The Man Who Would Rather Not Be King
The other night I dug out my copy of The Maltese Falcon and popped it into the VCR. Damn if the film doesn’t hold up amazingly well; in fact, it gets better every time I watch it. Mary Astor still looks just a bit too matronly to be the seductress Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and one wonders what the hell Sam Spade saw in his partner’s histrionic wife, overplayed by Gladys George, but everyone else in the cast is spot-on. Sydney Greenstreet, in his first film role at 62 years of age, is as menacingly erudite as ever, Peter Lorre is gloriously shifty (watch his business whenever he’s in the background), and Humphrey Bogart, while never much of an actor, makes the transition from B-movie heavy to existential romantic hero with unparalleled style. The picture, from the opening exchange in Spade’s office to the final scene where Brigid rides the elevator to Hell while Spade takes the stairs, is incredibly sophisticated for the story of an ethically dodgy gumshoe mixed up in a search of the world’s most expensive paperweight, and this the director’s first picture, even. Arguably the best noir private-eye film ever made, it had all the right elements: superb cast, excellent source text (although two earlier film versions of Dashiell Hammett’s novel bombed), and most importantly, John Huston.
Huston, son of one of the great film actors of his generation (Walter) and father of one of the great actresses of her generation (Anjelica), carved a career for himself that transcends generations entirely. It is impossible to make a list of “greatest films ever made,” no matter how you slice it, without at least a couple of his pictures in there: The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, Moby Dick, The Man Who Would Be King. He directed Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits, the last film either actor would make. He played Noah and the voice of God in the terribly misnamed The Bible and Faye Dunaway’s creepy dad in Chinatown. He hung out with Hemingway, went mano a mano with Errol Flynn for an hour because Flynn dissed Olivia de Havilland, and almost got Katharine Hepburn killed in an elephant stampede. A boxer, horseman, big-game hunter, and occasional duellist, married five times, Huston was most often referred to as a “man’s man” or as a “ladies’ man,” but as he tells one interviewer in Robert Emmet Long’s collection of various conversations with him, Huston preferred to be “nobody’s man.”
John Huston: Interviews, part of the University Press of Mississippi’s “Conversations with Filmmakers” series, anthologizes interviews taken from a wide range of magazines, from Film Comment to Rolling Stone to Women’s Wear Daily, beginning in 1952 and ending with a Playboy interview conducted just before Huston’s death in 1987. The interviews come together to present a surprising portrait of the man for those who only know his reputation. Huston involved himself in all areas of production in his films, usually taking a hand in the screenplays (before The Maltese Falcon, Huston was already a high-profile screenwriter, having co-written High Sierra, with Bogart, and Jezebel, with Bette Davis, among others), but he was neither a high-strung auteur like Orson Welles nor a despot like Erich von Stroheim. Huston was, rather, a man who believed in facilitating the gifts of others. He believed in giving his actors as much room to find their own performances as possible, which is why he managed to get such marvelous performances out of less gifted actors like Bogart and from wrecks like Marilyn Monroe at the nadir of her drug dependency. Huston liked to cast actors to fit their roles rather than have them invent the roles from whole cloth. This spirit of facilitation also explains why so many of Huston’s films were faithful adaptations of novels and plays, including 1984’s Under the Volcano, starring Albert Finney, based upon a Malcolm Lowry novel that had been deemed unfilmable. Huston believed in adhering to the elements that made them great novels and plays in the first place—if only someone could explain that concept to Spielberg.
What also emerges from Huston’s conversations is the intellect and soul behind the macho exterior. A voracious and wide-ranging reader, writer, and painter, Huston is a true raconteur, as comfortable discussing neorealism and Sartrian existentialism—Huston knew Sartre and directed the first Broadway production of No Exit—as he is talking about Jack Dempsey and running with the hounds. His eclectic choices in smaller films, such as biopics of Freud and Toulouse-Lautrec, reflect the range of his fertile mind, even if those films were somewhat less successful.
As pleasant as it is to meet John Huston, however, the inclusion of so many interviews from different sources means that we are introduced to him again and again. Each interviewer is getting his or her first shot at Huston at the time, which means there is a standard battery of questions about Huston’s oeuvre of classics and about his style, to which he has pro forma answers—one will read the sentence “I try to direct as little as possible” at least a dozen times. While it is admirable of Long to keep the articles whole, after a while the reader may start to skim in search of new material. But if one can resist that urge, the rewards are great. In all of these interviews, Huston is revealed as a seamless whole, tough guy and gentleman of culture, one of the last of the Renaissance Men.