Top 10 John Huston Films

Despite not being recognised as a genuine Hollywood auteur, John Huston (1906–1987) is nevertheless one of the most important American filmmakers to have ever lived. Furthermore, aside from being a master at adapting literary works for the silver screen, his movies maintained their momentum as he grew older. Mark Fraser looks back at 11 of his seminal works.

John Huston

11. (TIE) Key Largo (1948)

Key Largo - John Huston

When Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart) visits the family of a deceased war buddy at the Hotel Largo in Florida, he gets more than he bargains for after he and his hosts (Lauren Bacall and Lionel Barrymore) are taken hostage by a gang of thugs led by mobster Johnny Rocco (Edward G Robinson), who is set on pulling off a counterfeiting deal that ultimately involves a boat trip. Meanwhile, a hurricane is brewing outside. An entertaining and tautly told noirish thriller with a touch of looming romance, this was adapted from Maxwell Anderson’s 1939 Broadway play by Huston and fellow screenwriter-director Richard Brooks.

10. (TIE) The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon

A highly competent debut feature by Huston, whose laconic screenplay was based on the titular book by Dashiell Hammett. Aside from shooting a complex story with great economy, the director also elicited some memorable performances from Bogart, a hilarious Peter Lorre and a sometimes funnier Sydney Greenstreet. Chock full of quotable lines and endless plot twists, this movie was truly a sign that greater things were to come.

9. The Misfits (1961)

The Misfits - John Huston

Thematically expansive, but reasonably modest in its outlook, this black and white piece of Americana (which is set in Nevada) tells the story of an unlikely romance between an aging rodeo cowboy (Clark Gable) and a recent divorcee (Marilyn Monroe), and how it impacts both themselves and some of the people around them. The film’s climatic moment – when Langland (Gable) is trying to rope in a wild mustang – is kind of similar to the whale hunting scenes in the director’s 1956 adventure Moby Dick (see below). The original screenplay was by American playwright Arthur Miller.

8. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

John Huston - The Asphalt Jungle

Nothing goes right for three thieves (Sterling Hayden, Anthony Caruso and Sam Jaffe) after they pull off a $500,000 dollar jewel robbery by patiently busting through a brick wall in the still of night. Desperation, betrayal and broken dreams – all play a part in leading the members of this trio to their respective dismal fates. Taken from a novel by WR Burnett.

7. The Treasure Of Sierra Madre (1948)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre - John Huston

Two down-on-their-luck gringos in 1920s Mexico (Bogart and Tim Holt) join forces with an old prospector (Walter Huston) and go looking for gold in the Sierra Madre Mountains. The good news is they strike it rich. The bad news – aside from having to deal with Mexican bandits who roam the countryside and a nosy American outsider (Bruce Bennett), one of the group (Frank Dobbs, played by Bogart) lets greed and paranoia get the better of him, causing this once tightknit trio to implode. Huston wrote the Oscar-winning adapted screenplay based on a 1927 novel by Bruno Traven. He also received the Best Director gong for his effort – his only one in a 46 year film making career.

6. The Night Of The Iguana (1964)

The Night of the Iguana - John Huston

It’s a moot point as to whether or not this is Richard Burton’s finest screen performance. Nevertheless, it is undeniably one of his best. After disgraced priest Lawrence Shannon (Burton) finds himself in further trouble while working as a bus tour guide in Mexico, he takes temporary refuge in a remote hotel being run by an old friend’s widow (Ava Gardner), where his problems continue to plague him.  Both leads are absolutely terrific in this steamy melodrama from the pen of Tennessee Williams.

5. Fat City (1972)

The dead end world of low rent boxing represents the futility of the American dream as both skid row comeback pugilist (Stacy Keach) and young ringside wannabe (Jeff Bridges) come up against their respective brick walls while pursuing some unrealistic athletic ambitions. Not really one for the sports movie fans. The script was written by Leonard Gardner, who adapted his own book for the screen.

