John Huston, Modernist and Anti-mythologist

What’s more fun than participating in a blogathon about a great director? Possibly a barrel of monkeys, but that’s beside the point. The point is that I’m participating in the John Huston Blogathon being hosted between today (Huston’s 104th birthday) and next Thursday by Adam at Icebox Movies. So definitely go there and read some other blogalicious, Huston-centric musings, and watch Adam’s John Huston impersonation video. Now, I’ve been uncertain about how best to approach Huston’s formidable career and larger-than-life personality. So first I want to give a brief overview of – dare I say – the man who would be John Huston.

  • At different times, Huston wasn a boxer, soldier, journalist, and painter.
  • More pertinently, he was an actor, writer, and director on countless films spanning from about 1930 to his death in 1987.
  • His films as a director ran from film noir to biopics to earnest literary adaptations to action-adventure and war movies to period dramas to a biblical epic to the musical Annie, and beyond. Whew.
  • He was the patriarch of a Hollywood dynasty that includes his father Walter, his daughter Anjelica, and his son Danny; he directed both father and daughter to Oscar-winning performances.

In short, he’s a pretty intimidating figure to write about. So I’m planning to spread out my analysis of his films across a few different posts. The basic question Adam’s asking with this blogathon is, Can we call Huston an auteur? Well, maybe I can answer that question indirectly by examining the cinematic commonalities and discrepancies across a small portion of his career. But first, I want to talk to about one of my favorite Huston appearances outside of his directorial oeuvre: as the consummate villain Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Starting in the 1960s, Huston acted in a lot of weird, bad movies (like Myra Breckinridge, eww!), but none of his performances even came close to the monster he created in Cross, who wore his aura of corrupted authority as if it were a halo. (Barring possibly the Lawgiver in the last Planet of the Apes movie; Huston was born to wear that ape makeup.)

In Chinatown, Huston gives an easygoing, paternal warmth to a grizzled industrialist who’s ravaged both the land around Los Angeles and his own daughter without suffering any legal consequences, let alone pangs of conscience. The sheer scope and certainty of Cross’s evil acts astound his nemesis, Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), a small-time private eye who’s clearly out of his league. Cross is a depraved, unabashed behemoth of amorality, yet he’s so outwardly affable and grandfatherly, even during the film’s miserable climax. It’s an infuriating, understated, terrifying performance. And even though Chinatown isn’t a “Huston movie” per se, it’s still worth discussing in relation to his filmography. His presence in Chinatown‘s rotten core is an example of the cleverly meta-cinematic casting that Polanski excels at,1 a casting decision whose tendrils extend back through the decades into the heart of studio-era Hollywood and with it, film noir.

As James Naremore says in More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts, Huston’s role in the movie is, in part, Polanski and producer Robert Towne “acknowledging [their] indebtedness to The Maltese Falcon” (205). Since Chinatown is at once a throwback to and a recontextualization of film noir conventions, what better way to forge a concrete link with the past than by casting the man who’d codified many of them with Falcon, Key Largo, and The Asphalt Jungle? In Chinatown, then, I see a kinship with classical film noir in general, and Huston’s earlier films in specific. In the film’s vision of 1930s Los Angeles, wealth trumps morality or the law; it’s a city where each individual must find their own meaning, whether in the unrestrained exercise of power (Cross) or the simple desire for the truth (Gittes). In some ways, Cross’s unbound ubermensch is a grotesque exaggeration of the vaguely existentialist ethos promoted by Huston’s own films.

Like much of film noir, after all, Huston’s films largely took place in that gray space between law and anarchy. His characters wander a world in which traditional authorities, whether in terms of morality, religion, or epistemological certainty, have been dethroned, forcing them to discover the right path on their own, according to their own self-determined values. Basically, I’m locating Huston as fundamentally modernist in his outlook and style. I’m also generalizing like crazy, of course, so I’ll be open about which sample of his output I’m using: I’ve recently watched The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Misfits, and Fat City, so my forthcoming arguments will be primarily concerned with those films. (I’ll probably make detours into Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, The Man Who Would Be King, and Under the Volcano as necessary.)

