Six or seven months in the making....
The Maltese Falcon (1941) ***½- A young filmmaker could only hope for a debut film this assured and now well renowned. Humphrey Bogart chews the scenery as Sam Spade, one of a handful of people desperately chasing a priceless artifact, and one gets the sense of cinema’s hardboiled love affair beginning right before our eyes.
Across the Pacific (1942) ***- Lingering on the calendar dates of November, 1941, and then eventually December 6 of the same year, “Across the Pacific” certainly takes on an air of failed mortality as Bogart tries to expose international spies on an Atlantic liner. It’s as if the whole affair is for naught, and for a film in the early 40’s this pessimism is certainly refreshing. Sydney Greenstreet and Mary Astor again join Huston in a film that has Bogart playing the good guy trying to unmask some devious anti-American sorts. Part bubbly romance and eventually action-thriller, “Across the Pacific” features two or three great set pieces (a long shot over and around the cruise liner as the characters meet and a movie theater shootout) that showcase Huston’s growing confidence behind the camera.
In This Our Life (1942) ***- Bette Davis is a malevolent home wrecker in this Tennessee Williams-like family chamber drama, but I’ll take Olivia de Havilland as the gentle sister any day of the week. It’s hard for a director to really place his stamp on such an ordinary drama as this, but there are flashes of ‘auetership’ in the beginning as his camera rolls, pans and follows people around as the characters are established. Bette Davis tears up the screen (and her own family) by stealing husbands and driving fast, and that alone creates a manic sense of tempo in the film that feels refreshing for the early 40’s.
Report From the Aleutians (1943) **- One of two documentaries Huston made for the United States military (the other was a less flattering portrait of mentally wounded and handicapped soldiers recovering in various hospitals), “Report From the Aleutians” is certainly a rah-rah attempt to educate and enlighten the masses about our brave fighting boys stationed in the remote parts of the Northwest. There’s nothing really wrong with this documentary, but its standard history channel fare with little distinction from Huston behind the camera save his gruff voice over.
On Our Merry Way (1948) **- It’s debatable how much involvement Huston really had in making this episodic comedy, but I’ll include it anyway. Burgess Meredith plays a menial paper employee who stumbles into the chance to be the “Roving Reporter” for the day and ask a seemingly banal question to innocent bystanders. Their answers open the film out into memories and myth making, the best of which features the dashing duo of James Stewart and Henry Fonda as broke jazz musicians telling their tale. There’s nothing really unique about the film…. Its amiable and straightforward.
Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) ****- Huston’s first real masterpiece in my opinion… a brilliant deconstruction of greed bracketed against the western genre with enough scenes and dialogue to penetrate throughout film for the next 60 years. Every time I watch it today, the money blowing in the wind is a confident coda to a sure handed film that seems to exceed its modest ideas.
Key Largo (1948) ***1/2- In my early days of film-watching (and dipping my toes in the waters of film noir) “Key Largo” was one of the seminal viewings, a gangster film that plays out like a Broadway play as the screws slowly tighten around the confined setting of a hotel. Edward Robinson is menacing as the gangster on the run, holed up against Humphrey Bogart, both men chewing the scenery with gusto. Oh, and there’s a hurricane approaching…. peripheral catastrophe that parallels the inner psychological terror of the film’s protagonists and would serve as a recurring motif in American cinema for years. The very fact that Huston helmed two groundbreaking films in the same year is still mind boggling.
We Were Strangers (1949) ***1/2- Involving romance between native Cuban girl(Jennifer Jones) and American freedom fighter (John Garfield) during the growing days of Communism in Cuba. Jones provides the house for Garfield and his comrades to dig a tunnel across the street in hopes of blowing up important political officials. With “The Treasure of Sierra Madre”, Huston has lots of fun covering his male stars in dirt and grime and one can sense his evocative use of close-up beginning to take shape. There’s also an incredible 4 minute shoot out scene at the end with the ‘Tommy gun’ bursts lighting up the scene and Huston perching his camera just behind Garfield and yes, Jones herself as she takes over the gun at times. I’d say Michael Mann is a huge fan of this film. Probably the unsung surprise of Huston’s career.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) ****- Trendsetting heist film that boats so many great characteristics: the almost wordless, music-less ten minute diamond robbery, shrewd cutting, moody cinematography and a brilliant (almost effortless) tough guy performance by Sterling Hayden. Produced in 1950, perhaps the most accomplished thing about “The Asphalt Jungle” is that Huston got this film made after the halcyon days of film noir while still being able to carve out something organic and fresh. Clearly an influence on the French New Wave and “Rififfi” some five years later, “The Asphalt Jungle” immerses one in the underworld where the biggest challenge is not committing the crime, but getting away with it- as the film’s four main characters soon find out. As the anti-hero, robber and hooligan Hayden kind of makes one hope he gets away, with cynical dialogue that mirrors the subversive tone of the entire film blaming the stench and concrete claustrophobia of the city for his desperate actions. In every regard, “The Asphalt Jungle” is a film that deserves to be studied and admired. Oh, and not only does it feature a young and stunning Marilyn Monroe, but the final shot ranks as probably the best in Huston’s long career.
