John Huston wrote: "I don't think of myself as simply, uniquely and forever a director of motion pictures. It is something for which i have a certain talent, and a profession the disciplines of which I have mastered over the years, but I also have a certain talent for other things..." (An Open Book, John Huston p. 360).
"Always and forever, I'm a director." (An Open Book, John Huston P. 368).
In the span of 8 pages in his autobiography John Huston was able to contradict himself regarding his self identity. How would it be possible, then, to define such a man? Certainly he was one of the greatest directors of the 20th century, but he was also a writer of great renown, an actor of varied success, an avid art collector, a boxer, and a horseman to name but a few. He was a larger than life character who lived an interesting and adventurous life, while making more than a handful of truly classic films over his nearly 50 year career. While I have The Maltese Falcon ranked #3, no discussion of Huston's work should start anywhere else. Easily ranked alongside Citizen Kane (Welles '41), L'Atalante (Vigo '32), They Live By Night (Ray '49) & The 400 Blows (Truffaut '60) as one of the greatest directorial debuts in film history, The Maltese Falcon commonly marks the beginning of the Film Noir era. The multi-layered and sophisticated plot structure reworked the best of Dashiell Hammet's novel, with a filmmaker's conciseness to create a taut and engaging whodonit, filled with memorable characters, most notably Humphrey Bogart's Phillip Marlowe.
Moving back to the top of my list to discuss The Asphalt Jungle makes me happy because it's one of my favorite movies of all-time. Sterling Hayden is perfectly cast as Dix Handley, the down & out thief who falls into a jewelry heist that goes bad. His aloof personae & "i don't give a damn' attitude align beautifully with Huston & Ben Maddow's screenplay & Harold Rosson's (Wizard of Oz, Singin' in the Rain) bleak & evocative cinematography. Every character in fact is perfectly written and portrayed, most notably James Whitmore as diner owner/driver Gus, Sam Jaffe as ringleader Doc Riedenschider & Marilyn Monroe as the crooked lawyer's little pet. While the execution & disillusion of the heist drives the plot, it is the twists, turns & double crosses that create the tension. Couple that with a host of sexual overtones, form the innocent, but manipulation Monroe's sex kitten, to the leering Riedenschnieder in the final reel or the pathetic, but loyal Doll's love for Dix, sex has as much to do with the end result as a couple of bad breaks. All the while, Huston keeps a tight lid on the image in each scene, creating claustrophobic interiors and desolate exteriors, that creat the sense of war time bunkers surrounded by the bombed out remains of an abandoned city.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is as much Walter Huston's movie as it is Bogart's. In fact, John Wayne, who though Huston was overrated as a director, once commented that Maltese Falcon & Sierra Madre were considered good only because Walter Huston (John's father) appeared in them. While he may have been incredibly misguided, there is no doubting that Walter Huston's performance in Sierra Madre was a tour de force. As the aging prospector Howard, Huston is the fulcrum on which Bogart's greedy Dobb's & Tim Holt's Curtin pivot throughout the film as they search for gold, find gold and deal with the consequences of both The younger Huston did well to balance the characters, creating both sympathy and antipathy in all three in equal measures, as they struggle with poverty, greed and self destruction. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is a morality tale told simply and brilliantly by an artist at the peak of his powers and is the only example where a father & son each won an Oscar for their participation, Walter for Supporting Actor & John for writing and directing..
Huston was known as an actor's director because he felt that letting the actor's organically discover their character offered a fresher performance than one dictated by him. If ever that practice had to have been testing it would have been in the making of The Misfits. Gable, Monroe & Clift each presented the director with different challenges and a lesser director would have been overwhelmed with the picture suffering irreparably. Not so, here, however, because both Gable & Monroe give career best performances as the aging cowboy, unwilling to change his ways & the lonesome divorcee looking for sense in a confusing and disappointing world. The Misfits is a beautiful and poignant film about human connections, how difficult they are to form and the near impossibility in maintaining them. It's a sad movie. The Misfits has an infamous reputation because it was both Monroe's & Gables last film and many blamed Monroe for causing the stress that led to Gable's fatal heart attack. Looking beyond that, however, The Misfits presents 5 characters that strive for connections & in various forms are able to make them, albeit on their own terms and with only relative success. Huston's light touch with the actors helped give the movie it's true north and elevate it well beyond its reputation to a true master work.
