(1906 - 1987)
Three Key Films: The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948), The Dead (1987)
Unforgettable: “If you’re the police, where are your badges?” The response to this question, asked by Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of Sierra Madre, is one of the most famous in movie history. Mexican actor Alfonso Bedoya’s incredulous amusement at this silly American, daring to question his authority, has implanted itself in our cultural consciousness. “Badges?” he asks. If you’ve never seen the film, the lines that follow are a bit different than you expect, but it’s still exhilarating to finally understand what everyone else seems to know.
Underrated: Fat City (1972). Long attracted to characters living on the margins, it’s little surprise Huston would choose to adapt Leonard Gardner’s novel about amateur boxers, migrant workers and alcoholics living in Stockton California, a town painted so bleakly by both Gardner and Huston that it seems ready to slide off the margin altogether. A hit at Cannes, the story centers around the chance meeting between a washed-up boxer who never made it (Stacey Keach) and an aimless young boxer who never will (a shockingly young Jeff Bridges). Plenty happens to the men. Nothing happens to the men. Susan Tyrrell is unforgettable as a majestic and domineering drunk. You might expect the prominently featured soundtrack of established hits by Kris Kristofferson to date the film, but the old vet Huston recognized something enduring in the songs. Their gruff sadness and Huston’s tender naturalism make for a moving portrait of modern squalor.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The Legend: Talkies have been around for over eight decades. John Huston made indisputably great films in more than half of them. He made big Hollywood pictures with A-list actors and big budgets, shot quite literally around the world. And yet he was prolific, directing almost as many films as Roger Corman, the king of fast and cheap. He won Oscars in Directing and Writing, and was nominated as an Actor. He called acting a cinch, and writing came so quickly to him that he temporarily quit it for more challenging pursuits. Before deciding at 31 to finally take his film career seriously, Huston had spent periods of his life in vaudeville and journalism, rode with the Mexican Cavalry, and fought as an amateur boxer. He didn’t always drink beer, but when he did, I’m sure John Huston preferred Dos Equis.
If directing provided Huston with that yearned-for challenge, it’s hard to tell. His directing feels effortless. By using the camera to mirror psychology rather than merely to capture action, Huston brilliantly elevated the intensity in his films from the very beginning. His first film, The Maltese Falcon, was immediately declared a classic and has only grown in stature since. Like Orson Welles, he shared the novelistic sense that a plot is only a set up, and that the real thrill comes in seeing how the characters will react. As a result, Huston was the kind of director who turned actors into stars. The stories were tightly wound masterpieces, but the characters were the feature.
Huston showed remarkable ability to evolve. Maintaining his central philosophy—to simultaneously examine and excite—demanded he must. Employ an innovative technique or stylistic angle too often and it quickly becomes stale. But Huston had a nose for expiration dates. Though 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle had just complicated and reinvigorated the film noir, 1953’s Beat the Devil immediately attempts to declare the genre dead, and inadvertently invents a new genre (camp) along the way. This sense of restlessness defines Huston’s career, and is only surpassed by the magnitude of his achievements. Many call The Maltese Falcon the greatest detective movie ever made, and The Treasure of Sierra Madre the greatest adventure. The African Queen (1951) is the gold standard of romantic comedies. He was always ahead of the game, even beating young bucks like Lucas and Spielberg to the revivalist serial punch with 1975’s sprawling epic, The Man Who Would Be King (1975).
Famous for his uncanny ability to edit in his head, Huston shot only what would be used in the cut (as opposed to the standard method of shooting everything and letting the editor figure it out). His intellectual and aesthetic accuracy is such that even his misses manage nobility. His troubling and meandering The Misfits (1961), for instance, is also an epic ensemble showcase, a graduate seminar in screen acting. And the Razzie nomination he received for Annie (1982) is easily tempered by the bold willingness of a legend to take on his first musical at seventy years old. Plus, he still had greatness in the tank, making both Prizzi’s Honor (1985) and The Dead just before his death. He was one of the best filmmakers who ever lived, but he worked until the very end as if that wasn’t good enough. Joshua Ewing Weber