So: John Huston’s films are, on a very basic level, concerned with the effects of modernity. Like existential seismometers, they detect a rupture in the circle of life; in The Misfits, for example, American family life has fallen prey to divorce, disease, war, and poverty. Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe) and the cowboy Gay (Clark Gable) try to piece together a relationship, but they’ve been so battered by the world – or in Gay’s case, rendered obsolete – that now they can’t even connect to other human beings. Even nature, one of Huston’s abiding interests, can’t stave off the encroachment of modernity. As Gay observes, the wild mustangs used to be given to children as presents, but now kids just ride motor scooters, so the mustangs must instead be ground into dog food. It’s a brutal metaphor that applies broadly to all of these Huston protagonists, displaced men searching for a new home or trying to return to a lost one, as with Dix’s dying pilgrimage at the end of The Asphalt Jungle.

The nature of “home” is also the subject of scrutiny in Huston’s work. In The Misfits, Pilot (Eli Wallach) has an unfinished house, abandoned after his wife’s death, which Roslyn and Gay appropriate as the site of their own domestic fantasies. But these efforts are doomed from the beginning, and the contrast between their reality and the “American dream” ideal proves the film’s bitter truths. In Fat City, washed-up boxer Billy (Stacy Keach) and barfly Oma (Susan Tyrrell) initially live together in a shrill burlesque of marriage. But inevitably they go their separate ways, and it’s because the American dream of marital bliss was not designed for a pair of alcoholics in desolate small-town California. Huston was intent on demolishing these myths on which much of American life was based, revealing the sickness and falsehoods underneath. And so, to come temporarily full circle, isn’t that what Huston was accomplishing by starring in Chinatown? He was at once Noah Cross, titan of industry, but also Noah Cross, the dirtiest of old men.

In that role and in many of his own films, Huston also undercut capitalist myths that underlie the “American way of life.” But I’ll get into that in my next post as I delve into The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

1 See also Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby or Lionel Stander in Cul-de-Sac, who dragged their cinematic pasts into the roles with them.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “John Huston, Modernist and Anti-mythologist

  1. Interesting, Andreas. I totally agree with you here that Huston’s work has much to do with how modern society cripples his heroes. The Asphalt Jungle and The Misfits are, as you say, about characters who simply want to go home, and the films in some ways are perfect foils for each other: Gable and Monroe finally do get to go home, but Sterling Hayden’s Dix, in the former film, dies just when he gets there. In Fat City, as you’ve put here, Stacey Keach thinks he’s found a home, but then he’s kicked out–not just by his new girlfriend but by her old ex-boyfriend, too. Ouch.

    And of course there’s also Wise Blood, as Hazel Motes finds himself unable to overcome modernized religion: the town celebrates a grossly commercialized form of Christianity (much like the one we have today, in my personal opinion!), rather than the kind that can actually help people like Hazel who are seeking to transcend and find God… whatever he is. And in Under the Volcano, the Finney character is destroyed by Hispanics who have adapted, horrifyingly, to modernized reactionary politics (Nazism).

    Now, The Man Who Would Be King is interesting, because in that one, Danny and Peach actually TAKE ADVANTAGE of modernism. They’re able to fool the Holy City into thinking that Danny is Alexander the Great’s immortal son, and partially because Danny wears a Freemasonry necklace; it’s a modern clone of the Holy City’s ancient “eye” symbol that supposedly represents the coming of the new king. But then their plan is foiled. So The Man Who Would Be King contradicts the other films around it because Danny and Peachy are ruined by artifacts of the past, and not the modern world they’ve used to their advantage.

    And yes, Huston’s performance in Polanski’s film follows through with much of these themes you’ve so wonderfully described here. Gittes can fight all he wants, but it’s Chinatown. This is Noah Cross’ territory. 1930’s Los Angeles is not the city it once was; it’s been criminalized to the point where a more classical detective like Gittes can do nothing.

    Btw, I’m happy you were amused by my Huston impersonation, lol

    • I like your observations there about Under the Volcano and The Man Who Would Be King, which seem to complement each other – in both films, the “natives” are changed by signs of modernity brought by Europeans, and both times, this ends up destroying the (white) protagonists. There’s a lot of complex back-and-forth involving postcolonial politics and cultural change, all seen through their effects on these interlopers (Geoffrey and Danny/Peachy).

      These patterns are also present in The Asphalt Jungle and The Misfits; it’s just in a different, non-racialized form. I have yet to see Wise Blood, but I did happen to read O’Connor’s novella recently, and I saw a lot of similarities to Huston’s work, especially in Hazel and Enoch’s behaviors. (Both seemed just as rootless, and just as much pining for meaning, as Dix, Gay, Dobbs, Billy, and the rest.) I’m excited to see how this comes out in the film version.

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