The Red Badge of Courage (1951) *½- Based on the classic novel about a youth finding his courage during the battles of the Civil War, this is an admirable telling that gets mired down in dispassionate, stock characters and a few too many “gol darns” and “jim-dandys” for me.
The African Queen (1951) **- Regarded as a classic, yes, but I just found the story of Bogart and Hepburn trapped in a small boat trying to defeat a German ship a bit on the slow side. It feels creaky, rusty and too old fashioned at every turn… a commercial venture without any real heart. Newly released to DVD after years of anticipation, this was a let down.
Moulin Rouge (1952) ***- Lush telling of Paris artist Henri Toulouse-Letrac and his relationship with a cantankerous prostitute. The opening scenes, which take place in the infamous Moulin Rouge hot spot of Paris, invoke great energy, full of a roving camera that glides, pans and swirls. The remainder of the film slows a bit but is just as involving as the lonely, physically disfigured Lautrec (Jose Ferrer) sours on life and love. While the Moulin Rouge itself is used a cinematic reminder of happier, carefree days, Huston’s film is more concerned with the inner demons of a struggling artist rather than the boisterous, musical roots exemplified in Baz Luhrman’s later update. The script by Huston, based on Pierre La Mure’s novel, swells into speech making at times, delivered with gusto by Ferrer, Zsa Zsa Gabor and others. And one cinematic trick- editing a myriad of sketches and artwork, timed to the music- feels quite revolutionary for the time, mimicked time and again by future filmmakers.
Beat the Devil (1953) **½- For the early 50’s this black comedy could almost be considered an independent, financed by an offshore company and featuring some dimly lit, cheap looking photography. It also stars Humphrey Bogart just a few years before his death, and the sickness was (visibly) already taking its toll. Not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination- Truman Capote’s script and Huston’s dry wit are on full display throughout the film’s twisting narrative about five criminals stuck in limbo with a proper British couple as they await to strike it rich in an African country through nefarious means. After a few years of producing some serious minded flicks, “Beat the Devil” feels like a stress-reliever for Huston and not much more.
Moby Dick (1956) ***- Exquisite cinematography and a manic performance from Gregory Peck send this adaptation of the Herman Melville novel over the top in a good way. Often times, the central idea of a great novel get lost in the translation, but the searing obsession shown by Captain Ahab in the novel (as well as the contagious insanity onto the crew) is maintained by Huston, giving the film its purpose. Though it’s a bit ‘stagey’ at times (see the early scene of Orson Welles as a preacher who obviously loves the sound of his own voice), the finale is rousing. Yes, it’s all models and trick photography, but done magnificently.
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) ***- Besides the gruff machismo and penchant for adventurous locations, there’s another theme that’s becoming evident in Huston’s work- that of the incongruous relationships between man and woman. On full display in films such as “The African Queen” and “We Were Strangers”, this time Huston pits the divide between innocent, isolated nun Deborah Kerr and the very New Yawkish World War II soldier Robert Mitchum. As a soldier who washes up on the lonely Japanese island, Mitchum hams up the Americanism a bit much, yet there’s viable chemistry between him and Kerr. The walls built up around both personalities are believable, and when the Japanese Army arrives on the island and begins to systematically search it for deserters, “Heaven Knows Mr. Allison” becomes a taut tale of survival.