The fact that no fewer than 5 of Huston's Top10 films star Humphrey Bogart is no accident because the 2 had not just a special friendship, but a emotional connection that extended well beyond their love for whiskey. The remaining films they made together that form this list, Key Largo, The African Queen & Beat the Devil each reflect different pieces of their relationship & how they related to one another. Key Largo plays on the often cultivated Bogart character as the reluctant hero, while The African Queen has Bogart as a romantic, with an undertone of fatalism, while Beat the Devil is a playful lark, set against beautiful scenery. Clearly Beat the Devil doesn't have the cinematic gravitas of the other two, but it's an enjoyable and surprisingly light wight piece of the Huston canon. It was Black Comedy before there was such a thing an re-watching it recently reminded me how silly it can be at times, but it is very clear that those involved were having a wonderful time making it. In it Bogart bands together with a rogues gallery that includes Peter Lorre, Robert Morley & Gina Lollabrigida to scheme to get rich on African minerals. Key Largo meant to capitalize on the white hot pairing of Bogart & Bacall from The Big Sleep & Huston does a great job of creating cinematic tension within the confines of the source plays story. The claustrophobic hotel seems encapsulated by the storm outside, as the characters pick and prod one another. Lionel Barrymore & Edward G. Robinson turn in broad & attention grabbing performances, but it is Bacall's stillness that most draws me to this picture. When she finally slaps Robinson's Johnny Rocco, you know she means it & he deserves it. Finally, The African Queen presents a grownup relationship that is too seldom seen in movies. Hepburn & Bogart are sensational playing off one another, each willing to give and take equally. The intimacy Huston captures & the actors portray is a joy to watch as they float down the river towards what appears to be certain death.
The last 3 of the pictures on this list all came later in Huston's career I group together as character studies. In the cases of Heaven Knows, Mr Allison & The Man Who Would Be King they are couples & in The Night of the Iguana it's a foursome, but at there core they are about the interrelations between people. Heaven knows is a wonderful story of love between simple marine Robert Mitchum & chaste nun Deborah Kerr, stranded on a tropical island that is occupied by Japanese soldiers in World War II. Because of the Production Code that was in effect in the '50's, limiting taboo subjects from being depicted, the nun & the marine never consummate or even overtly discuss their affection towards one another, but as is the case in many movies under the Code, it is made better because of everything that goes unsaid. Mitchum's performance is tender and understated, even for Mitchum. Kerr's performance netted her an Oscar nomination as the at first uptight, then sensitive nun. The interaction between the 2 is as intimate as a married couple, revealing deep feelings and a close bond. The Night of the Iguana, on the other hand, deals deals with far more volatile relationships, throwing together a defrocked priest, an uptight spinster, an oversexed teen & fun time party girl on the wrong side of 40 into close quarters in summertime Mexico. Based on a Tennessee Williams play, Iguana has all the acerbic wit one would expect, as well as a heavy dose of open sexuality in the face of repressed sexuality & alcohol fueled debauchery. Richard Burton gives a performance that is a favorite of mine, trying to balance the false piety he so desperately clings to to maintain his humanity, while trying to fend of the aggressive advances of Lolita incarnate, Sue Lyons. It is Ava Gardner's performance as the inn keepers widow however, that always strikes me when I watch this film. It so raw a performance, so pure that I can't help but marvel at it. Gardner, one of the most striking actresses of the late 40's, allows herself to look every bit the tired and past her prime character the part demands. She is a revelation and doesn't reflect any of the reported terror she apparently felt working with Burton. She gives every bit of what she gets throughout. Finally, The Man Who Would Be King celebrates a couple of a different sort, the roguish twosome of Michael Caine & Sean Cionnery as con men out to discover the lost city of Alexander. Daniel Dravot (Connery) & Peachy Carnehan (Caine) are 2 peas in a pd; dreamers & schemers always looking for a quick score on a short scam. The 2 actors work in lock step (literally in one scene) & Huston paints the whole affair, taken from a Rudyard Kipling story as a dark comedy with a deep and meaningful soul. It's a wonderful film that succeeds on so many levels, including it's depiction of the phrase that absolute power corrupts absolutely.
As Huston wanted to deny, then ultimately admits, he is a director of films; great films that have enriched the fabric of American movies in so many ways. He was a giant and his films remain so, not just for the iconic performances that he help nurture or the images that he helped capture, but for the overall aesthetic that he brought to each and every one of his pictures.