Lavishly praised by James Agee as "one of the most inventive directors of his generation" and caustically dismissed by Andrew Sarris as "less than meets the eye," John Huston (1906-1987) remained a polarizing figure throughout his long and legendary Hollywood career. One of the great screenwriter-turned-directors of the Hollywood studio system (together with Robert Rossen and Billy Wilder), Huston skyrocketed to fame with his 1941 directorial debut The Maltese Falcon whose meticulous reinvention of Dashill Hammett's classic hardboiled prose pointed towards the critically acclaimed adaptations (Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle) that are today often cited as Huston's greatest films. Beginning with his 1951 adaptation of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, Huston embraced increasingly ambitious and risky projects that were alternately applauded and derided, often without ever being fully understood. This pattern grew even stronger in Huston's late career as he daringly tackled a wide range of popular genres (the Western, the spy thriller, the boxing film) and "unfilmable" literary properties (Kipling, Joyce, McCullers) to produce some of his most striking, daring and often willfully eccentric films, many – like Fat City, his melancholy ode to the fallen man, or his exquisite final film The Dead – are recognized as important classics today. And yet, as this focused retrospective reveals, Huston's late career yielded a number of bold, fascinating, controversial films – The Kremlin Letter, The MacKintosh Man, Under the Volcano – that urgently need to be rediscovered and reassessed.
Film descriptions by Brittany Gravely, Haden Guest and David Pendleton
Directed by John Huston. With Anjelica Huston, Donal McCann, Cathleen Delany
Germany/UK/US 1987, 35mm, color, 84 min
Both a touching coda to Huston's long career and a valedictory tribute to his consummate skills adapting great, and famously "unfilmable,” literature, The Dead is remarkably faithful to the delicate balance between constrained social rituals and the infinite complexities of the interior world achieved by the celebrated longest story of James Joyce's The Dubliners. Further poignancy is brought to Joyce's nuanced meditation on mortality by the fact that Huston heroically battled terminal illness to complete his final film, succumbing to emphysema and heart troubles only a few months after the end of production. The emotional complexity of Joyce's masterful story are beautifully rendered in Huston's masterful shift from the chamber music of the rambling and revelatory dinner party which occupies much of the film to the quiet twin arias that are its end. Gliding into central stage to perform the first of the two sustained monologues that conclude the film and Joyce's story, Anjelica Huston glows with stirring emotion as a wife whose sudden, unexpected grief stirs a brooding disquiet in her loving husband.
Directed by John Huston. With Paul Newman, Dominique Sanda,
Ireland/UK/US 1973, 35mm, color, 99 min
In keeping with the offbeat nature of Huston’s films from the 1960s and early 1970s, and their fascination for eccentrics and outsiders, Cold War thriller The Mackintosh Man introduces welcome notes of ambivalence into an often stodgy and predictable genre. The film’s first half, written by Walter Hill, begins as a heist movie which evolves into a spy story; the second half, scripted by Huston himself, turns ambiguous, even cynical. The Mackintosh Man also delivers the typical pleasures of the Euro-pudding action film from the period: an elaborate car chase and an eclectic all-star cast featuring ice princess Dominique Sanda as the femme fatale.
Directed by John Huston. With Brad Dourif, Ned Beatty,
Harry Dean Stanton
West Germany/US 1979, 35mm, color, 106 min
Wise Blood presents a singular tale of hell and salvation in its portrayal of a young man who returns from the army, stages a doomed private rebellion, and establishes the "Church of Truth Without Jesus Christ." Adapting a story which takes place primarily within its characters’ minds,Huston manages to imbue this version of Flannery O’Connor’s remarkable first novel with the same zest with which it was written. Part comedy, part tragedy, part philosophical farce, Wise Blood revels in its bizarre characters and the maddeningly irrational psychology of fanaticism without sacrificing a palpably familiar realism and truth.
Directed by John Huston. With Bibi Andersson, Richard Boone,
US 1970, 35mm, color, 116 min
Dismissed at its release as merely a formulaic spy adventure, Huston's complex Cold War epic The Kremlin Letter is among his most ambitious and least understood late works. The film's unsparing fatalism, claustrophobia and cruelty were, however, deeply admired by master of sang froid Jean-Pierre Melville who declared The Kremlin Letter to "establish the standard for cinema." Deliberately working against genre and box office expectations, Huston assembled and boldly, at times perversely, counter-cast a dazzling array of stars – Bibi Andersson, George Sanders, Max Von Sydow, Orson Welles – to reimagine the Cold War as a lurid, sadistic and brutal hotbed of deception.
Directed by John Huston. With Paul Newman, Ned Beatty, Victoria Principal
US 1972, 35mm, color, 124 min
The wily soul of John Huston – as well as an actual appearance by the director in the role of Grizzly Adams – cavorts mischievously through the exaggerated tale of Roy Bean, a bloodily self-appointed king of a lawless square of land west of the Pecos. In an era of revisionist Westerns, Huston’s epic romp is less a rethinking of the Western than a nostalgic satire of the mythic origins of American civilization. As a string of peculiar characters and vignettes parade before Paul Newman’s megalomaniacal Bean, his unconventional empire rises and falls, only to rise again in the even more outrageous frontier of Legend. Huston’s bemused film takes on the scattershot spirit of the Old West from lawless, off-kilter angles – even collapsing that ramshackle fourth wall when necessary.
