“Huston once described his job to John Milius like this: ‘You will confer with generals, you will dine at the table with kings, and you will sleep with titled women. All of this you will do while being dead broke. That’s what being a director is.’ Should we even feign surprise that when it came time to make The Bible he cast himself as the voice of the Almighty?
In the Mexican desert, somewhere outside Tampico, two men are racing against time. Around them, a sandstorm howls. Dust and sand scour their sunburned features. They press onward, beating the flanks of their spent horses. In the hovel of a ruined pueblo, they come upon the object of their desire: three seemingly innocuous cloth bags, torn asunder. But in those bags lies the fortune of a lifetime — a couple of ounces of precious gold dust — for which they worked and sweated for nearly a year, fought and died for, and which now, thanks to the sandstorm, has been returned, irretrievably, to the land. As the reality of the situation sinks home, one of the men begins to laugh, not softly, but bellowing like a madman. His friend stares at him in disbelief. Then a funny thing happens: he too begins to laugh, quietly at first, but quickly rising, till the cacophony of their merriment drowns out the howling of the storm. It is a laughter filled with irony and gallows humor, the laughter of the unlucky gambler and the merry cynic, a laughter that knows that, ultimately, all men are doomed to fail, so, in the face of it, what else can one do but laugh? It is, in short, the laughter of John Huston.
The movie, of course, is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), written and directed by Huston and starring his father as the encrusted old man laughing at his own misfortune. If you had to sum up the John Huston oeuvre in a single scene, to distill his signature to a few precious moments, you would be hard pressed to find a better scene than this. Even today, his films remain a fortifying tonic against all that is sentimental and precious. Audiences of the time, weaned on the tough lessons of the Depression, lapped them up, and filmmakers today continue to loot them for inspiration. Yet, for all the people who thrilled to Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood (2007), few probably recognized that his distinctive drawl — deep, mellifluous, imposing as a lion’s purr — was patterned on that of the late director, and fewer still who saw Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) probably realized that the wounded American’s letter was lifted straight from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. For cinema addicts, his accomplishments are matchless — indeed, unquestionable and unsurpassed — but for the general, movie-going public, the query is a bit more basic: Who was John Huston?
He was an imposing creature, tall and gangly as an oil derrick, with a massive head and a face like exploded granite. In later years, as the lines in his face deepened, he would sport a silvery beard, further enhancing the grizzled, world-weary facade. Theatergoers of the seventies will undoubtedly remember him from Chinatown (1974), courtly and frightening, patriarch to an ingrown family tree, and there are those who have suggested that the character in that film strayed little from the man who played him. But of all the rascals in Hollywood’s history, and there are certainly many, from Errol Flynn to Sam Peckinpah, few, if any, have had careers as fruitful as Huston’s. In the course of a nearly fifty-year spree, he directed upwards of forty pictures, beginning, thunderously, with The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and ending no less boldly with The Dead (1987), perhaps still the best rebuttal to the notion that high literature and cinema don’t mix. But for all the major hits — Key Largo (1948), The African Queen (1951), The Man Who Would Be King (1975) — films beloved by fans and drooled over by critics, the Huston canon remains obstinately half-known, as does the director himself.
He was born in Nevada, Missouri on August 5, 1906, to Walter Huston, a struggling actor, and Rhea Gore, a sometimes journalist, wed the year before. The marriage didn’t last, and Rhea was left to raise the boy on her own while Walter roamed the vaudeville circuit in search of parts. The sting of abandonment, however, seems to have missed their son completely; all his life, Huston despised Rhea but hero-worshipped Walter, who, because of his many absences, became more of an older brother to John than a father. And it was from Walter that John first acquired his taste for stagecraft. When, in 1924, Walter was engaged to play Ephraim Cabot in Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, he brought his son with him to New York to attend rehearsals:
Scene by scene and act by act, the play came together and took on heroic proportions. By this time I knew it by heart — the rhythm and cadence and flow of the play had got into my bloodstream. What I learned during those weeks of rehearsal would serve me for the rest of my life. Not that I was aware of it at the time. I only knew that I was fascinated.
For a wild youth, stymied by an overbearing mother, rebellion came naturally. Diagnosed with Bright’s disease and an enlarged heart at the age of ten, Huston was given only a few years to live and confined to his bed, till his doctors caught him sneaking out at night to brave the whitewater locks of a local canal — already the indomitable adventurer. Indeed, by the time he was fifteen, the boy was healthy enough to become a champion amateur boxer, merely costing him a broken nose. The ring, however, only whetted Huston’s taste for danger, and so, in 1926, he did what any sensible youth of nineteen would do: he moved to Mexico and joined the Mexican cavalry. If this sounds like an indication of parental neglect, one must bear in mind that the trip was his father’s idea in the first place — so much for a sensible upbringing. But Huston was happier than the devil in hell:
And there were the poker games. These were held in hotels, brothels and private homes, and if, in the course of a game, there was a big hand and a large sum of money was exchanged, someone usually drew and cocked a pistol, turned the lights out and threw the pistol up so that it hit the ceiling. It would go off upon striking the ceiling or the floor, and then the lights were turned on to see who, if anyone, had been unlucky.
