John Huston is unequivocally a legend of American cinema. If he had only directed and written his first film, “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), he would have made a contribution to Hollywood’s history. He continued to make movies over 5 decades and it is not difficult to select 3 films from each of them that are outstanding works (OK, the 60s would be a bit of a sweat). As a kid my Dad sat me down to watch one of his favourite films, “The African Queen” (1951) (The other was John Ford’s “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon”). I wanted to be Bogart-tough, fell in love with Katherine Hepburn & still watch the movie once a year to remind me of the effectiveness of a good story well told.
In the 1970s Huston met the challenge of the new young guns in town and made some memorable films. These are just 3 of them and it was a tough call.
“Fat City” (1972) is a film about broken lives and misshapen dreams in Stockton, California. It is about boxers but is nothing like “Rocky”, adapted from his own fine novel by Leonard Gardner the film inhabits a world of seedy bars and hotel rooms, of sweaty gyms and day labour in the fields. John Huston captures the underbelly and mundanity of American life as well as anyone ever has. The lack of self-awareness in the characters is as skilfully handled as the insight given to the viewer. The director is helped by outstanding performances by a great cast.
Stacy Keach stars as Tully, a washed-up pug with little option but to return to the ring. This is, I think, his defining role in his career. The relationship with the alcoholic Oma (for which Susan Tyrrell was Oscar nominated) is tender and doomed. The actors united again four years later for the film of the Jim Thompson novel “The Killer Inside Me”. Jeff Bridges, on a run of films (“The Last Picture Show”, “Bad Company, “Stay Hungry”) which made him cinema’s best young itinerant seeker, does that thing his young self did. He is lucky enough to share screen time with debutant Candy Clark (that’s the amazing Candy Clark) before “American Graffiti” & “The Man Who Fell To Earth”. Mention must be made of Nicholas Colosanto, the seen-it-all coach 10 years before he played a smoother version in the sit-com “Cheers”. There is also a blink and you’ll miss it appearance by Sixto Rodriguez, the singer (and former boxer) recently featured in the documentary “Searching For Sugar Man”.
“Fat City” is an outstanding piece of American cinema from a noteworthy time. John Huston entered his fourth decade of film-making with a rush and a push.
In 1975, after a couple of good movies starring Paul Newman, John Huston directed “The Man Who Would Be King”. This crackling adaptation of the chronicler of the Raj, Rudyard Kipling’s story had been around for a while. Bogart & Errol Flynn, Richard Burton & Peter O’Toole had been considered over the years. The two biggest British movie stars of the day finally made the film and , in modern day parlance, they owned it ! Sean Connery, no longer James Bond, looking for and finding roles to display his presence and his range and Michael Caine, the great star of late 60s British cinema, are perfect in the roles of ex-army confidence tricksters seeking their fortune on the North West Frontier.
“The Man Who…” is a terrific ripping yarn of an adventure movie and a buddy movie to rival Butch & Sundance. The fast-paced action is matched by the zinging interplay of the two stars. Of course, this is a John Huston movie so ambition must be thwarted by vanity at some point. The conceit of Connery as a king is hilarious, the loyalty of Caine’s Peachy is touching. Contemporary movies set in the British Empire had ranged from the flag-waving “Zulu” to the cynical “Charge Of The Light Brigade”. John Huston’s take on the genre is rumbunctious, modern and still a treat.
After a brief hiatus Huston returned in 1979 with “Wise Blood” an adaptation of a novel by the mistress of Southern Gothic, Flannery O’Connor. The book is a dark theological classic about the nature of sin, of faith and of religion. It is populated with a parade of grotesques and it is bleak. John Huston, a cultured and literate man, would not have attempted to make this film if he did not have the confidence he would do the novel justice. He absolutely does the job, “Wise Blood” is a strange, ultimately gut-wrenching and an unforgettable cinematic experience. I love this film.
Hazel Motes, a young war veteran, struggles with an alienation from his own faith and with the excesses of the Southern preachers he encounters peddling their bastardised take on religion. Motes is played by the master of deranged intensity Brad Dourif (Grima Wormtongue off of Lord Of The Rings, kids). His involvement with the religious huckster Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty) , a blind preacher (Harry Dean Stanton) and his nymphomaniac young daughter leads him to found his own church, “The Church of Truth Without Christ”. Frustrated at his inability to achieve grace in a secular world Hazel internalises his religious anguish leading to masochism, self-immolation and bad craziness. Better minds than mine have applied themselves to the meaning of “Wise Blood”. It is a film with Brad Dourif, Ned Beatty, Harry Dean Stanton and others acting their asses off for a great director and that’s enough for me.
The trailor gives the impression that “Wise Blood” is a satire, a comedy. It is much more than that. A tragi-comedy perhaps but it is so much more. John Huston captures the notion that Flannery O’Connor thinks that we live in a world which just might have gone absolutely mad. She may have had a point there.
It is difficult to nail the “John Huston” style. He made many films of different types and of varying quality. There is an element of men facing circumstances which will define themselves and their destinies but there is certainly more to him than there is to Hemingway’s macho bullshit ideas on masculinity. Huston’s men discover that their dreams and vanities can cause them to over reach and to disappoint themselves. He has an understanding that those who do not win are not necessarily losers. Unless, of course, you are Humphrey Bogart and are the toughest, coolest, manliest mo-fo on celluloid !