John Huston: Charismatic Charmer and Cinematic Casanova
Paper by Tootie Weizman.
Film directors come and go. Legendary film directors come and never leave. John Huston is one of the latter. Huston’s renowned directorial skills can be compared only with a select few of his peers, such as John Ford, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock. In keeping with the theme of grandeur, only Huston’s zest for life and appetite for love can compete with his talent for filmmaking. His lifetime was the stuff movies are made of and oh the movies he made.
Huston was larger than life both professionally and personally and this was conveyed through his films. His outgoing, brash, reckless, take no prisoners approach to life transitioned and translated from his personal life to his films on the big screen. His unique approach included in-depth involvement in adapting works (books) into screenplays. Huston’s hands on approach in writing the screenplay sets him apart from most directors who do not have the vision and perception to imagine the pages in film format. Earning a living making films is a career attempted by many a talented man and woman. However, only a handful are capable of reaching the pinnacles of fame and fortune that are bestowed on the elite, gifted few. Huston’s upbringing and his circuitous path in life provided him with a perspective that was “out of the box.” He was successful both creatively and commercially. The places he lived, the paths he crossed, the people he encountered and his reckless abandon profoundly influenced him in forging a successful career in an unforgiving profession.
Huston was an actor before he was a director and this influence is well-represented in his directorial work. A man of many talents, he also enjoyed painting and artwork and he had an insane obsession for literature. He didn’t consider movies high art, like painting and writing, and respected the author, not the director, as the auteur. Of his thirty-seven feature films, thirty-four were based on novels, stories or plays (Meyers 63). The mind of this accomplished human being never had a chance to sit idle. He paid tribute to the auteur authors by showcasing their art on film.
The events that would shape the future renowned director began early in his life. At the age of eleven young Huston was misdiagnosed with a large heart and chronic kidney disease. The doctor prescribed bed rest and no exercise for two years. The diagnosis precipitated the move from St. Paul to Phoenix where the weather was mild. Impatient and unwilling to lie around any longer, teen-age Huston almost drown after sneaking out for a late-night swim in a canal (Meyers 26). Huston was finished sitting around and had broken free of the chains of immobilization and isolation.
The dire consequences of an improper diagnosis no doubt influenced Huston and fueled his desire and need to be out in the world, free to roam and embrace adventure. Coupled with a dreadful car accident in 1933 that scarred him and the ensuing life in London and Paris of writing, homelessness, depression and poverty, it is no wonder Huston excelled at his art. He was recreating his anguish and pain on film, selectively pursuing and developing characters that he could relate to and at the same time use them as an outlet for his life experiences.
Huston was born in Nevada, Missouri in 1906. His upbringing was everything other than normal. His father, Walter Huston, was an actor and his mother Rhea was a reporter. The young John Huston dropped out of high school at the age of fifteen, attempted a career at amateur boxing, pursued painting in Paris, dabbled in writing and made documentaries during WWII (Biography). Huston’s inability to stick with any of the professions for any length of time was simply a premonition of his restlessness which would stick with him in his personal life, seeing him marry five times.
While working as a writer in New York, Huston married the first of his five wives and shortly thereafter moved to Los Angeles to work for Samuel Goldwyn and not long after proceeded to take a job with Universal Studios. In September 1933, while driving on Sunset Boulevard, Huston hit a pedestrian. She hit the windshield, her body flew thirty feet and she died at the scene. He was acquitted of any wrong doing and it was determined that Huston had a green light and the victim had stepped into traffic. Fortuitously, drinking and speeding were not
factors (Meyers 40). Even so, the media was relentless. Two years after the dreadful accident, Huston’s father, Walter, found him a screenwriting job in London. When the job ended, he stayed in London, becoming homeless and living on the street. Feelings of depression and failure engulfed him and in a last ditch effort to pursue his passion, painting, he departed for Paris. Huston lived the life of a vagabond artist and indulged his love of women. When Huston the drifter realized his painting ability was not in the category of renown and the well had run dry, he made the return trek to America (Meyers 42). The horrifying accident and the experiences in London and Paris would impact Huston for the rest of his life, likely providing stimulus for his directorial perspective.
