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.
11. (TIE) Key Largo (1948)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
“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)
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)
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?
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