Directed by John Huston. With Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset,
US/Mexico 1984, 35mm, color, 112 min
After various failed attempts by directors like Buñuel, John Huston was the only one to finally wrestle Malcolm Lowry’s semi-autobiographical, un-cinematic novel to the silver screen. On the eve of World War II, glimmers of a lucid, erudite man barely make it through Albert Finney’s relentlessly nuanced portrayal of the alcoholic Geoffrey Fermin. A former British consul of a small Mexican town, Fermin is a fallen man taking a direct – if colorful and loquacious – path to Hell. The lost souls of his half-brother and estranged wife emotionally affix themselves to his stumbling corpse and follow him through an endless Day of the Dead. Unable to face the true horrors erupting within themselves and within the world around them, the trio succumbs to a trance of deep denial, only momentarily breaking when the spectre of death appears before them unadorned.
Directed by John Huston. With Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Christopher Plummer
UK/US 1975, 35mm, color, 129 min
One of the great achievements of Huston's late career, The Man Who Would Be King brings a sharp critical edge and ripe melancholy into Kipling's British Empire fable about two former British soldiers whose stumbling search for fortune and adventure leads them far from India and into a lost, remote, more fabulous and dangerous world than they could ever imagine. In their measured and nuanced performances Sean Connery and Michael Caine together embody the limitless hubris, romantic zeal and blind folly of the British imperial adventure whose stark limits are constantly reinforced by the sweeping and visually stunning landscapes that dwarf and diminish Huston's obstinate anti-heroes. Print courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Directed by John Huston. With Anjelica Huston, Assaf Dayan,
US 1969, 35mm, color, 90 min
Despite the 14th Century setting of Hans Koningsberger’s novel, Huston imbues A Walk With Love and Death with the spirit of 1969. After all, it is both love and war that unite the film’s young lovers – played by his daughter Anjelica in her debut and Assaf Dayan, son of Israeli politician Moshe Dayan. When Lady Claudia’s aristocratic family is killed by rebellious peasants, she journeys to the sea with Heron of Foix, a discontent student who has abandoned his studies. The doomed pair travels through naturalistically rendered cruelty and carnage of the Hundred Years’ War and attempts to rise above the chaos around them by escaping into their passionate devotion. With echoes of Franco Zefferelli's Romeo and Juliet of the previous year, Huston’s delicate tragedy is sparely decorated with lyrical dialogue, a muted palette and a personal appearance. Print courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Directed by John Huston. With Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner,
US 1985, 35mm, color, 129 min
Undaunted by his advanced age or emphysema, Huston undertook a darkly comic mafia picture based on the novel by The Manchurian Candidate author Richard Condon. Patiently toying with elements of various famous gangster movies – including his own – Huston’s unusual wandering path through the everyday lives of the Prizzi family is skillfully guided by the strangely endearing performances of Jack Nicholson as Charley Partanna the Prizzi’s naïve hit man and Angelica Huston as his jilted former lover. When Charley falls in love with a beautiful stranger who is also in the business, he instigates a messy wave of double-crosses crossing over and back through absurdly sticky webs of organized deception. As if they operated a “standard” family business, Huston wryly explores the strength of their various bonds as well as the occupational hazards of their grisly vocations.
Directed by John Huston. With Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando,
US 1967, 35mm, color, 109 min
In adapting Carson McCullers’ Southern Gothic tale, Huston took great pains to desaturate the color and suffuse the prints with a golden cast. Apparently, audiences appreciated the gilded tone even less than the homosexual content, and the film was rereleased in full spectrum Technicolor. Such monochromatism would have perhaps further subdued the Freudian complex of voyeuristic desires, repressed longings, secret affairs and misdirected fury within the stifling confines of a military post in Georgia. At the height of her critical popularity, Liz Taylor chose Marlon Brando to sink feverishly into the role of her husband, the uptight Major who is repulsed by his adulterous, melodramatic wife and his own latent yearnings for Robert Forster’s enigmatic soldier. The closeted ecosystem of eccentricities builds to an expectedly violent culmination tempered by that nonjudgmental Hustonian eye, always empathetic to disrupted desires. Print courtesy of Warner Bros.
Directed by John Huston. With Stacy Keach, Jeff Bridges, Susan Tyrrell
US 1972, 35mm, color, 100 min
Former boxer Leonard Gardner adapted his own extraordinary novel for Two-Lane Blacktop’s Monte Hellman. When Hellman had to heartbreakingly decline due to contract conflicts, John Huston returned to the arms of critics and the public with the inconspicuous naturalism of his version of Fat City. Acutely rendered shadows and light describe the dingy edges of desperate lives who accumulate around the gym, the bar, flophouses, onion fields – nonetheless flickering with ideas of something grander. A faded, unglamorous boxing film with no precise rises or falls, Fat City instead observes the repercussions of the perpetual expansion and deflation of egos battered by more than fists. Huston – also a one-time fighter – invisibly directs a cast of unprofessional actors and actual boxers with Stacy Keach’s washed up fighter, Jeff Bridges’ conflicted neophyte and Susan Tyrell’s uncannily channeled alcoholic. Both dignified and defeated, they populate a Stockton, California skid row also on the edge of destruction; the very day after the final shoot, large swathes of the film’s locations were razed making way for freeways and redevelopment. Fat City captures moments – both fleeting and eternal – of a particularly American vein of beauty, humor and pain and inscribes them with such unaffected detail the film seems less a projection than an unobstructed view from across the tracks.