” shots that showed the space and everyone it in; he preferred to let the camera’s eye reveal the relationships in the shot.” 18 He rarely provided editors enough alternative shots to make a movie other than the one he had in mind: “I edit my pictures in the camera. I don’t protect myself. I don’t take other shots of the ones that I need. One is almost forced to edit a film the way I shoot it. I don’t believe that pictures are made in the cutting room. They’re sometimes helped, but they’re not made.” 19 Studios could ruin it by inappropriate cutting (as happened to the Crane film) or by screwing up the palette (as happened with Reflections in a Golden Eye), or by letting a star’s ego force them to shoot scenes the director would not have shot and ordered scenes in a way the director would not have accepted (as happened with The Barbarian and the Geisha), but other than that, his films, however much each differed from every other film he made, were what he’d read on the page and what he’d seen in his mind’s eye.
For him, perhaps the most important part of his style not only his script adaptation but the film itself. was that both should be invisible “I would say that there are maybe half a dozen directors who really know their camera—how to move their camera. It’s a pity that critics often do not appreciate this. On the other hand, I think it’s OK that audiences should not be aware of this. In fact, when the camera is in motion, in the best-directed scenes, the audiences should not be aware of what the camera is doing. They should be following the action and the road of the idea so closely, that they shouldn’t be aware of what’s going on technically…. When you become aware of how things are being said, you get separated from the idea. This doesn’t mean that an original rendering isn’t to be sought after, but that rendering must be so close to the idea itself that you aren’t aware of it.” 20
John Huston has 54 acting credits, several of them for voice-overs, but many for significant roles. The most notable, perhaps, is as an archbishop in Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal (1963), and as the villainous and incestuous Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), and as film director Jake Hannaford in Orson Welles’ posthumous trainwreck of a film, The Other Side of the Wind (2018). Huston’s first screen appearance was as an uncredited extra in William Wyler’s The Shakedown (1929). Perhaps his most iconic, also uncredited, is the man in Tampico in the White Suit in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). His other appearances were as eclectic as his own oeuvre: The Lawgiver in Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), The Abbe in De Sade (1969), M in Casino Royale (1967), Noah in The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966), a narrator in Cannery Row (1982), Gandalf the Grey in The Hobbit (1977), the narrator in Freud (1962) and in his three WWII action documentaries.
He often said that he didn’t take the acting at all seriously, that it was a far easier way to make money than directing: all he had to do was show up, read or perform the lines, and collect a check. Perhaps. There seems to have been little in life that Houston didn’t address with complete seriousness and dedication: writing and directing movies, seducing any woman who caught his eye and came into range, riding to hounds, big game hunting, gambling. Many of the acting jobs were, as were a few of his films, trivial pursuits, done because of his constant need for money. But most were, as everything else in his life, engagements taken seriously.
Huston on the page
Huston wrote a fine autobiography, An Open Book. It is ‘fine’ in the sense that it is full of good stories from a great storyteller. That tells us nothing about the truth of it. Groebel characterizes it as “a sanitized version of his life” 21. An autobiography is, presumably, based on facts, but not all facts are told and not all are told the same way. In an ideal library, the section on autobiography would be situated between Fiction and History. In such a library, I suspect, An Open Book would be on the fiction side and the memoir by Huston’s daughter, Angelica, A Story Lately Told: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York, 22 would be on the historical side).
He describes, for example, his years at St. Clerans—the estate he owned in Ireland—as an idyllic time at the manor, receiving guests, going on fox hunts, and raising a family. Angelica recalls those same years as bitter-sweet: full of childhood memories of things and events and odors and colours, and also marked by acrimony between her parents, her father’s occasional physical brutality to her 23, his frequent long absences, and his many lovers: “The holidays were always peppered with Dad’s ex-girlfriends and ex-wives. It wasn’t long before I realized that my father was making love to many of the women who I thought were my friends at St. Clerans” 24. She mentions, among others, Edna O’Brien, Marietta Tree, and Zoë Sallis (who would become the mother of her half-brother, Danny).
One event in particular figures in her account that is wholly absent from his: the time her mother, then separated from John, came to St. Clerans and John shouted, “Here’s my wife, who I haven’t seen for a year.” At that point, she opened her coat and everyone could see that she was pregnant. The evening did not end well. 25
John Huston was more complex than either book suggests. Anyone reading either of these telling autobiographies should read the other. And should keep in mind the Italian proverb: “All stories are true, and some of them happened.”
Lillian Ross’s Picture: John Huston, M.G.M., and the Making of the Red Badge of Courage is the best description of Huston at work and the best depiction of the studio system in vivo. Ross spent a year and a half with Huston during preparation and shooting, with Huston and studio officials during the tryouts, and with studio officials as they set about stripping the film of any coherence whatsoever. Her work originally appeared in 1952 as a group of five articles in The New Yorker. 26
Perhaps the single best article on Huston’s films through The Man who would be King is Richard Jameson’s film-by-film appraisal, “John Huston,” Film Comment, May/June 1980, 25-56. Jameson is one of the few Huston critics who appreciates, and notes, Huston’s astonishingly subtle camera movements. He is one of the few Huston critics who writes about him in terms of film work.
Douglas McFarland and Wesley King edited a collection of essays about Huston’s adaptations: John Huston as Adaptor 27. Some of the articles, like Dale M. Pollock’s “This Has Got to Be a Masterpiece”: John Huston’s Mangled Adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage 28, are insightful and informed, but many of the essays look at the films as texts rather than as films: they seem unaware that film narrative and print narrative use different rhetorics. The McFarland and King book is worth a look, but the space for a good study on Huston’s adaptations remains open.
