Bright Lights Film Journal

John Huston’s “No Exit” Ensemble Dramas

For every filmmaker who is considered an auteur, there is a key work – often a first film like Welles’ Citizen Kane that expresses in essential form most of the themes and obsessions that will preoccupy that filmmaker for the remainder of his or her career.  The “key work” sometimes explains subsequent works that might otherwise be incomprehensible, answering questions like, “Why the hell did he make this?

Throughout his long career, director John Huston was admired but misunderstood.  The misunderstanding most likely began with a long and appreciative essay by James Agee (Agee on Film) who characterized Huston as fundamentally a “macho” artist, a cinematic equivalent of Ernest Hemingway, whose movies were all about what it means to be a man.  While this approach may shed some light on Huston’s Humphrey Bogart films (Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Beat the Devil, et al.) or The Red Badge of Courage, it is not particularly helpful when applied to Huston productions like In This Our Life (starring Bette Davis), Reflections in a Golden Eye, or The Dead.  Roger Ebert was closer to the mark when he wrote of Huston’s “fascination with underdogs and losers.”

For me, the key to Huston is not one of his Bogart movies or any of his other films, but a play he directed on Broadway in 1946, an English translation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit.

No Exit is an extremely abstract drama about three people trapped for eternity (literally) in a room in hell.  One – male – is a failed revolutionary.  The other two – female – are, respectively, an upper-class narcissist and a lesbian postal clerk.  The play’s most famous line, generally accepted as its moral, is “Hell is other people,” but this ‘existentialist’ drama could be summarized even more accurately by the lines Joseph Stefano wrote for Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho: “I think that we’re all in our private traps – clamped in them – and none of us can ever get out. We scratch and claw but only at the air, only at each other. And for all of it, we never budge an inch.”

Huston seems to have had a good working relationship with Sartre – he later commissioned him to write the screenplay for his 1962 film, Freud. The two aspects of No Exit that must have attracted Huston and which can be found in all of his major films are:

  • A contained group; and
  • A fascination with sexual perversity and psychic dysfunction.

Both of these motifs are fully present in Huston’s debut film, The Maltese Falcon (1941). It’s about a group of characters (played by Bogart, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet, Mary Astor and Elisha Cook) obsessed with a common object (the bird of the title), and the enclosed nature of the group is expressed through Huston’s mise-en-scène – numerous low-angle shots of three or more characters huddled around a central point while the ceiling seems to press down upon them.  Perversity is rampant.  Bogart’s Sam Spade may be the only “straight” character in the bunch which also includes a homicidal nymphomaniac (Astor) and three (discreetly coded) gay men.  Like No Exit, The Maltese Falcon is about a group of characters confined to a room “scratching and clawing” at each other. What differentiates Huston from Sartre is the affection Huston shows for these eccentric characters.

The group in Huston’s second film, In This Our Life (1942), is a dysfunctional family.  The central character played by Bette Davis is – to put it politely – a borderline personality.  The most perverse aspect of the story is the relationship between Davis and her elderly uncle, played by Charles Coburn.  She teases him sexually in exchange for money and other little gifts.

Some more examples:

Key Largo (1948) – Catastrophic weather – a hurricane – confines an ensemble of disparate characters to a hotel in the Florida Keys.  Perversity and dysfunction appear in the relationship between a sadistic gangster (Edward G. Robinson) and his abused alcoholic moll (Claire Trevor).

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) – A self-contained group of three roving prospectors (Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt) hunt for gold in the Mexican desert.   The principle source of dysfunction is the growing paranoia of the Bogart character.  The pattern is repeated 27 years later in The Man Who Would Be King (1975) about two adventurers (Sean Connery and Michael Caine) looking for wealth in the Far East.  Just as Bogart in Treasure succumbs to paranoia, Connery’s character in The Man Who Would Be King is destroyed by his growing delusions of grandeur.

The Asphalt Jungle (1950) – About a group of eccentric types united by their involvement in that “left-handed form of human endeavor” known as crime, specifically, a jewelry store heist.  The most perverse aspect of the story? The Sam Jaffe character’s fatal fascination with teenage girls.

The African Queen (1951) is an adventure comedy about two utterly incompatible characters (Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart) confined to a small boat.  Eventually they become lovers!  The isolated boat set-up relates to the Noah’s Ark section of The Bible (1966) directed by and starring John Huston as Noah.

