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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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My Favorite Movies: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Jumping off from Friday’s post for the Icebox Movies John Huston blogathon, I’d like to talk about gold and the havoc it can wreak in a man’s soul. Yes, it’s Huston’s masterpiece The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) starring Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt (of Magnificent Ambersons fame), and Huston’s father Walter. I’m going to keep discussing the themes that pervaded Huston’s work, but today I’ll be narrowing myself down pretty tightly to Sierra Madre because, well, I have a lot to say about this movie. It’s probably my favorite of Huston’s (though The Maltese Falcon is a close second); it’s just a gritty, intense piece of genius. (And yes, this post is going under the long-dormant banner of “My Favorite Movies”; you can read all previous MFM posts here.) The plot is simple and familiar: three down-and-out gringos in Mexico City decide to give gold prospecting a shot. They set up camp, evade banditos and a nosy Texan, and make a going concern of it… but then Fred C. Dobbs (Bogart) starts fearing that his comrades are plotting against him.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is based on a novel by the enigmatic author B. Traven, who was probably an anarchist from Germany. These origins alone should suggest that this is not your average 1940s Warner Bros. production. It’s offbeat, misanthropic, violent, and falls in a curious nether region of genre – it’s neither a western nor a film noir, but has traces of both. Huston’s Mexico isn’t like, say, John Ford’s Wild West, which was still America, and still retained the same cultural norms and values as the fully civilized east. In Mexico, the three prospectors are foreigners and must fend for themselves without a civic community to depend on. When Dobbs repeatedly approaches a well-dressed tourist (John Huston) and begs for money on the basis of being “a fellow American,” the tourist grows weary and insists that he’ll have to make do on his own from then on. Mexico is a place where relationships must be born anew, regardless of shared nationality.

Mexico, for the purposes of the film, is a wilderness.1 When Dobbs and Curtin (Holt) are scammed out of their pay by Pat McCormick (Barton Maclane), they don’t turn to the government; they beat the shit out of him themselves, and then take what they’re owed. The film’s premise is that three men develop a small community out of a mutual interest. But this community only functions at all because of all their safeguards and compromises. When they’re figuring out who should guard the gold, Howard (the elder Huston), the old man, declares himself “the most trustworthy” – not because he’s honest, but because he couldn’t possibly get away without the two younger men catching him. Compare this to the deals made between Peachy and Dravot in The Man Who Would Be King. Whether in central Asia or Mexico, there’s no higher power to enforce the terms of their compacts. Once an individual stops following the self-instituted rules of the group, everything – be it a bizarrely mystical monarchy or a prospecting operation – quickly falls apart.

In this case, what triggers the group’s collapse is Dobbs’ pathological paranoia. Although it only explicitly manifests itself about halfway through, we get subtle hints about his unstable, immature personality early in the film. He’s eager to gloat about whatever he can, be it a winning lottery ticket or killing more banditos than either of his compatriots. Howard quietly takes not of these little displays, and they give way directly into Dobbs’ all-encompassing mistrust as the film progresses. It’s most obvious when he first sees gold: with lust in his eyes, he says, “It don’t glitter. I thought it would glitter?” It’s only a matter of time before he grows so protective that he’ll resort to murder. His interactions with Cody, the intrusive Texan, reveal this steady decline; while Curtin and Howard sit and listen to Cody, Dobbs circles around him, babbling about how they want him to leave. As Dobbs slowly cracks up, the audience’s identification with him bleeds away, and as the role of protagonist shifts from him to Curtin, Dobbs becomes at once something darker and greater.

Bogart’s performance really is incredible, especially because of how radically different Dobbs is from iconic characters like Rick Blaine or Philip Marlowe. Those men were self-assured, discreet, and experienced; Dobbs is a greenhorn2 who needs to prove himself in terms of skill and intelligence. And although he exhibits his tragic flaws from the start – just look at his treatment of Pat McCormick as anticipating his ultimate breakdown – he’s still easy to like, since he’s just a poverty-stricken everyguy who just wants to eat. But for all Bogart’s finesse and fluidity, it’s Walter Huston who drives the movie. When he first appears in the Oso Negro (which is basically a homeless shelter), he’s like a feisty leprechaun talking about a rainbow he’s got stashed away. He’s fast-talking but sincere, with an edge of diabolical charm left over from The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941). He could be a former con man, or a street preacher gone apostate.