The horrific incident unequivocally devastated Huston and subsequent travels in London and Paris left him feeling as though he was a failure. Upon his return to the United States in 1935, he was fortunate to be able to pursue his writing career with Warner Bros and he married for the second time (Meyers 51). By this time, Huston’s lifestyle of choice had become one of a wandering soul, seeking companionship and participating in self-indulgent, irresponsible activities. His mother, Rhea, died in 1938 and Huston described her as “a mass of contradictions…dominating, demeaning, hysterical, overbearing, proud, protective” (qtd. in Meyers 24). Huston certainly could have taken several of the adjectives he used to describe his mother and applied them to himself. The death of his mother deeply affected him and he continued living life with reckless abandon and as a consequence, divorce number two was pending.
Not long after her death, Huston soared to fame with the release of The Maltese Falcon in 1941. The now classic film was Huston’s debut as a director and it was also his debut as a writer. He wrote the adaptation for the film which was based on the novel, “The Maltese Falcon”, written by Dashiell Hammett. The entire film was shot in thirty-four days and at a cost of $327,000, it slid in just under budget (Meyers 67). The novice director had proven himself capable of writing a screenplay, selecting the perfect cast and creating a film that achieved success at the box-office and won critical acclaim. Huston had landed and made a name for himself.
Following the success of The Maltese Falcon, Huston was called into the Army in April of 1942. The Army enlisted him to make documentaries (Meyers 96). The wartime assignment was another adventure in Huston’s travel log and once again he proved himself to be up to the task. While serving his country, Huston was under suspicion of being a Communist. He remained under suspicion even though the Army did not press charges and stated, “that evidence does not support positive charges of disloyalty” (Meyers 96). Huston’s Let There Be Light (1946), exposed the traumatic effects of war on soldiers. The authenticities of the effects of war captured on film were deemed too realistic for the public and the Army suppressed the film. With the assistance of Vice President Walter Mondale, it was finally released to the public for viewing in 1980 (Meyers 102). Miraculously, after almost thirty-five years in the dark, Let There Be Light finally saw the light of day.
After serving his country in the Army, Huston put his genius to work once again, employing his formula of writing the screenplay and directing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948. The cast included his close friend Humphrey Bogart, his father Walter and himself. The adventurous Huston always wanted complete control of his craft and he relished shooting in far-off, remote and sometimes dangerous places. He paired his artistic abilities with a genuine, true-to-life, realistic setting not far from Mexico City (Meyers 139, 140). Maintaining artistic control was easily achieved by filming on location, quite some distance from the studio backlots. Mexico was another one of his loves and working in another country provided him with a sense of power, adventure and an escape from the long arm of the corporate studio. The brilliant direction by Huston won him an Oscar for Best Director and an Oscar for Best Writing Adapted Screenplay and garnered an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his father (Biography). The immense success of another film only served to further elevate Huston’s reputation as an extraordinary director. It also affirmed that Huston’s control of script and camera was a successful formula.
In 1950, the thrice married and thrice divorced Huston married the pregnant, Enrica Soma, making her wife number four. He would have two children with Ricki, Anthony and Anjelica (Meyers 162). Huston was on a roll, directing a string of successful films, including The Asphalt Jungle (1950), a crime drama that is considered one of his best pictures, featuring a dishonest lawyer, devious criminals and corrupt law enforcement (Meyers 102). The characters are a diverse cross-section of individuals on yet another adventure filled with the human elements of serpentine, cunning and craft.
A rolling stone gathers no moss and during his career Huston consistently traveled the globe. In 1953, he moved his family to Ireland and three years later procured a 110-acre estate, St. Clerans, in County Galway (Huston). He roamed the globe from Los Angeles to London, Ireland, Mexico and back again. Over the course of his lifetime, he had homes in Los Angeles, Ireland and Mexico. The nomadic lifestyle is present and reflected in many of his films.
