One More Look at John Huston

Since the Icebox Movies John Huston Blogathon concluded yesterday (sort of), I hope now to wrap up my meandering thoughts on Huston’s expansive career. (For previous meanderings, see my posts on the director’s modernist tendencies and his film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.) Since I’ve only seen a fraction of his films, it’s difficult for me to make any kind of grand statement about Huston’s obsessions or visual style. But I’ll at least take a stab at identifying a few definite preoccupations I’ve noticed and, finally, at that beloved question of the latter-day cinephile, “auteur or not?” So, to put it in appropriately daring Shakespearean terms, “Once more unto the breach!”

As I glanced over some of Huston’s films for this blogathon, one consistent feature of his mise-en-scène struck me: an emphasis on faces. I’m not talking about Bergmanesque portraiture, where it’s about the face’s subtle power of expression. I’m talking about the use of faces as another visual piece of the total film, akin to the costuming or the landscapes. Look at Clark Gable in The Misfits. This is Gable’s last role, and in it you can make out phantom images of his past stardom. Gay, with his rambunctious youth soured into whiskey-drenched obsolescence, could be It Happened One Night‘s Pete Warne, 30 years down the line. And it’s all embedded in his dirty, cavernous visage. He looks just as tired and ready for the end as his poor dog, Tom Dooley, or the mustangs he’s rounding up. Gable’s face here is that of a once-handsome icon who’s teetering at the edge of death, and that real-world anguish gives the film additional gravity.

But Gable as Gay is just the most obvious example I saw of Huston using faces as crucial scenery. Really, every face in The Misfits is loaded in one way or another; just look at Perce – played by Montgomery Clift, a victim of ongoing tragedy – with his glassy stare from drunkenness and brain damage, his broken nose, all topped with an incongruous cowboy hat. Similarly, some of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre‘s effectiveness toward the end is inherent in Bogart, Holt, and W. Huston’s ragged, sand-swept faces. I’m not proposing this as the crux of visual artistry or acting in Huston’s films; rather, it’s just a curious method of harnessing actors’ appearances, of highlighting facial features with perhaps a caricaturist’s sensibilities. For further evidence, just see The Maltese Falcon‘s villains and how they’re shot: Peter Lorre, the egg-headed, bug-eyed puffball; Sidney Greenstreet, the eyebrow-raising, belly-patting Santa Claus; and Elisha Cook, the compact, long-faced hothead who never smiles.1

So in short, Huston’s depictions of human bodies had a slightly cartoonish quality to them, as if endeavoring to sum up personality traits through the right camera angle or simple gesture; he needed such forms of visual shorthand, because he made movies about ideas reified and in action.2 Tonally, Huston’s films strike an odd balance, coupling severe visions of mortality with the sense of boozy, mordant humor I described in my Treasure of the Sierra Madre piece. But even with this edge of humor, even in a film as jokey as Falcon, one pervasive attitude joins nearly all of Huston’s characters: desperation. This might be the most common thematic thread in Huston’s entire career, since rarely can I describe his characters’ actions or desires without terming them “desperate.” They’re frequently backed into financial or ethical corners and are scrambling to find any way out. Certainly this fits the whole food chain of The Asphalt Jungle, and it’s just this desperation, on the part of criminals and cops, that leads our protagonists to jail.

Or look at Billy in Fat City: he just wants one more opportunity, and he’s sure he can make it count. Ruben is desperate enough to spread hype about every one of his prospects, and struggles to believe it. Everyone in Stockdale is either frantically looking for a new dream, or else resigned to the fact that none of them will ever come true. With such thick fatalism, Huston’s films could easily turn dour if they weren’t leavened by the saving grace of dark humor – supplied, in this case, by the perpetually soused Oma.3 Ultimately, this omnipresent mood of desperation is a direct product of that persistent modernist/existentialist crisis of self-definition, of determining one’s own beliefs and values independent of any absolute authority. Because even at their most downtrodden, his characters are possessed of a raw, primordial energy; the question they’re desperate to resolve is, how to use that energy? And why?

Consider The Asphalt Jungle‘s famous quote, “Crime is just a left-handed form of human endeavor.” This is the underlying ethos I’m getting at: Huston’s characters have the potential to embark on these ambitious endeavors,4 but the issue is whether they’re right- or left-handed. Judging by these films, I get the sense that Huston saw human nature as capable of good or evil, but always driven by an innate compulsion to just act. These people can compete in the rodeo and boxing ring, despite defeat after defeat; they can dig and hunt and head down the river; they can stage massive, clever con games. These are all possibilities. The question is what personal, self-motivated beliefs guide these actions.

Some of these conclusions may be too broad, and some of my analysis might be wrong-headed, but these are the ideas I find at the core of Huston’s filmography. I’ll be interested to view more of his films and see how well they synch up with these theories. And so, since his films display a unified creative personality with a distinct vision of mankind, told cinematically with elements of a clear visual style, I believe – based on my understanding of the term, as used by Truffaut and Sarris – that John Huston is, in fact, an auteur. Thank you for reading my contributions to the John Huston Blogathon, and thanks to Adam of Icebox Movies for providing the spark that flamed into these analyses. Now get thee to a DVD player and watch The Asphalt Jungle, if you haven’t already.

1 I could happily go on supplying examples, but I’ll restrain myself outside of mentioning Sam Jaffe’s professorial benevolence and Sterling Hayden’s hulking presence in The Asphalt Jungle.

2 Given these conclusions, maybe it’s strangely fitting that Huston directed and starred in a segment of Casino Royale (1967), a film that took James Bond’s premise to nonsensical comic-book extremes.

3 However, the greatest embodiment of this kind of humor is Thelma Ritter in The Misfits; she served a similar role in films like Rear Window and, more sadly, Pickup on South Street.

4 Like criss-crossing the globe in search of a jewel-encrusted statue, or journeying into the wild to spend months digging for gold, or single-handedly taking down and tying up an angry stallion…

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