The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958) **- John Ford as the first American consult to the shores of Japan in the 1850’s continues Huston’s fascination with exotic locales. It’s hard to make Japan’s history of paper- mache lanterns and garish colors boring, and the film does look incredible, but the central relationship between Wayne and a geisha girl (Eiko Ando) is extremely wooden. Also, the presentation of the culture clash between the jingoistic Wayne and the protected lifestyles of the Japanese villagers is less than intriguing with lines like “they can’t pronounce the letter L”. Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of Wayne’s acting style and it comes off as even more one-note here… as if he stepped off the last John Ford western and didn’t miss a beat in refurbishing the same hard nosed character to a story that certainly needed more introspection and humility. Not available on DVD
The Roots of Heaven (1958) **- Odd obsession film starring Errol Flynn as the self appointed protector of the wild elephant in Africa. Not always a success, two things really stand out- the wonderfully composed dryness of the African deserts and the lovely visage of Juliette Greco as the local barmaid who falls under Flynn’s madcap spell. Not available on DVD
The Unforgiven (1960) **- Taken as a direct subversion of John Ford’s “The Searchers”, the ideas in Huston’s “The Unforgiven” are quite majestic: instead of the obsessive quest to redeem a white girl from her Indian captives, Burt Lancaster and his family fight for the protection of an Indian woman secretly harbored by their father for many years. Audrey Hepburn, as the woman in question, is simply stunning here and the moment she fires a gun point blank into the chest of an oncoming attacker, one really feels the essence of her psychological burden. It’s just that so much of the remainder of the film trades in arcane stereotypes and lazy ham-fisted acting. And it just always bothers me when a film supposedly set in Texas highlights the mountains all around the actors. Not on DVD.
The Misfits (1961) ****- An intimate, delicate four character study starring Marilyn Monroe as a recently divorced woman who throws caution to the wind and hangs out with two cowboys (Clark Gable and Eli Wallach) outside Reno, Nevada. A relationship forms between her and Gable to the jealous dismay of Walach. Then enter a third cowboy played by Montgomery Clift. Much has been made about the ominous overtones of real life with three of the film’s stars passing away so soon after wrap, but “The Misfits” is a masterpiece, and probably the film in Huston’s career that gets the least attention for its immaculate story and wonderfully moody black and white images. Each actor gets their stellar scene, especially Clift with a phone booth monologue that’s equally morbid and heartbreaking. The final thirty minutes, involving a wild mustang roundup in the Nevada desert, is Huston at his most magisterial, acting as a metaphor for the characters and a swirling display of emotion, camera movement and screenwriting.
The List of Adrian Messenger (1962) *½- This is a film with so much promise that ultimately winds up as nothing more than a gimmicky all-star affair… something the 60’s were great at producing. A man winds up dead after a plane crash and a family friend (George C. Scott) uncovers a long list of murders associated with the dead man and his war days. Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra and Burt Lancaster all parade through the film wearing heavy disguises, giving us red herrings and motives for the murders. I can certainly see the novelistic ideal of the cameos in 1962, but things wear old relatively quickly and by the time Huston winds down this somewhat drawn out affair, I really didn’t care who was guilty any longer. Not on DVD.
Freud (1962) ***- Huston's sorta long-lost biopic about the innovative psychoanalyst deserves attention. Starring Montgomery Clift as Freud, the film is a delicious mixture of weird dreams, muted sexual repression and detached analytical prose. This may sound like a train wreck, but it works. Clift's performance is a bit on the average side, but "Freud" excels in its ideas. It's a film basically split into two halves: the first part focuses on Freud discovering his "process" while the second half narrows in on the complex relationship between Freud and a young woman (Susannah York) as she deals with pent-up memories. Watch it along with David Cronenberg's "A Dangerous Method" for perverse fun.
Night of the Iguana (1964) **- Like most venerable directors still working in the early to mid-60’s, Huston deemed it necessary to venture into Tennessee Williams adaptation country with “The Night of the Iguana”. Starring Richard Burton as a recently defrocked priest living out a troubled lifestyle in exotic locations where beautiful young girls (like Sue Lyon) throw themselves at him, the film never really succeeds in involving the audience. From a script by Williams, the film does feature a simmering amount of sexual tension but its in the lazy execution and modest direction that “Night of the Iguana” fails to engage.
The Bible… In the Beginning (1966) *1/2- As with many of Huston’s films from the 1960‘s, there’s very little feeling in the work, opting instead for the blockbuster mentality with star power, and this film is probably the crest of that wave. Part of the joy in making this biblical epic, assuredly, was the chance to visualize the monumental stories of the Bible, and he does that with flying colors, establishing a vibrant mise-en-scene with large scale production design. But because we know these stories inside and out, there’s no narrative tension and the entire effort falls flat.
Casino Royale (1967) *- Huston was one of several other directors and limited to filming probably 1/8th of this two and a half hour James Bond spoof, but I’ll include it anyway because it’s so bad on so many levels- extremely dated, lifeless and visually flat. The idea of a spy spoof, especially starring Peter Sellers, has so much potential but its all wasted.