Moby Dick (1956) is about another group – whalers – confined to a boat.  The megalomaniacal obsession of Captain Ahab (Gregory Peck) with a monstrous white whale gradually infects the entire crew.

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) attempts to repeat the comedic formula of The African Queen.  It’s about a marine (Robert Mitchum) and a nun (Deborah Kerr) stuck together on an island.

The title, The Misfits (1961, from a screenplay by Arthur Miller), is as apt a description of the typical Huston film as No Exit.  The four titular misfits, hunting down wild horses in the Nevada desert, are played by Clark Gable, Eli Wallach, Montgomery Clift, and Marilyn Monroe.  Wallach’s character is the most cravenly dysfunctional member of the group.

Psychic dysfunction and its cure lie at the heart of Huston’s Sartre-scripted Freud (1962), starring Montgomery Clift.  If Freud is ever released on U.S. DVD, an ideal accompanying featurette would be Let There Be Light (1946), Huston’s World War II-era documentary about soldiers suffering from PTSD.

The Night of the Iguana (1964), one of the two or three finest screen adaptations of Tennessee Williams, is about a group of tourists confined to a Mexican resort hotel when their bus breaks down.  The leader of the group is an alcoholic defrocked priest (Richard Burton) attempting to disentangle himself from a relationship with an underage lolita (Lolita herself, Sue Lyon).  He finds himself caught between two would-be saviors, a woman of the spirit (Deborah Kerr) and a woman of the earth, the owner of the hotel played by Huston favorite, Ava Gardner.

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), one of the definitive Huston films, is about an ensemble of misfits confined to a military base in the Deep South.  Julie Harris’s character is a depressive, rumored to have cut off her nipples with a pair of garden shears.  The repressed homosexuality of Major Pendleton (Marlon Brando) is contrasted with the out-of-the-closet flamboyance of Harris’s Filipino houseboy (Zorro David).  Robert Forster plays a Peeping Tom private who sneaks out to ride horses naked and bareback.  Huston regards all these characters with the same objective compassion.

The Kremlin Letter (1970) is a disturbingly dark and cynical film shot in bright ‘70s daylight.  Though the story hops all over the globe, the film is nonetheless about an enclosed secretive group – the international community of cold war spies and counter-spies. (See also, 1973’s The Mackintosh Man.) Arguably the most perverse film of Huston’s career (runner-up: Wise Blood), it presents a virtual catalog of fetishes and paraphilias including interracial lesbian seduction, George Sanders in drag, Bibi Andersson as a masochistic pothead, a sultry brunette (Barbara Parkins) who opens a safe with her feet, a hard-nosed assassin (Richard Boone) who takes pleasure in killing a beautiful young woman with his bare hands, and a Mexican prostitute who squeezes a live chicken between her thighs.

A classic of the ‘70s New American Cinema (all the more remarkable for having been directed by a 30-year Hollywood veteran), Fat City (1972) – in contrast to the sociopolitical darkness of The Kremlin Letter – shows Huston’s compassionate side.  It depicts the day-to-day survival of a group of amateur boxers, their trainers, and their girlfriends living in Stockton, California.  The characters, never quite compatible, connect, disconnect, and briefly connect again as they try to “make it through the night.”

Wise Blood (1979) is a black comedy that could have been directed by Luis Buñuel – it shares Buñuel’s ambivalent attitude toward religion expressed in films like Viridiana and Nazarin. (Huston also shares Buñuel’s fascination with human perversity.)  Taking place in a small Southern town, Wise Blood’s group of youthful misfits are all connected in one way or another to religious fundamentalism, including the protagonist, Hazel Moats (Brad Dourif), who wants to start “the Church of Christ Without Christ.”  Having blinded himself and mortified his flesh with barbed wire, Hazel ends up helpless and immobile in the care of his spinster landlady.

Huston’s final film, The Dead (1987), from a story by James Joyce, highlights the basic ambiguity of Huston’s work. It celebrates the warmth and interconnectedness of an extended Irish family (most of the action takes place in a single house during an annual Christmas season party), while ultimately revealing the fundamental aloneness of the characters.

There is lot more to be said about Huston, some of which will be said in Part 2 of this post.

In the meantime, enjoy this BBC production of No Exit, showcasing a dead-on performance by Nobel Prize-winning playwright/actor, Harold Pinter.