That’s Huston in 1980, remembering his youth from the pages of his delectable, if not entirely candid, autobiography, An Open Book. The taste for gambling never left him, either; there are worse places than Hollywood for men with a penchant for high stakes poker and loose women, but Huston tried his hand at many careers — painter, short story writer, journalist — before settling on filmmaking. His first stab at cinema came in 1931, as a screenwriter on the film A House Divided. The picture was a success; Huston was given a contract with Universal, an office to share with other prominent writers, and a choice selection of projects on which to work. The honeymoon with Hollywood didn’t last, though, and Huston soon fell into bad habits: he drank, gambled, wrecked cars, and shirked assignments. Then, on the evening of September 25, 1933, while driving down Sunset Boulevard, he hit and killed a pedestrian, a dancer and the wife of a renowned Latin star, Raoul Roulien, making it an international incident. Whether or not Huston was intoxicated at the time is uncertain, but only thanks to the intervention of his father, by now a prominent screen actor, did he manage to avoid the inside of a courtroom. He moved to New York — to keep out of the limelight — and thence to Europe, where he was reduced to vagrancy, begging tourists for change. If you think Bogart had it bad in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, try to imagine the film’s director caught in the same predicament on the streets of London, in the dead of winter. With the help of a friend, however, he found a job writing a treatment for a racing picture, scribbled on the pages of old magazines over the print, which earned him enough money to return to the States and a second crack at Hollywood.
This time, he didn’t disappoint. By 1941, Huston had amassed a record of successes that would make any screenwriter jealous — The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse (1938), Juarez (1939), High Sierra (1941), Sergeant York (1941) — and the next step was obvious: he wanted to direct. His first choice of material could not have been more felicitous: The Maltese Falcon, written by Dashiell Hammett, had been adapted to the screen twice already, and though both pictures had fared poorly at the box office, Warner Brothers still owned the rights to the novel, making it an inexpensive picture to produce. For his part, Huston prepared meticulously for the project, sketching every shot, camera move, entrance, and exit down to the smallest detail. He rehearsed his actors, too, a practice none too common at the time, oftentimes spending an entire day preparing his cast before printing a single take. More than mere perfectionism was at work here; the film was budgeted at a meager $381,000, little more than that of an average B-picture at the time, and given a shooting schedule of a sheer thirty-six days. (Huston managed to finish in thirty-four.)
But frugality, for the filmmaker as for the novelist, is hardly a curse, as Dashiell Hammett could attest; the opening pages of his novel are some of the most economical in modern literature, but Huston, far from being daunted by such an example, responded with one of the most surefooted openings in the history of cinema. All the elements of the novel are there — the femme fatale, the pert secretary, the private detective, cigarette in hand, cracking wise — along with details that can only be captured by the camera lens: the playful, almost feline grin that graces Humphrey Bogart’s lips when he first sets eyes on Mary Astor, and the way the light bleeds through the window, projecting the names “Spade and Archer” on the floor. In the novel, when Spade learns of his partner’s death, the page simply describes him as fumbling for the phone, but Huston, attuned to the visual possibilities of the medium, focuses instead on the bedside table and the curtain behind it, softly fluttering in the breeze. For an incredible thirty seconds all we hear is Spade’s voice, speaking off-screen, while the camera lingers on the shadowy mise-en-scene. What other director, with the possible exception of Welles, would have dared such a scene in 1941? As with everything else in the film, though, the shot has its purpose. One open window scene leads to another, this time in Mary Astor’s apartment, and what emerges is the sense that every gesture, every piece of the plot is connected, not just by the clues that Bogart picks up but, equally, in the style of the film itself. The device was even clever enough that the Coen brothers stole it for their own adaptation of Hammett in Miller’s Crossing (1990); fifty years down the road and filmmakers are still looting Huston for ideas.
None of which is to say that Huston was above stealing an idea or two, himself. The debt to Welles and Citizen Kane, which came out the year before The Maltese Falcon, is incalculable. You can see it in the film’s many long takes and the moody chiaroscuro lighting. Yet Huston, as opposed to Welles, is more deliberate in his direction, more assured. Watching Kane, one equally senses Welles’s incredible innovation as well as his greatest hubris: his insatiable desire to show off. The screen is littered with the baubles of the director’s imagination, from deep-focus photography to seemingly endless tracking shots to the reflection of cabaret dancers caught on glass. The Maltese Falcon, by comparison, is a model of efficiency: every shot, every camera move has a purpose, right down to the low-angle framing of Sydney Greenstreet, the better to display his massive girth. Even the dialogue has the clipped rhythm of gunfire:
“You always have a very smooth explanation ready, huh.”