As fate would have it, tragedy struck again in 1969 when a car accident in France took the life of his fourth wife, Enrica “Ricki” Huston (Meyers 325). The two were estranged at the time, but it was a glaring reminder for Huston of the terrible accident in 1933 on Sunset Boulevard. Not yet finished with tying the knot, Huston married his fifth wife in August 1972. The tumultuous marriage and love affair lasted only five years until 1977. Celeste “Cici” Shane was the only woman who had the courage and self-confidence to leave Huston (Meyers 356). Years of his continued antics and infidelity had taken its toll.
As a husband and father, Huston failed miserably at fidelity and lacked paternal instincts. His own father had not been involved in his upbringing and the two did not connect until much later in life when they began working together on films. Huston was an itinerant wanderer, an absent father and unable to bond deeply or permanently with his children or his numerous wives. He was self-absorbed, uninterested and found children boring and therefore made no effort to get to know them (Meyers 174). As with his own father, he only came to know his children later in life, when their careers could benefit from his assistance. Huston’s superlative direction helped win his daughter Anjelica an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in Prizzi’s Honor (1985). Clearly, the artistic genes ran deep, as the Hustons are the only family to win Oscars in three consecutive generations (Biography). A disconnected family life, united through collaborative filmmaking, yielded exceptional results.
Ingenuity and innovation were inherent in Huston’s directing style. He constantly tested the boundaries of filmmaking by refusing to conform. He preferred to shoot on location. His blatant disregard for safety and demanding directorial whimsy put everyone at risk when shooting The African Queen (1951). Huston alleged that the actors would give better performances if they agonized on location and in return the film would have more personality and appeal (Meyers 189). Perilous situations were part of the adventure for Huston and he commanded his troops to live up to his expectations under the most hazardous conditions. He is often referred to as one of the auteur directors. He would be in good company with Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and John Ford.
Hitchcock inspired film noir and suspense with Psycho (1960), Welles captivated audiences with his unique style in Citizen Kane (1941) and Ford charmed filmgoers with fiery romance in The Quiet Man (1952). Each of these famous directors incorporated a distinctive style from behind the camera. Both Huston and Ford were known for their intensity, machismo and mammoth personas that accompanied them to the set (Lewis 328). Welles was larger than life and the release of Citizen Kane in 1941 sealed his place in the director’s chair. Hitchcock and Ford came to be known for particular styles of film. Hitchcock will be remembered for his shadowy, dramatic and suspenseful repertoire of films. Ford is remembered for his many westerns featuring John Wayne and for being extraordinarily difficult when pontificating from the director’s chair. In contrast to Welles, Huston finished all of his films and unlike Hitchcock and Ford, he continually reinvented himself, never fearful of attempting something new. In stark contrast to Hitchcock who made no films during the last five years of his life, Huston never stopped working (Meyers 414). Despite the need for an oxygen tank to battle the emphysema brought on by lifelong smoking, Huston continued in his profession until the day he died, August 28, 1987, at the age of 81 (Meyers 411). In death as in life, Huston was courageous, bold and fearless. Nothing and no one ever prevented John Huston from doing exactly what John Huston wanted to do.
Huston’s impressive body of work includes a wide array and style of films. The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Asphalt Jungle are but three of his gems, they are all black and white and they could easily be considered a bit film noirish. Huston’s use of extreme close-ups, low angle shots, darkness and shadows, and the recurring theme of greed, desperation and paranoia are apparent in all three films. Each film has the characters in pursuit of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, an avenue for escaping their mundane lifestyles with the
In The Maltese Falcon, Huston’s use of multiple low angle shots of Guttman (Sydney Greenstreet) make the character seem foreboding, threatening and domineering. When Cairo (Peter Lorre) confronts Spade (Humphrey Bogart) in his office, the low angle shot allows Cairo to appear larger than his real size, thereby seemingly putting Spade in danger. Huston’s ability to make the most of the close-up shot is evident in the opening scenes of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He focuses in on the posted winning lottery numbers and then on Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) tearing up his losing ticket. A few scenes later, he uses a low angle shot of the passersby, including the American in the white suit (John Huston) who becomes the target of Dobbs’ requests for money, “Will you stake a fellow American for a meal.” It is readily apparent to filmgoers that the American in the white suit stands out in the crowd. In The Asphalt Jungle, Huston’s skillful use of low lighting and close-up shots makes the spaces seem small and confining. Whether it is the scene in underground when they are preparing for the heist, the scene cracking the safe or when Dix (Sterling Hayden) and Doll (Jean Hagen) are in the car at the railroad crossing, the atmosphere is claustrophobic, apprehensive and filled with a sense of dread.