Location work with Huston has occasioned at least two novels and one excellent memoir. The memoir is Katherine Hepburn’s, The Making of The African Queen: How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. (New York: Knopf, Knopf, 1987). The novels are Ray Bradbury’s Green Shadows, White Whale: A Novel of Ray Bradbury’s Adventures Making Moby Dick with John Huston in Ireland (New York: Knopf, 1992) and Peter Viertel, White Hunter, Black Heart (New York: Doubleday, 1953).
Robert Emmet Long, John Huston Interviews contains 21 interviews with Huston. They’re a mixed lot, varying with the interviewer, the publication, and Huston’s mood. The two best pieces are perhaps Karel Reisz’s (originally in Sight and Sound, January/March 1952, 130-132). It’s more a report on a conversation, but it is nonetheless one of the best short pieces on Huston’s method I’ve seen. The other fine piece is Lawrence Groebel’s Playboy interview (130-150; originally in Playboy, September 1985,63+), which led to Groebel’s book.
Lawrence Bergreen details the personal and working relationship between James Agee and Huston in: James Agee: A Life. (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1984), 340ff.
Allen Cohen and Harry Lawton, John Huston: A Guide to References and Resources, annotated edition, G.K. Hall, 1997, is an exhaustive list of material about Houston and his films.
Huston wrote or collaborated on the screenplays for all of his films. * indicates the films for which he received a writing credit.
The Dead 1987
Prizzi’s Honor 1985
Under the Volcano 1984
Wise Blood (as Jhon Huston) 1979
Independence (Short) 1976
The Man Who Would Be King 1975*
The MacKintosh Man 1973
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean 1972
Fat City 1972
The Kremlin Letter 1970*
A Walk with Love and Death 1969
Sinful Davey 1969
Reflections in a Golden Eye 1967
Casino Royale (scenes at Sir James Bond’s house and castle in Scotland scenes) 1967
The Bible: In the Beginning… 1966
The Night of the Iguana 1964*
The List of Adrian Messenger 1963
The Misfits 1961
The Unforgiven 1960
The Roots of Heaven 1958
The Barbarian and the Geisha 1958
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison 1957*
Moby Dick 1956*
Beat the Devil 1953*
Moulin Rouge 1952*
The African Queen 1951*
The Red Badge of Courage 1951*
The Asphalt Jungle 1959*
We Were Strangers 1949*
Key Largo 1948*
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre 1948*
Let There Be Light 1946
San Pietro 1945 (sometimes listed as The Battle of San Pietro)
Report from the Aleutians 1943
Across the Pacific 1942
Winning Your Wings (Air Force recruiting film) 1942
This Our Life 1942
The Maltese Falcon 1941*
Credited as “Colour Style Creator for Moby Dick 1956
The War Documentaries Online
Report from the Aleutians: https://archive.org/search.php?query=report%20from%20the%20aleutians
Let there Be Light: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uiD6bnqpJDE
San Pietro: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wztebeQkA3E
Other articles on John Huston in Senses of Cinema
Note: My thanks to my partner Diane Christian for her counsel while I was writing this note on one our favorite directors, and for her keen editorial look at the final version of it.
- Lawrence Groebel, The Hustons (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989), p. 223 ↩
- In John Wakeman, ed., World Film Directors Volume I: 1890-1945 (New York: H.W. Wilson, 1987), p 488 ↩
- Angelica Houston: Watch Me: A Memoir (New York: Scribner, 2014), pp. 96-97 ↩
- John Huston: An Open Book (New York Alfred A. Knopf, 1980), p. 284 ↩
- Gene D. Philips, “Talking with John Hudson,” in Robert Emmet Long, ed., John Huston Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001), p. 42 ↩
- Huston, An Open Book, p. 267 ↩
- Huston, An Open Book, 87-88 ↩
- Huston, An Open Book, p. 90 ↩
- Huston, An Open Book, p. 88 ↩
- New York: The Free Press, 1998, 83-94 ↩
- Houston An Open Book, p. 119 ↩
- American Film Institute, “AFI Catalog of Feature Films: The First 100 Years,” on line at https://catalog.afi.com/Catalog/moviedetails/24480 ↩
- Dan Ford, “A Talk with John Huston,” in Long, John Huston Interviews, 25 ↩
- Huston, An Open Book, pp. 361-366 ↩
- Thomas Leitch, “Introduction: Adapted by John Huston,” in Douglas McFarland and Wesley King, John Huston as Adaptor Albany: SUNY Press, 2017) ↩
- Huston: An Open Book, 151 ↩
- “Fifty percent of Prizzi’s Honor had been shot on the first take.” Groebel, The Hustons, 17 ↩
- Urs Egger, “Interview with John Huston,” in Long, John Huston Interviews, 78 ↩
- American Film Institute, “Dialogue on Film with John Huston,” in Long, John Huston Interviews, 130 ↩
- Gideon Bachmann, “How I make Films: An Interview with John Huston,” in Cooper: Perspectives, 107-108; originally in Film Quarterly 19:1 (Fall 1965) ↩
- Groebel, The Hustons, p. 33 ↩
- (New York: Scribner, 2013 ↩
- Houston: A Story Lately Told, p. 152 ↩
- Huston, A Story Lately Told, p. 95 ↩
- Huston, A Story Lately Told, p. 148 ↩
- For a good commentary on Ross’s book, see Richard Brody, “Lillian Ross’s Brilliant Chronicle of the Power Struggle Behind a John Huston Film,” New Yorker, May 16, 2109. Online at https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-front-row/lillian-rosss-brilliant-chronicle-of-the-power-struggle-behind-a-john-huston-film ↩
- Albany, SUNY Press, 2017 ↩
- Ibid, 139-152 ↩