He overflows with charisma, energy, wisdom, and the sardonic humor that fills so many of his son’s films. He’s also weirdly self-aware, sometimes overacting in a calculated way, as if Howard is intentionally giving a performance – just look at his famously manic jig for an example. And toward the end of the film, while he’s being cared for by a Mexican woman, Howard glances up at the camera for a moment. It’s an unexpected nod to the fourth wall, perhaps signaling the character’s overarching comprehension of how the universe works.3 Howard knows about greed, fate, and the absurdity of life. In the end, as he tells Curtin, it’s best just to laugh at the cosmic joke that’s been played on them. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre abounds with noir-like fatalism, but this reaction – laughing at the caprices of God or destiny or whoever – is unusual, and the sheer abandon with which Howard laughs makes the ending even more disturbingly bleak.

Still, this laughter is a mark of wisdom in John Huston’s Mexico. At least it’s preferable to the futile rebellion of Roslyn at the end of The Misfits, or the alcoholic silence that clouds the end of Fat City. It’s comparable, though, to the plucky resignation of Caspar Gutman when he realizes the falcon is a fake, or that of Doc Riedenschneider in The Asphalt Jungle as he’s quietly recaptured. In John Huston’s films, you can’t win. But you might as well join in the fun that fate’s having at your expense. After partaking in a long, hearty laugh, Curtin and Howard decide to make their own futures, independent of their past suffering and loss. Howard has a cozy position as witch doctor; Curtin’s off to Cody’s widow in Dallas. In Huston’s films, the past is an anchor that keeps you from moving ahead. The Misfits‘ Pilot and his dead wife or Fat City‘s Billy with his lost dreams of greatness are just two examples. Sure, Sam Spade could’ve dwelt on his partner’s death, but he knew it would be of no consequence. Curtin and Howard don’t brood on their failure; they just walk away. In Huston’s films, that’s the best you can do.

As a final note, let me comment on the intriguing relationship between man and nature in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This is one of Huston’s great obsessions; he was, after all, an avid outdoorsman. After Dobbs thinks he’s killed Curtin, we get this great moment where he’s searching for Curtin’s body, and it’s not there. He concludes that a tiger must’ve dragged it away, and then remarks with awe, “Done as if by order!” In this film, it’s always uncertain whether nature is working in tandem with the men, against them, or just randomly. The dust storm that consumes the gold would imply an antagonistic relationship, but it also recalls the conversation when the men are leaving the Sierra Madre itself. “You talk about that mountain as if she was a real woman,” says Curtin, and Howard replies, “She’s been a lot better to me than any woman I ever knew.”

I love this exchange, because it lays out the connection between these men and their environment in humanized and gendered terms. The men thank the mountain for its bounty, but, as Howard admits, “we wounded this mountain,” just so they could mine its resources. The mountain clearly has no ability to consent in the matter, yet they show gratitude. When you consider that Sierra Madre means “mother range,” a darkly oedipal reading of the scene emerges. In a film with no women, the process of extracting the gold itself is a displacement of the prospectors’ sex drives. In Fat City, the manager Ruben complains that his boxers waste their energy through, among other pursuits, marriage; similarly, Howard warns his associates, “if I were you boys, I wouldn’t talk or even think about women,” when metaphorically, that’s just what they’ve been doing the entire time. Thus, Dobbs’ excessive lust for gold is on some level a redirection of other excessive lusts. It’s an elided sexual dysfunction that’s just perfect for the Production Code era.

In adapting Traven’s novel, Huston loaded up the image of the gold prospector – a Horatio Alger get-rich-quick myth of the American west – with distinctly modern perversions, confusions, and absurdities. He told a story of three men who must make their own laws and mores, even if it means collectively killing an intruder,4 and are locked together in mutual dependence until they can trade in the gold. It’s also a story about self-definition. After Cody is shot by banditos, the men rush over and Howard says, “I wonder who he is?” This question can be applied to all the characters in Huston’s films. And tragically, Dobbs identifies himself only in relation to the treasure he so desperately desires. With its small but powerful cast, its immersion in the “uncivilized” strangeness of Mexico, and its revelations of how thoroughly gold can change a man, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of my favorite movies.

1 Huston’s use of Mexico clearly influenced Sam Peckinpah films like The Wild Bunch (1969) and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1975). In the latter film, the money-hungry protagonist even uses the pseudonym “Fred C. Dobbs.”

2 Just look at the scene where Dobbs wastes plenty of water on what is actually fool’s gold.

3 And, for that matter, a Shadow-like knowledge of what evil lurks in the hearts of men.

4 Their attempt to simultaneously shoot Cody is just a microcosmic example of capital punishment – murder by the state.

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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.

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