John Huston – No winners in life.
When your directorial debut is hailed as one of the best detective picture ever made, it is only inevitable to falter with your next. But then John Huston (Born: 05 Aug 1906), actor, screenwriter and film director carved for himself a separate ark away from the deluge.
With his high-octane performance as top of the rung film auteur, rare spirit of independence and penchant to cross swords with the high and mighty of the celluloid czars, Huston did not believe in pulling punches.
His father Walter Huston was a celebrated actor both on the stage and screen. A product of a broken home, as Huston‘s parents called it quits during his childhood, he grew dividing his time between his father and mother, his life beset by insecurity and lack of stability. Besides, he was a sickly child and at one time he was not expected to last long! But by sheer will power and thrusting ambition, Huston worked hard and succeeded in becoming the amateur light-weight boxing champion of California.
As he bade good-bye to his teens, he bummed around the bohemian way by taking up varied occupations: serving the Mexican Cavalry, writing short stories for the famous Mencken’s ‘Mercury‘ and reporting news in New York. Then the money ran out.
With his father’s assistance, he took to script-writing and started to work for Warners. Soon he made a mark with quality output – Jezebel, High Sierra and Sergeant York among others. He got married (one of his five) and kept his eyes and ears wide open, his pencils sharp and his grey cells in fine fettle, waiting for times to change. And they did!
Warners owned the movie rights of the well-known thriller, ‘The Maltese Falcon’ by Dashiell Hammett and assigned Huston to write and direct it. The intricately plotted film, deals with the search for a valuable gold falcon statuette. Sam Spade, our private eye hero is falsely seduced into the hunt and finally stays till the end, to seek his partner’s killer. Starring Humphrey Bogart as Spade, it turned out to be a super hit of 1941. With his very first movie Huston made a splash and revealed his class. The nerve-twisting tension, the daubs of humor and slabs of violence showed that here was a director who knew all the nuances of the medium in how to tell a taut story with suspense.
This also carved in stone what would become the enduring, persistent theme of his works; The irony of life where nobody wins in the end – the winner takes nothing. Life is essentially pessimistic and optimism is a mere sliding pathway to ultimate defeat. That became Huston’s celluloid credo of life.
Then came the ignoble innings of wanton destruction of life, limb and land called Second World War, where Huston volunteered and saw action in Europe and made two documentaries. Returning home in 1945, he had to wait till 1948 to make his next fiction film.
‘The Treasure of Sierra Madre‘, was adapted from bestselling novel by the reclusive writer B Traven. The tense, black and white movie tells the tale of three American bums in 1920’s who win a lottery in Tampico and go into the difficult and danger ridden mountains of Mexico in search of gold.
Acclaimed as a trend-setter in Hollywood realism, the film unfolds with intelligence, humor and suspense, by turns exceedingly funny and completely terrifying. It is rich in subtle symbolism and overpowering in human drama and characterization. Huston excels in investing the film with fine strokes of visual beauty and power of stark realism.
One of the finest directorial touches that is still talked and written about is actually a single lengthy shot. A man lies dead, in the dust as the reactions of the three protagonists are revealed. Walter Huston (Oscar winner), the oldest of the three, who has seen many a dead bends over the man’s chest to find out if he is really dead. Humphrey Bogart gazes at the man, nonchalantly, wondering if his friend should waste his time on what is, after all, a corpse and Tim Holt, the youngest, still has some old world values in him. His hands clasp in an attitude of prayer in the presence of all embracing death. With a single superb shot, Huston reveals the characters of the three men. They find gold in the end but a gale blows it away! The winner tastes not gold but dust – Huston’s favorite comment on life. Also fetched him the Academy Award for writing and directing.
In 1950 came ‘The Asphalt Jungle’, based on a novel by the slick crime writer W. R. Burnett, the film explores the sociologically significant problem of crime in big city, highlighting a burglary of a jewel store by a band of people. Petty criminals, crooked lawyers, corrupt cops, ease-loving women who do not mind selling their skin for a fast buck – the film is full of superb characterizations splendidly sketched by the director.
A comparatively unknown starlet played the role of the ambitious amorous mistress of the petty, small time criminal hero. As Huston later said of this girl, “I recognize star quality more or less. I had this girl in her first real film role. I could feel she was going to be good and I chose her over a number of others. But still I didn’t dream of the places she would go…” This girl was Marilyn Monroe and the credit of discovering her goes to Huston.
In the ‘The African Queen’ (1952), Huston told superbly acted story of an unkempt, drink-toting river boat captain, talked into blowing a German gun-boat in East Africa by a virginal mild-looking missionary from Britain. Huston made movie history by the combustible casting Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn for the first time. Full of comical, tense and humanist touches it won an Oscar for Bogart.
In his later work John Huston ran into several problems which to a good extent cut into his spirit of freedom. His ‘my way or the highway’ stance threw him into difficulties; ‘Moulin Rouge’, ‘Moby Dick’, ‘The Misfits’, ‘The Red Badge of Courage’ and others were all beset with gargantuan clashes. It was only towards the end of his career that he found redemption again with ‘The Man who would be King’, ‘Under the Volcano’ and ‘Prizzi’s Honor’ (which won his daughter Angelica, an Oscar).
Although acting for him was secondary, his most memorable role came under Polanski as the incestuous, power addict Noah Cross in ‘Chinatown’ (1974).
Huston articulated his private film-making code, “I don’t make movies for myself. I make a picture for others. Regarding actors, I try not to impose myself on them. He must be a very bad actor for me to try to do this! On the part of director, there is much work in concealing bad performances as there is in developing good ones. Lighting is almost completely up to the cameraman, who of course must be in complete sympathy with the director. The set-up is something else; you tell the story, the composition on the screen and the movement of the camera. I choose set-ups and camera angles that’ll tell my story quickly, strongly and surely. Remember, words and visuals are not in conflict in cinema.
“I don’t like to dictate, I like to receive stimuli from all; not only the cameraman, actors but even the grips, script girl and others. I try to create an atmosphere on my sets where everyone feels he can participate. I let my films make themselves and I impose myself only where necessary. I shoot very economically, as if I were editing in the camera. For me, that’s usually one way to cut a film. I hate decorative music; it should help to tell a story, not just to emphasize the images. Everything in a movie must serve the central idea. The means to convey the idea should be the simplest, most direct and clear. No overdressing, no extra words, no extra images, no extra music. Be clear – say as much as possible with a minimum of means. Of course you must know what you are trying to say. It seems to me that all these form the universal principle of art.”
Thus spoke Huston, spelling out his credo and his modus. Huston died on 28th Aug 1987.