Reflections In A Golden Eye (1967) ***- An odd and completely unnerving drama that feels way ahead of its time. Allow me to synopses the plot: army commander (Marlon Brando) lives off the base with his wife (Elizabeth Taylor) in a hapless marriage while she openly carries on an affair with army captain neighbor (Brian Keith) whose mentally unstable wife (Julie Harris) locks herself away in a room with her Philipino manservant (Zorro David) and paints. Plus, a young Robert Forster sulks around Brando’s house at night, rides bareback naked during the day and elicits homosexual urges out of the repressed Brando. All of this is filmed in a (literally) golden saturated haze which generates more sense of unease around its hothouse summer atmosphere. Yet this atmosphere is the real pleasure of “Reflections In A Golden Eye”. The performances are just above average, but it’s the sinister feeling around Brando as he follows the young G.I. after a movie on the base or the masochistically symbolic attempt to punish himself by riding a wild horse through thorns and trees, then beating the horse within an inch of its life that sparks the perverse attitude of the whole effort. Watchable for Huston’s desire to create something completely different from anything else he’s ever done.
Sinful Davey (1969) *1/2- As the fast-talking roustabout and title character, John Hurt anchors this modest comedy that features some stunning Irish landscapes and bawdy humor. Running from authorities and old girlfriends alike, Hurt plays Davey, a low-rent thief who manages to get himself in trouble with the government wherever he goes. This feels like a breezy change of pace for Huston after several more ‘serious’ efforts, and any film that features a group of men using a midget’s head to crash through the prison ceiling above to get to the women’s section certainly qualifies as breezy. Not on DVD.
A Walk With Love and Death (1969) **- As a medieval allegory for the free love and hippie wandering of late 60’s America, “A Walk With Love and Death” is an alluring curiosity. As a strait-forward tale of young love between a traveling student (Assi Dayan) and the royal princess (Anjelica Huston) who falls in love with him, the film is an utter bore. Mixed in with the young couple’s travel across France and England during the 100 Years War are clumsily edited fight scenes between knights and peasants that resembles the awkward artificiality of Robert Bresson’s “Lancelot du Lac”- although the stilted actions in that far superior film are meant to be taken in stride. Under Huston’s direction, it all feels poorly put together and devoid of any real connection between Dayan and Angelica. Not on DVD.
The Kremlin Letter (1970) ****- I do hold a soft place in my heart for spy movies. While there's always room for the gaudy jet setting Bond adventures with its fantastic toys, ironic dialogue and cheeky performances, the spy movies that really get my heart racing are the more subdued, cerebral efforts. I think specifically of Martin Ritt's wonderful "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold" or Sidney Lumet's "The Deadly Affair"- films that have nary a gunshot but overwhelm with paranoia and careful exposition. John Huston's "The Kremlin Letter" falls squarely into this category, upping the ante in nihilism and quick-speak that throws the viewer into the middle of an elaborate operation inside Communist Russia within the first few minutes. Code words are thrown about casually with little information. A car drives off a cliff and explodes. What, at first, seems like a hodgepodge of spy experts, soon turns into a cryptic series of assignments and double crosses. It's all stirred up masterfully by a director who understands how to get out of his own way and present the story with straight precision.
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) ***1/2- With revisionist westerns being produced by the minute in New Hollywood around this time (Peckinpah especially) “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” is a terrific film about the myth making of old America, featuring a stellar and hysterical performance by Paul Newman. Watch it alongside “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” for two examples of films with a higher purpose… exercises that wittily deconstruct the genre while advancing the careers of both actor and director.
Fat City (1972) ***½- Completely unclassifiable “boxing” movie that celebrates the city gutters and washed up glories of alcoholic athletes without ever losing its sense of poignancy. Stacy Keach is marvelous as the aforementioned washed up athlete coming into contact with a younger scrapper (Jeff Bridges) who could be his younger doppelganger full of youthful ambition. The bond that forms between the men never proceeds where you think it will and the entire film bobs and weaves gracefully without ever really committing to a hard edged narrative. Whether it was the enveloping freedom of the late 60’s or Huston’s own growing disillusionment with Hollywood, “Fat City” feels like the first film Huston chose in placing tone over narrative. Either way, it holds up amazingly well today as a character study with a knockout (but quiet) final scene. DVD now sadly OOP.
The Mackintosh Man (1973) ***- Huston keeps his track record of strong 70’s cinema rolling with Paul Newman as a spy getting himself locked up, abducted, and then whisked away to beautiful Ireland all to “out” a sinister organization. With pieces borrowed from Hitchcock, “The Mackintosh Man” is a reverent and detached thriller that plays much like “The Kremlin Letter”… and with both films, it’s clear Huston is on autopilot and having fun.