“What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?”
As for the film’s ending, the final lines could almost be a metaphor for cinema itself, with the bars of the law closing in on Mary Astor, and Bogart left holding the falcon. “What is it?” Ward Bond asks, glancing at the bird, but Bogart barely has the stomach to answer: “The stuff that dreams are made of.”
The Maltese Falcon launched both Huston’s and Bogart’s careers. The film was nominated for five Academy Awards. The New York Times called it “the best mystery thriller of the year,” and later historians would credit it with establishing a whole new genre in cinema: film noir. So how did Huston follow up this sudden, fortuitous success? He joined the Signal Corps and headed to Alaska to make documentaries for the war effort. (Not exactly the career move de rigueur for a budding filmmaker.) One would be happy to report that army life instilled some measure of discipline in the headstrong director, but the sight of combat only seems to have fortified his already pessimistic temperament. All told, Huston made three documentaries during World War ll — Report from the Aleutians (1943), The Battle of San Pietro (1945), and Let There Be Light (1946). The army was hardly delighted with the results. When The Battle of San Pietro was first screened, the military brass walked out before the film was finished. Huston was dressed down by his superiors and berated for making what, in the words of one general, “could be interpreted as an anti-war film.” Let There Be Light, his somber study of the psychological ravages of combat, was received no more cordially by the War Department. When Huston finally got permission to show it at the Museum of Modern Art, MPs arrived and confiscated the print, deeming it too traumatic to be screened for the public. (Not until 1980 would the film finally be released for general viewing, and then only thanks to the powerful lobbying of MPAA president Jack Valenti.) But to his detractors in the War Department, Huston had a pat answer: “If I ever make anything other than an anti-war film, I hope you take me out and shoot me.”
That is an extraordinary statement, especially from a man who courted conflict so readily in his personal life; in addition to the fistfights and battles with producers there were the marriages, five in all, that in many ways must have resembled close combat. “They were a mixed bag,” he wrote, “a schoolgirl; a gentlewoman; a motion-picture actress; a ballerina; and a crocodile.” The motion-picture actress is, of course, Evelyn Keyes, to whom Huston was married during the late forties, and who probably put up with as much from him as any of his wives. (Particularly aggravating to Keyes was the monkey her husband kept as a house pet, especially when it opened her dresser drawers and urinated on her clothes. One day, she confronted Huston on the subject. “John, either the monkey goes or I go,” she threatened. “Honey,” Huston replied, “it’s you.”) The marriage had begun, casually enough, one night over drinks at Romanoff’s, when Keyes, on a whim more than anything else, suggested they go to Vegas that evening and get married. Big mistake:
We went to Las Vegas and got married and I didn’t sleep all night. I went to work the next morning. I was doing Johnny O’Clock, and then we started working at night. I hardly saw John at all. That’s when I called John and said he could come and get his new bride. It was three in the morning and he was asleep. “Who is this?” he said.
Keyes, for her part, tried to make the marriage work, but Huston’s nature didn’t lend itself to matrimony: the gambling debts and adulteries were to be expected; the street urchin he brought home from Mexico as a present was a bit more of a surprise. All his life, Huston was a priapic womanizer, beginning at an age when most children are still learning to ride their bikes:
Mother had to hire a nursemaid to look after me, and that led to my introduction to sex. I recall lying on a bed with the maid. Her skirt was up and her behind was bare. I patted it and stroked it and laid my cheek against it. I remember being keenly disappointed when not long afterward Mother fired the maid.
Yet, for all his own predatory tendencies, Huston’s films are nothing if not cautionary tales against the wiles of the fairer sex; if you think Mary Astor was trouble in The Maltese Falcon, try Sue Lyon in The Night of the Iguana (1964), driving Richard Burton to near insanity by the fervor of her advances; Elizabeth Taylor literally whipping Marlon Brando into submission in Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967); Kathleen Turner trying to kill Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor (1985); and, in The Man Who Would Be King, Shakira Caine biting a sizeable chunk out of her fiancé’s cheek before making him take the plunge.
Huston’s film are, for the most part, stories of men, and their concerns are men’s concerns: the quest for money, adventure, booze, women, and long shots that ultimately never pay off. Still, it would take a blind eye not to notice the array of willful females in his oeuvre — from Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen to Ava Gardner in The Night of the Iguana to his own daughter, Anjelica, in Prizzi’s Honor — who not only left an indelible mark on the screen but, more often than not, left heel prints all over their male counterparts in the process. Just consider poor Reverend Shannon (Richard Burton) in Night of the Iguana, a fallen minister with a hankering for teenage girls who finds himself trapped in a remote Mexican hotel with a busload of angry Baptists, an aging spinster, a bawdy hotel owner, and a precocious nymphet bent on his seduction or the very destruction of his soul. Asked to define statutory rape, Shannon replies, “That’s when a man is seduced by a girl under twenty,” an explanation made no less accurate by its Humbert Humbertesque lilt. In one deep-breathing scene, she sneaks into his bedroom and declares her love for him:
CHARLOTTE: Have I grown up too early, Larry?