All three films are abundant with close-up shots. Huston used them to the fullest extent to define the characters, give them depth and make their personalities fill the screen. The close-ups of Spade and Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) in the ending scenes of The Maltese Falcon, combined with low angle shots and cross-cutting are effective tools in portraying her imminent arrest and impending failure to pull one over on Spade. There is no escaping the law. As paranoia engulfs Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and to emphasize his failing mental capacity, Huston uses close-ups of his frazzled, scruffy, dirty self just before he falls face first into the watering hole. The close-up of the bandit’s desperate, crazy and wild look on his sombrero covered face are clues that something evil is on the horizon. Death awaits. When the Police Commissioner (John McIntire) questions Angela (Marilyn Monroe) in The Asphalt Jungle, the use of a low angle shot of the Commissioner combined with close-ups of Angela provide the illusion that the police maintain the power and control in the situation. The close-ups of Angela depict her looking up at the Commissioner, rendering her small, powerless and afraid. The close-ups of Emmerich (Louis Calhern) as he writes a suicide note make it clear that the end is near.
In each of these classic films, Huston uses a combination of skills from the wide-range available in his arsenal. The use of various types of shots in filming one particular scene serve as evidence of Huston’s keen eye, know-how and knack for determining exactly what will best immortalize the scene on film. He was able to envision the film in its final form before shooting ever began. His artistic frame of mind in tandem with his acute awareness of what would work on the big screen is a gift and the upshot is a plethora of classic masterpieces bestowed on audiences to enjoy for years to come.
The film catalog of Huston is extraordinary. His range of abilities literally redefines the term director when referring to his body of work. In The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Asphalt Jungle, the notable director delivers his message in three different venues, but the meaning is the same: money changes people and greed is a common human character flaw. The famous falcon is nothing but a fake, the gold dust evaporates into the wind and the jewels were too hot to be turned for a profit and Doc (Sam Jaffe) is caught with them by the cops at a diner. When the falcon is determined to be a fake, Gutman’s laugh is uncanny but cognizant of the lunacy of the escapade. At the discovery that the gold dust has blown away, Howard (Walter Huston) laughs a jolly, belly laugh, realizing that the gold mining adventure was simply an adventure and says, “The gold has gone back to where we found it.” When the detective tells Spade the falcon is heavy and asks, “What is it?”, Spade replies, “the stuff dreams are made of.” All three films are dark, revealing the murkier side of human nature. They are wrought with film noir themes of greed and down and out, desperate characters that are doomed to fail or fall prey to the perils of unrealistic pursuits.
The novels, stories and plays the celebrated director chose to put on film seem to be a direct reflection of his upbringing and the manner in which he lived his life. Huston seems to gravitate toward and choose a novel, story or play that incorporates characters that roam in search of something, whether it is a bizarre, eccentric falcon, the intangible pot of gold in the Sierra Madre mountains or precious, stolen gems. There is a piece of the director buried between the lines.
Huston manipulated people and audiences on multiple levels. Women and men were attracted to him and filmgoers were awed by his productions. Adversity is what shaped Huston the director and he was a perfectionist in every sense of the word. His choice of actors was paramount in the success of his films. He was known for both scripting a film and knowing precisely how each scene would play out prior to shooting. Huston was a miracle worker behind the camera and known for his aptitude in achieving the exact right shot in short order by using a scant amount of film. Carol Burnett said it best, “He rarely did more than two takes for a scene. He knew what he wanted, got it, and that was that. He was an actor’s director” (214). Huston was respected and revered in his profession.