The Man Who Would Be King (1975) ***- With echoes of earlier films about glory found and ultimately lost in the wind (I.e. “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”), this film is a return to the sweeping vistas and child-like adventurer spirit of some of his 60’s efforts, with terrific performances by Michael Caine and Sean Connery as two gunrunners who end up taking control of a remote mountainous region and its inhabitants through sheer luck. Based on a short story by Rudyard Kipling (played in the film’s bookended opening and closing scenes by Christopher Plummer) it really all comes down to the ideas of conceited Western machismo versus Old World solitary, all done up in Huston’s obligatory non-flair style, and sharp editing. This is an actor’s movie, though, and Caine and Connery exude confidence and perception.
Wise Blood (1979) **- As the Southern war vet turned maniacal preacher who forms his own religion, Brad Dourif is tantalizing and the influence on Paul Thomas Anderson and David Lynch is right there, yet “Wise Blood” failed for me. It’s just simply an odd film that never maintains a tone. For a majority of the 70’s, Huston seemed to be working towards gutter poetry (see “Fat City“ for a more precise rendering) and “Wise Blood” is the capstone to this movement, a film I admire more than actually like.
Phobia (1980) *½- Huston’s attempt at confiscating the Italian giallo, complete with gloved killer and all. Not only does “Phobia” transpose the plot of these 70‘s horror films, but it (unfortunately) also takes with it the clunky pacing and non-sensical plotting of many of these. A doctor (Paul Michael Glaser) begins having his patients murdered one by one. Suspicion arises due to the fact the doctor is currently using the patients in experimental treatments for their phobias. Financed and filmed in Canada and featuring largely no-names, “Phobia” is curiously devoid of anything really… including lackluster direction. Not on DVD.
Victory (1981) ***- A bit clichéd and certainly heavy handed at times, this modest tale of POW prisoners taking up soccer in order to escape, “Victory” features solid performances all around. If nothing else, it’s a notable footnote in the sport-as-life parables that were being churned out of Hollywood, including “The Longest Yard”.
Annie (1981) *1/2- What is it about aging directors assuming a musical in the autumn of their years? Lumet tried, and failed miserably, with “The Wiz” a few years earlier, and Huston fares little better with his expensive screen adaptation of the hit “Annie”.
Under the Volcano (1984)***½- From the very opening as Albert Finney stumbles around the festivities of the Day of the Dead in Mexico stone drunk, Huston’s adaptation of this tough novel is challenging and visually arresting. It’s all the more mordant when Huston frames the reflection of novelty skulls in the sunglass shades of Finney. Lonely by the seperation of his wife (Jacqueline Bisset) and unable to live up to the adventurous heroics of his journalist brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews), Finney is a repellant figure to follow for two hours, yet “Under the Volcano” is such a terrific film because of it. Pair this with “Save the Tiger” and one has a very downbeat portrait of the male ego in perpetual crisis. A very dark journey, indeed, buoyed by Finney’s immersive performance and a camera that never dares to look away. Of all Huston’s films, I feel this is the one that will grow in my memory over time.
Prizzi’s Honor (1986) **½- There’s nothing inherently bad about Huston’s amiable gangster black comedy. I’ve tried watching it probably five times over the years as it was one my dad’s favorite movies, and always ended up being bored with it. Watching it all the way through now and my opinion was pretty much spot-on. Nicholson feels severely miscast as the Italian hit man for the Prizzi mafia family as he spews out lots of “faddas” in an equally bad confiscation of the Italian dialect. But honestly, butchering the local tongue is something Huston has done his entire career. Kathleen Turner, at the height of her stardom, fares much better as the elusive woman of his dreams, but it’s William Hickey as the family don who really steals the show. Huston is in full autopilot here, barely recognizable behind the camera.
The Dead (1987) ***- Delicate way to end a long career, and a true family affair as the film stars daughter Angelica from a script by son Tony. Appropriated from a short story by James Joyce, “The Dead” is a patient, quiet observation of a small group of friends who meet for Christmas dinner in 1904 Dublin. There’s no subversive animosity or psychological power plays at work here. What the film does best is allow its actors to exude a warmth and gentleness, only hinting at something darker when past loves and forgotten opera singers are fleetingly thought about towards the end of the film. The final shot, with the camera pointing up at the sky as snow gently falls, is about as perfect a final shot I could imagine for Huston the journeyman.