SHANNON: Yes. No. I mean — yes, yes.
She cuddles up next to him on the bed.
CHARLOTTE: I had to say goodbye to you, or rather, au revoir. Because when you bring them back, I’ll be there waiting for you, copa de oro in my hair, just over the border.
SHANNON: Honey, the border I’m crossing over is the border of sanity.
It’s a wonderful line, and Burton delivers it with brilliantly faltering resolve, like a recovering alcoholic who’s just had an ice-cold daiquiri whisked below his nose. Yet the hottest ember of passion comes not from Sue Lyon, the nubile youth, but from Ava Gardner, the headstrong hotel owner, lustily chasing after Burton while flaunting her affair with two conga-shaking local boys, and one can’t help but wonder, watching her performance onscreen, how much the actress’s own desires were rekindled by the presence of the film’s director, who’d once pursued her with equal ardor.
Theses dalliances would provide an interesting footnote to the Huston career if only that career bore some little indication of their occurrence. “I admire directors like Bergman, Fellini, Bunuel, whose every picture is in some way connected with their private lives,” he said, “but that’s never been my approach.” In 1950, a day after divorcing Evelyn Keyes, Huston married Ricki Soma, already several months pregnant with his first son, Tony. A year later, another child was born, christened Anjelica. But parenthood no more tamed Huston than the three marriages that had preceded it; he was away on location when he learned of Anjelica’s birth, and found reasons to remain so for most of the rest of her childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, as well. But the happy news must have had some effect on the director, for the film in question turned out to be one of his most charming and optimistic. The African Queen, based on the novel by C. S. Forester, tells the story of two very different people — Charlie Allnutt (Humphrey Bogart), a hard-drinking riverboat pilot, and Rose (Katherine Hepburn), a staid missionary — thrown together in the African Congo during World War l. After the death of Rose’s brother, the pair set out on a journey down the Congo River with plans to blow up the German gunboat Louisa. Along the way, they brave whitewater rapids, mosquitoes, bullets, leeches, and their own quite disparate natures, only to find, in the end, that they have fallen in love. Perhaps what is most endearing about this battle of the sexes is its ever-present potential for romantic misunderstanding; its nearest relatives are the screwball comedies of the thirties and forties, movies like It Happened One Night (1936) and Sullivan’s Travels (1941) with which The African Queen shares a number of motifs, both structural and physical: a long journey, a faulty engine, an assumed death, a blanket to divide the sexes at night, and a clash of wills that ultimately ends in marriage.
True to form, Huston vacillated over the film’s ending; he preferred the notion of a wry finish, with Bogie and Hepburn taking their wedding vows before being hanged by their German captors, but he knew that audiences would never accept such a bleak demise for such an adorable couple. For once, he managed to restrain his more pessimistic inclinations. Charlie and Rose, realizing their end is near, ask the boat captain to marry them, but, during the delay, the Louisa drifts into the hull of the African Queen, it’s prow still leaden with torpedoes, blowing the German gunboat to smithereens and allowing the happy couple the chance to escape to safety. But, despite the rosy finish, Huston’s uncertainties about the ending still show; the final shot of the picture, filmed in a water tank in Isleworth Studios, not on location with the rest of the film, indeed feels tacked on, the half-hearted gesture of a director who would have rather seen his heroes dead than married, something even Katherine Hepburn was willing to admit. “He got too bored to think up a good end,” she acknowledged. “It wasn’t on par with the rest of the film. It’s a wonderful picture, but the end is a bore.”
The events of Huston’s life after The African Queen, however, were anything but a bore. He chased prostitutes in Paris during Moulin Rouge (1952), battled the high seas on Moby Dick (1956), butted heads with John Wayne on The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958), smuggled pre-Colombian statuary out of Mexico during the filming of The Unforgiven (1960), sired at least one illegitimate child — his son Danny, born 1962, now an accomplished actor and director in his own right — and won and lost more than a couple of fortunes at cards along the way. His taste for the high life — cigars, drink, horses, hounds, houses, statuary, paintings — was nigh insatiable, so much so that one wonders that he even found time to make movies at all. His estate in Ireland, St. Clerans, resembled an imperial court more closely than a home, bursting with artistic acquisitions and host to a steady stream of public notables: painters, writers, actors, politicians. Asked once by an interviewer to name the great artistic geniuses of the age, Huston reeled off a few standouts from the top of his head: Williams, O’Neill, Manzu, Moore, Rothko, Cartier-Bresson, Capra, Hemingway, Faulkner, Hammett, Brando, Bergman, De Sica, Kurosawa. Not a bad list. The fact that he was personal friends with nearly all the above was, of course, just sheer coincidence.