4. The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean (1972)

Judge Roy Bean - John Huston

In this sprawling Western, two-bit drifter Roy Bean (Paul Newman) establishes himself as the judge, jury and executioner of a small Texan backwater, which eventually becomes an oil producing town. Part eccentric comedy and part commentary about the conquering of the wild west, this is the stuff legends are made of. Although full of colourful cameos, one of the standout performances comes from Anthony Perkins as the preacher LaSalle, whose informal burial service at the start of Bean’s adventure sets the tone for the rest of movie. If anything, this was Huston’s reply to Arthur Penn’s epic Little Big Man, which came out two years before. Sourced from an original screenplay by John Milius.

3. Moby Dick (1956)

Moby Dick - John Huston

“And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.” This quote, from the Old Testament’s Book of Job, is how Herman Melville starts the brief (one page) epilogue of his 1851 novel Moby Dick. Huston, at the end of his screen adaptation – which he co-scripted with Ray Bradbury – beautifully captures the essence of this Biblical prose. After 62 years, the death of the Pequod’s vengeance-seeking captain Ahab (Gregory Peck), the subsequent suicidal mission to kill the great white whale led by chief mate Starbuck (Leo Genn), the destruction of the ship by the titular beast and the rescue of Ishmael (Richard Basehart) by Queequeg’s (Freidrich von Ledebur) coffin remains essential viewing by any serious adventure film buff.

2. Wise Blood (1979)

Wise Blood - John Huston

Possibly the most offbeat film in Huston’s oeuvre. When Hazel Motes (an intense Brad Dourif) returns from military service to his hometown in America’s south, he tries to set up the Church of Truth Without Christ. But his ambitions to become an anti-preacher is thwarted by other religious charlatans and his own sense of self-loathing. Based on a book by Flannery O’Connor, the film starts out as a pseudo comedy (Motes’ early sermons are hilarious) before taking on a more despairing tone as the protagonist’s behaviour becomes more irrational.

1. The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

The Man Who Would Be King - John Huston

Good old fashioned rip-roaring entertainment at its finest, in which a roguish pair of ex-English army sergeants based in India (Sean Connery and Michael Caine) set out during the late 1880s to find their fortune in the land of Kafiristan (which covered what is predominantly now Afghanistan’s Nuristan Province in the country’s north east). Like the gringos in The Treasure of Sierra Madre they hit the jackpot. Arrogance, however, gets the better of one of them (Connery) as he begins to foolishly believe their stroke of good luck – and his ascendancy to the status of God amongst the natives – is a form of divine intervention. Taken from a Rudyard Kipling novella.

Written and compiled by Mark Fraser

Over to you: what are your fave John Huston films?

Discover more writing on film by Mark Fraser
“Salvador” Is More Revolt Than Revolution | “The Deer Hunter” Remains An Adult Fairy Tale | “The Train” Still One Hell Of A Ride | “Barry McKenzie Holds His Own” Maintains Its Irreverent Grip | Umberto Lenzi’s “Eaten Alive” Is A Hard Act To Swallow | William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer” Is A Curiously Mistreated Masterpiece | “To Catch A Thief” Shows Hitchcock Dabbling In Blandness

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About the Author
Mark is a film journalist, screenwriter and former production assistant from Western Australia.

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  1. Avatar
    Rory Reply

    There’s a magic to The Man Who Would be King that’s so compelling. If you were to say to someone who doesn’t know Huston’s work to watch at least one of his films – a film that you’d put your house on them enjoying – it would be this one. You could argue for others to top the list but I’m not sure I’d have a different number one.

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    Tom Cox Reply

    Absolutely love the man who would be King. You don’t get films with that sort of adventure anymore

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    Callum Reply

    I haven’t seen all of these but love Malteste Falcon and thought Sierra Madre was great too. I want to see Wise Blood, The Man Who Would Be King and The Night of the Iguana now.

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    John Reply

    Good to see Fat City included and so high up. I think after Maltese Falcon, The Man Who Would be King, Moby Dick and some of the others, it gets a little lost.

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    Philip Billing Reply

    I still rank Maltese Falcon as his best. Such joyous filmmaking, an astute understanding of craft, pacing and drama, and a gorgeous-looking work to boot.