There are likely many who would judge this adept director harshly for his extravagance and his insatiable lust for women and life. The lavish estate in Ireland, homes in Los Angeles and Mexico, an untold number of women and perpetual smoking were amongst his vices. Cynics would be apt to believe he should not have squandered his money frivolously nor indulged in living on such a grand scale. Would have, could have, should have. Huston did it all. Despite what the skeptics may have thought, the versatile director proved he had every right to be behind the camera, further bolstered by the ensuing fame and glory.
Hollywood was fortunate to have stumbled upon Huston. He was one of a kind. Huston had many acquaintances, some of Hollywood fame and some of literary notoriety, such as Hemingway. The dramatic parallels between Huston and Hemingway are stunning. Neither of these huge intellectuals attended college. Married five and four times each, respectively, and with each subsequent marriage, both married younger and younger women. Both men had a love of art and enjoyed escaping from the world in homes that espoused their love of grandeur. Neglectful fathers, each had three children. Life was an adventure and Huston and Hemingway felt compelled to face every challenge head-on and embrace danger (Meyers 1-3). They were difficult, rebellious, domineering and overpowering. Huston was famous for embellishing his “friendship” with Hemingway by maintaining he “was a very close personal friend of mine” (qtd. in Meyers 6). The similarities in the lives of these two giants in film and literature are astounding.
Huston’s gusto for life was equaled only by his loyalty to his closest friend, Bogart. The dynamic duo made six films together. Under Huston’s direction, Bogart’s portrayal of Spade in The Maltese Falcon, propelled him to fame. Huston explained that Bogart did not get the parts in his films because of their association or because he liked him, but because “that face and voice and figure fitted in with the kinds of stories that I liked to write and make” (qtd. in Meyers 69). They shared a passion for booze, practical jokes, restlessness and boredom and both had difficult relationships with their mothers. Neither was fond of authority (Meyers 68). Bogart’s wife Lauren Bacall described Huston as, “Daring, unpredictable, maddening, mystifying and probably the most charming man on earth” (qtd. in Lui and Hill). A heavy smoker like Huston, Bogart was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus in February 1956 and died in January in 1957. The eulogy Huston delivered evoked tears and was notably the most moving part of the service (Meyers 209). It is ironic that their camaraderie began with the story of an unattainable quest and both men were unable to overcome their addiction to cigarettes and the deadly effects of smoking.
The life of John Huston was no fairytale but it most certainly contains more than enough material to make it legendary. A life well-lived would be an understatement. He had presence. He lived life and he loved life and countless women in between. Five women fell under his spell long enough to say “I do” until they could not. He was a rogue, a wanderer, a cavalier and carefree spirit. His powerful aura was accompanied by a sense of humor, a love of literature, extravagance and reckless abandon. His rugged good looks and charisma cast a spell on men and women alike. Huston was a man’s man and as much as he loved women, he loved the company of men. His daughter Anjelica said, “he was intelligent and ironic, with a warm voice like whiskey and tobacco” (Huston). The novelist and screenwriter, Peter Vietrel, described Huston’s charm as “authentic and spontaneous” (Thurber). He spent his fortune on a lavish lifestyle and although he loved his profession, he did not think it worthy of such enormous rewards and stated, “Maybe that’s why I always get rid of it so quickly. It was like money you win at the races, not the rewards of honest toil” (qtd. in Meyers 350). The words used to describe Huston are just the tip of the iceberg in the definition of a remarkably gifted and complicated man.
Huston was confident and impetuous and lived life to the hilt. He lived it through rose-colored lenses and had no regrets. He parlayed his eccentric upbringing and life changing events into a menagerie of eclectic films that continue to entertain audiences today. A giant among the elite Hollywood directors, Huston stands alone. He was a man of determination and innovation and his unconventional style served to solidify his place in Hollywood history. Huston’s prolific cache of films will forever be a nostalgic reminder of his profound influence on the film industry. He resembled so many of his films: complex, thought-provoking and extraordinary. His zeal for life is exceeded only by the passion he brought to the director’s chair.
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Meyers, Jeffrey. John Huston: Courage and Art. New York: Crown Archetype, 2011. Print.
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