The sixties were at times unkind to Huston, as well. The string of successes that had fueled his early career — The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The African Queen — were followed by an equal number of duds that could have easily sunk the career of a less persevering director: The Unforgiven, The Bible . . . In the Beginning (1966), Sinful Davey (1969), and A Walk with Love and Death (1969). Of the films that immediately follow Night of the Iguana, only Reflections in a Golden Eye holds up under scrutiny, despite being heavily recut by the studio at the time. For those lucky enough to have seen the restored version on DVD, the spectacle is breathtaking — the lush, amber-hued photography so handsome it looks cast in platinum.
No less striking is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, perhaps Huston’s most famous film. The tale concerns three American gold prospectors in Mexico shortly after the Revolution; there’s Curtin (Tim Holt), the young man; Howard (Walter Huston), the old; and, lastly, Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart), a nice enough guy until the piles of gold start to grow. They alight for the wilderness, battle the elements — along with the occasional bandit or two — and strike it rich, only to lose it all when Dobbs goes off his head. Everyone remembers the scene on the mountain between Bogart and Alfonso Bedoya (“Badges? . . . I don’t have to show you any stinking badges.”), just as they remember Bogart’s crisp, three-piece moniker; far more harrowing, though, is their final scene together, desperate and sordid by comparison, as Dobbs fights his own mules for the contents of a filthy watering hole. On the mountain, his ego was nearing godlike proportions, but on the plain below he’s just a pitiable wanderer, dust-covered and helpless, a Lear without his fool. As Bogart bends down for a drink, Bedoya appears in the reflection in the pool — a distant cousin, you might say, of the shot in Lawrence of Arabia (1962) in which Omar Sharif materializes from a watery mirage — and fells Dobbs with two quick blows from his machete: the god cut neatly down to size.
Great visual stylists in cinema are often likened to painters; just look at the films of Kubrick, Malick, or Bertolucci, and one can’t help but see the imprint of Vermeer, Manet, and Turner on their work. But such comparisons are often a double-edged compliment; for all of its hypnotic elegance, no one came away from Barry Lyndon (1975) saying, Wow, what a thrilling picture. So often, the competing demands of action and beauty are too much for a director to handle, as if the one negated the other, which makes Huston’s genius all the more surprising. Perhaps no other director of his generation, not even Ford, wedded visual poetry so seamlessly with adventure, or understood so intuitively, from the very beginning, the visual possibilities of the medium. From the open window in The Maltese Falcon to the opening scene in Under the Volcano (1984), Huston uses a single shot to convey onscreen what it had taken the novelists pages to describe. When we first encounter the Consul (Albert Finney) in Under the Volcano, all we see are his feet, walking through a Mexican cemetery on the Day of the Dead. Only after a few moments do we realize he is drunk — not because he is staggering, but because he isn’t. He is, in fact, the type of fulltime drunk who can, during his better moments, actually appear more sober than when he hasn’t taken a drink. This happens to be one of his better moments, and he is showing his mettle, walking a straight line, or the closest thing to it. Thus, from a deceivingly simple shot, the entire drama is laid bare, and the film springs to life.
Of course, not everyone agreed. Guy Gallo, the film’s screenwriter, felt that Huston had unjustly softened the character of the Consul in an attempt to make him more sympathetic to the audience. Gallo saw Finney’s character as equally acerbic and cruel as he was honest and noble, whereas Huston, with his inherent love of losers and pariahs, couldn’t help but admire the man: “The Consul is the most complicated character I’ve ever had in a film. He’s like a Churchill gone bad, a great man with a flaw. Or is it? Is drunkenness a flaw or is it — as the primitives thought of epilepsy — a manifestation of divinity?” Such romanticism borders on self-indulgence and brings us immediately to the troubled heart of the director himself. When the Consul finally snaps and castigates his wife and brother for their adultery, he delivers his diatribe not to the pair sitting across from him at the table, but to the bottle resting in his palm. Said Gallo: “I always wondered why John felt so strongly that this final refusal of forgiveness, refusal of penitence or redemption is so essentially private.” Could it be that Huston, for all his masculine posturing, was afraid to lift his gaze to the sins of his own life? In the film, when Hugh, Yvonne, and the Consul visit a street fair, they stop to watch an enactment of Don Juan in Hell, the final line of which translates, “A moment’s contrition makes up for a lifetime of sin.” Gallo asked Huston if he thought that was true, to which the director replied in the affirmative. “But that is the opposite of what our film is about,” Gallo pointed out. “I don’t care about the film,” Huston said. “I’m talking about my life. It better be true.”