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    Flip Reply

    The Asphalt Jungle is a complete masterpiece. That’s my favorite of his.

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    Drew Reply

    I haven’t seen half of these but loved Asphalt Jungle. If there are lots of better ones than this I’m in for a treat.

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    Kost Reply

    The Asphalt Jungle

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    Gregory Jones Reply

    Very interesting bunch at the top of the list if only because my own would be almost the reverse of yours with The Maltese Falcon, Asphalt Jungle and Sierra Madre at the top possibly with The Man Who Would Be King in 4th or 5th. His work is more than admirable, it’s truly magnificent and you’re right to bestow him the title of one of the most important filmmakers ever.

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    Roger Keen Reply

    I like your top 4. Not the typical selection. I’d have Asphalt Jungle higher but I need to see Wise Blood again.

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    Neal Damiano Reply

    I particularly like Asphalt Jungle it has influenced so many great films. I have a soft spot for The Misfits and I’m not a romance guy but it’s an engaging film.

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    Keith Reply

    Interesting order. I love Huston and for it will always be “The Maltese Falcon”. What an absolute gem of a movie.

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    CineGirl Reply

    Likewise, it’s The Maltese Falcon for me. It’s just so damn engrossing and I love Mary Astor in this.

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    Gupta Singh Reply

    I agree with you Mark, Huston got better and better. The Man Who Would Be King is magnificent.

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    nancydrewed Reply

    The Dead.

    • Avatar
      Roger Keen Reply

      Didn’t he direct The Dead from a wheelchair.

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    Jim Snowden Reply

    Treasure of the Sierra Madre, though my favorite to watch is The Maltese Falcon.

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    Mashley at the Movies Reply

    No ‘List of Adrian Messenger?’

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    Avril Reply

    My favorite is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre which I think is just as adventurous as The Man Who Would Be King but boasts a wonderful sense of greed and human folly that was a mark of much of Huston’s work. I’d follow that with The Asphalt Jungle ahead of The Maltese Falcon. The List of Adrian Messenger is another curiously fascinating work if not wholly successful. I do admire your decision to pick Fat City and Wise Blood – such great characters, such a great sense of place and tone and atmosphere. For me Moby Dick is one of his weaker efforts which I’d lump in with Annie and Escape To Victory as popular afternoon TV fodder. Not bad films but not up there with the great ones of his career.

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    Rex Hamer Reply

    1. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
    2. The Maltese Falcon
    3. The African Queen
    4. Key Largo
    5. The Asphalt Jungle
    6. Fat City
    7. Moby Dick
    8. The List of Adrian Messenger
    9. The Man Who Would Be King
    10. The Misfits

  20. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    The man was a legend. Simply one of the best.

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    Dezzy Meakins Reply

    Love this list as it’s completely different from my own but just goes to show what a great filmmaker Huston was. My list would include five of your top 10 and five that didn’t make your list.

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    Lesley Ann Reply

    Sierra Madre is number one for me.

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    Mark Fraser Reply

    “It took a long time for people to appreciate …. Beat the Devil, which now seems so obviously central to the main body of Huston’s work, and which is, in any case, one of the funniest movies ever made. It’s easier not to ponder the eccentricities of a serious artist’s private humour, and since Huston’s (few) comedies tended to be unpopular, these films are dismissed and tucked away into the dustier critical corners. This has been the case with 1963’s The List of Adrian Messenger, undeniably one of the oddest films Huston ever made.” – Peter Richards, Film Comment, May-June 1991.

    All I can say is my corner is pretty dusty. Nevertheless, thanks @ all for reading and the feedback.

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    Colin Reply

    Good choices. The Man Who Would Be King is great, Huston smashes it out of the park with that one. Got to say Maltese is my number one though.

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    Reggie Lyndhurst Reply

    Key Largo – good call, another masterwork from Huston.

    Favourite – Man Who Would Be King

    Most Watched – The Night Of The Iguana

    For newbies watch first: Maltese Falcon

    Guilty pleasure: The Red Badge of Courage

  26. Avatar
    Mary Jenkins Reply

    The Man Who Would Be King is my favourite.

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