Yet the years hardly curbed his appetites. When his doctors told him he had to give up cigarettes, Huston simply began inhaling his cigars and upped his quota per day: health and happiness, all in the same package. By the start of his last picture, his emphysema was so severe that he was forced to direct from the confines of a wheelchair, an oxygen tank strapped to the back. The project, though, could not have been closer to Huston’s heart nor provided a more apt conclusion to such a long and distinguished career. “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age,” muses Gabriel Conroy at the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead,” considered by some to be the greatest short story ever written. Huston had first fallen for Joyce at the age of twenty-one, when his mother smuggled him a copy of Ulysses from Europe (“Probably the greatest experience that any book has ever given me.”), and it would not be unreasonable to suggest that his education as an artist began here as much as it did from his viewing of Eugene O’Neill; it takes the dark and caustic eye of the Irish to strike all blandishments from your consciousness. For those familiar with Joyce’s story, the challenges of adapting it to the screen should be immediately obvious, and yet, there it all is — the music, the dancing, the inebriated Freddy Malins groping for the port — right down to the two gentlemen sneaking out of the piano recital for a drink and then returning, so as not to be missed, for the applause at the end. Not only does the movie exemplify what is most literary in Huston but, surprisingly, what is most cinematic in Joyce: the series of ripe sensations, palpable and humming with anticipation, leading up to the gentle epiphany at the conclusion. One could, of course, argue that absolute fidelity to the text is simply impossible; how, for instance, is the filmmaker to replicate Gabriel’s “riot of emotions” — his nervousness at the party, his lust during the cab ride to the hotel, and his pity for his wife in the story’s closing lines? Yet, by the same token, one feels that Joyce, far from resisting adaptation, always demanded to be brought to the screen: what better method to convey the intricate world of the mind than the luminescent and multi-sensory medium of film? In the story, when Gabriel lies in bed pondering his wife’s lost love, the author can only give us his thoughts, distilled to mere words on the page, but the director, free to roam more widely, actually shows the snow falling all over Ireland, on the dark central plain and the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lies buried: cinematic stream-of-consciousness.
Whether the director harbored similar marital misgivings, however, is entirely another matter. At the age of sixty-six, Huston married for the final time, to Celeste Shane, otherwise known as Cici, to whom he devoted a full four sentences in his autobiography:
In 1972, three years after Ricki’s death, I married for the fifth time. This was tantamount to putting my finger in the sea-snake’s mouth. I survived — but barely. Enough said about that.
So much for a moment’s contrition. In 1978, he sold his home in Galway and moved into Las Caletas, a remote pueblo on the Mexican coast where he spent the majority of his remaining days, surrounded by his books, his screenplays, and his Mexican mistress, Maricela. It is tempting to scoff at or scorn this image of the old man by the sea, re-seeking the adventures of lost youth, but Huston’s films of this period, too, find the director returning to old stomping grounds — the boxing ring in Fat City (1972) and the adventures and riches of faraway lands in The Man Who Would Be King. The former film emerged from the detritus of a failed venture with George C. Scott and revived Huston’s critical reputation just when he was looking down and out. Based on the novel by Leonard Gardner, the film follows the fortunes of two smalltime boxers in Stockton, California — Billy Tully (Stacy Keach), a fighter prone to drink with his best days already behind him, and Ernie Munger (Jeff Bridges), a young up-and-comer with just enough talent to get himself noticed by the coaches but not quite enough to last a standing eight count. Between fights, they make rent at dead-end jobs, picking onions or pumping gas; live in dilapidated apartment buildings; and pass their free time in bars, bragging about past triumphs in the ring.
As fans of sports films know, there are two routes you can take with material like this: you can pull your punches and go the Rocky path, milking it for all the pathos and bombast that it’s worth; or, as Martin Scorsese would later demonstrate with Raging Bull (1980), you can tell it straight, like a swift blow to the gut. Huston takes the latter route, focusing his gaze on the gritty atmosphere of the fight rather than the glory. When Tully finally makes his comeback, defeating a visiting fighter from Mexico, the hometown crowd roars with pride, but the moment is divested of the thrill of victory. “Did I get knocked out,” Tully asks, not knowing himself, and not knowing the other fighter’s painful secret: he was urinating blood before the fight even began. It is a triumph for Tully, certainly, but only a very small one and hardly worth bragging about. Huston wanted the film to have a particularly rundown texture. The photography, by cinematographer Conrad Hall, is of an almost disturbingly seedy beauty — grainy, washed-out, and faintly browning at the edges — like the sunlight that creeps through the windows of a bar at dusk, and indeed, some of the film’s best scenes are played out in bars, as when Tully picks up Oma (Susan Tyrrell), a sentimental lush with a fondness for cream sherries and a face like a ragdoll. “You can count on me,” Tully repeats to her, over and over, until she gives in, unsure whether she really should, but for want of anyone better to go home with; it is another victory for Tully, but, like the fight, only a very small one, and hardly worth the headaches to come.
On the other hand, at least he gets to keep his head. Sean Connery, the star of The Man Who Would Be King, wasn’t even that lucky. Originally conceived as a vehicle for Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart (the pair died before Huston could raise the funds), the film was finally brought to the screen in 1975 with Connery and Michael Caine as the leads. The duo play Danny and Peachy, two British rogues who set off from Victorian India to plunder Kafiristan, the primitive inhabitants of which quickly take Connery for a god, a conclusion most of the Western world had already reached about the time of From Russia with Love (1963). Peachy, the more pragmatic of the two, wants to take the money and run, but Danny, besotted by delusions of grandeur, chooses to stay and get married. Bad idea. His would-be wife bites his face during the wedding ceremony, drawing his all-too-human blood, and the perturbed locals surround the heroes at the edge of a cliff, casting Danny into the gorge below and spilling their hard-earned booty down the mountainside — another fortune of a lifetime scattered to hell.
Filming began in January 1975, with Morocco doubling for India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and when the crew wasn’t battling the hundred-plus-degree heat, they were forced to contend with plagues of flies, diarrhea, and typhoid. Caine, whose father had died when he was twenty-four, felt a particularly filial bond with the aging director. “Most directors today don’t know what they want,” the actor observed, “so they shoot everything they can think of. They use the camera like a machine gun. John used it like a sniper.” Indeed, reading the testimony of Huston’s colleagues, one is struck by the director’s uncanny foresight but also his ruthless economy. “When he got a take he’d print it,” said cameraman Desmond Davies. “He never covered himself. His genius was he really understood cinema. He knew exactly how a camera views a scene.” When it came to the direction of his actors, Huston was equally economical with his leads, whom he continued to refer to in-character, both on and off the set. In one scene, when Caine was reading too quickly, Huston stopped him. “You can speak faster, Peachy,” he instructed the actor, gently, “he’s an honest man.” Caine was delighted. “Huston’s observation was spot on,” he said afterwards. “[He] managed to consolidate my character for me in one sentence.”
Not everyone was as thrilled. His entire career, Huston had shunned over-articulation of any part, to the joy of some actors and the ire of others. Katherine Hepburn and Eli Wallach found it liberating. John Wayne, however, was less impressed. “I ask him what’s on tomorrow’s shooting schedule,” the Duke scoffed during the making of The Barbarian and the Geisha, “and he’ll tell me to spend more time absorbing the beauty of the scenery.” Huston himself put it more delicately:
I direct as little as possible always. I don’t want an actor to give my performance. I want to get as much as I can out of him . . . If he’s a method actor, why then I’ll be a method director. Some actors like to talk about their part at great length so that they can ease themselves into the role. Well, that’s fine with me, I’ll talk. I’ve never found the formula that would work in every case.
Of course, in Wayne’s case, it didn’t help that the director was receiving more press coverage than the star, nor that the two stood diametrically opposed politically, nor that Huston’s first order of business upon arriving on location in Japan was seducing the lead actress — his own method, you could say, of absorbing the beauty of the scenery. In retrospect, one can little fault Huston for encouraging improvisation on his sets — stage-trained actors like Caine, Hepburn, and Wallach thrive on it — but so too one can hardly blame Wayne for feeling a bit neglected; just consider the fine performance Howard Hawks dredged from him in Red River (1948), proving that, with a little finesse, even the most dense monoliths can be brought to life.
If Huston’s treatment of Wayne was borderline negligent, his treatment of Montgomery Clift was downright sadistic. The pair worked closely on two pictures together — The Misfits (1961) and Freud (1962). Yet somehow, during the shooting of the former, Huston somehow failed to notice what the rest of Hollywood already knew and most of the world had come to suspect: namely, that Clift was gay. On the face of it, this revelation should have had little impact on the director’s opinion of the star; at other times in his life, Huston would cultivate friendships with both Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. (During the filming of Beat the Devil (1954), he even roomed with Capote, to the great amusement of Humphrey Bogart, who spread rumors amongst the Italian crew the two were having an affair.) In Clift’s case, though, something snapped: Huston’s biographer, Lawrence Grobel, suggests the problem was simply that Clift was not out of the closet; Williams and Capote also had the advantage, not afforded the actor, of being prominent men of letters, never a small distinction in Huston’s eyes. Whatever the case, the director dragged Clift through an arduous schedule of retakes for Freud, forced him to repeatedly climb a rope without gloves for the film’s mountainous dream sequence — an act that ended up tearing the actor’s hands to shreds — and when Clift proved unable to memorize many of his lines (the result partly of drink but also a genuine medical condition), stormed into his dressing room and informed him he was seriously thinking of killing him, which, considering Clift’s fragile state of mind at the time, he may well have believed.
Still, for all his faults — his drinking, his gambling, his negligent parenting — one can’t help, on some level, but admire the man. The same intransigence that drove friends and producers mad drove Huston to defy the House Un-American Activities Committee and, in 1963, to renounce his American citizenship altogether. Though he occasionally returned to the U.S. for filming, he made his home, from the nineteen-fifties onward, in Ireland and Mexico. In 1947, Huston, along with William Wyler and Philip Dunne, helped form the Committee for the First Amendment (CFA), and flew to Washington to support the “Unfriendly Nineteen,” the nineteen writers, directors, actors, and producers accused by HUAC of having ties to the Communist party. “They were mostly all Communists,” Huston conceded later. “They were, for the most part, well-intentioned boobs, men mostly from poor backgrounds, and out in Hollywood they sort of felt guilt at living the good life.” From the very start, things didn’t go as planned. Discovering that the CFA meant to confront him in Washington, Richard Nixon, the congressman on the House committee from California, simply flew home rather than face their questioning, and when they tried to contact him by phone, proved unreachable. Then, on the opening day of the hearings, Chairman J. Parnell Thomas switched the order of appearances and called John Howard Lawson, the most avowed Communist of the group, as his first witness. When Lawson refused to answer the court’s first question — “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?” — the scene turned to pandemonium. Bailiffs had to forcibly remove Lawson from the courtroom, along with Dalton Trumbo, who began screaming, “This is the beginning of the American concentration camp!” Right-wing newspapers pounced on the incident. Frank Coniff, a Hearst columnist, called Huston “the brains of the Communist party in the West!” Ten unfriendly witnesses were cited for contempt of Congress (the eleventh, Bertolt Brecht, left the country), and the spokesman representing the movie producers, instead of rallying against a blacklist, invited the committee to further root out any and all Communists in Hollywood. “It was a sorry performance,” Huston lamented. “You felt your skin crawl and your stomach turn. I disapproved of what was being done to the Ten, but I also disapproved of their response. They had a chance to defend a most important principle. It struck me as a case of thoroughly bad generalship.”
One scents the whiff of concealed idealism in that statement but also the odor of self-delusion; if he thought he could do better, he certainly was deluding himself. Huston may have marshaled his movies well, but in his own life he needed an assistant just to keep track of his car keys. Her name was Gladys Hill, and for over twenty years she acted as his personal secretary, though it might be better to call her the assistant director to his life. She made his appointments, mailed his correspondence, bought his clothes, copied his scripts, remembered his family’s birthdays and anniversaries, stocked his humidor and pantry — in other words, what most of us would consider the basic building blocks of existence. She also co-wrote his scripts with him — three Huston films bear the name Gladys Hill beneath the screenwriter’s credit — and her death, in 1981, dealt Huston a terrible blow, from which, many believed, he never fully recovered. “He said it was worse than losing all his wives together,” a friend later recalled. Indeed, she had been to him what none of his wives could be: another version of himself.
Which begs the question, who did Huston love besides Huston? In his TV interviews and public appearances, he was the paragon of charm — modest, self-effacing, and warm. But in his private life, he was always his greatest cause. This in itself is hardly a sin; it takes a particularly driven and self-important type of creature to hold the till of a major film production, and those who are offended by such behavior should probably stay out of Hollywood in the first place. “I regret that lack within myself that enables a man to pour all his affection into one individual,” he once said, by way of explaining his many marriages. And in his heroes’ foolhardy quests, one can’t help but see a flicker of the same obsession that drove Huston to the ends of the earth; Fred C. Dobbs and Daniel Dravot were motivated by treasures no less wondrous, and Ahab was nearing godhead before the white whale took him to the bottom of the sea. What they all share, besides a misguided sense of divinity, is a dream — a glorious, impossible dream — not unlike the creation of a movie. “I don’t give reasons. I give orders,” Gregory Peck booms in Moby Dick, and it’s no coincidence that he sounds like a movie director, for directors, too, are gods of a sort — omnipotent and wrathful, fashioning the world in their own image. Huston once described his job to John Milius like this: “You will confer with generals, you will dine at the table with kings, and you will sleep with titled women. All of this you will do while being dead broke. That’s what being a director is.” Should we even feign surprise that when it came time to make The Bible he cast himself as the voice of the Almighty?
His best films, however, like the story of his own life, are studies of human fallibility. That’s what links Sam Spade to Billy Tully, Charlie Allnutt to Lawrence Shannon, Captain Ahab to Gabriel Conroy, and each and every one of them to the director who brought them to the screen. “I’m inclined to envy the man who leads one life, with one job, and one wife, in one country, under one God,” Huston wrote in his autobiography. “It may not be a very exciting existence, but at least by the time he’s seventy-three he knows how old he is.” Who did he think he was kidding? Huston lived his life to the hilt and never apologized for anything. He was as large as any character portrayed in his films, and just as flawed. Asked once where he ranked himself as a screenwriter, Huston didn’t stand on modesty. “I think I’m one of the best,” he said, echoing a pride sounded so often in his movies. Indeed, he could have been Ahab in the rigging, or Danny on his throne, or any number of his own imperfect heroes, on top of the world for the moment, but set for the inevitable fall. “Can heroes not fail?” an interviewer asked the director once, to which Huston, the inveterate lover of underdogs, wry endings, and human weakness, had an easy response: “They always do, at least in my films.”