The Maltese Falcon

At once you recognize Chinatown, and somewhat later D.O.A. The seated camera was made by Welles to recline still further in Mr. Arkadin. Huston’s engagement of form is the other tine on his fork (note also Wilmer’s suspension of disbelief, which Hitchcock repeated in The Birds).

These fantastic parallel histories were an inspiration to the great Argentinean film buff Jorge Luis Borges at around the time of his famous Ficciones and thereafter.

A painter’s approach to cinema. Huston’s game is to poise his camera just so in every shot, directly on the action, and calculate the dispersion of his tones from black to white. The editing is often matched with sound editing at a different vantage, and is moreover once or twice visibly forced in this first film. Nonetheless, the great consequence is an accidental discovery in Spade’s apartment, when cutting back and forth across the room reveals very delicately a rhythm that suggested to Huston a possibility of construction by means unique to cinema, which he cultivated first in Across The Pacific and perfected in Beat The Devil.

The precise moment is when Cairo and Miss O’Shaughnessy are confronted for the first time in the film. There is a discussion, which ends in the bloody brawl that brings in the cops, but in the middle it tensely bounces around the room and outlandishly finds O’Shaughnessy rocking away in her self-satisfied manner, just for a few seconds, in a startling contrast both to the general tenor of the scene and to the photographic structure of the whole. This, Huston must have realized, is what cinema can do, find its own logic, or more clearly, generate its own forms, or finally, speak its own language, rather than be a mere congeries of pictorial representations.


In This Our Life

It’s easy to see, now, what the critics didn’t, the relationship to The Maltese Falcon, the parallels Astor/Davis, Greenstreet/Coburn, and so forth. The technique is very fine in small increments, an up-angle tracking pan on Frank Craven visiting his former partner, a small dolly-out on Dennis Morgan suddenly unalone, a high note from Max Steiner sustained and orchestrated more fully while Craven motionlessly takes a phone call with bad news. Huston’s tale is The World Turned Upside Down, and he wants nothing to interfere, no sleight-of-hand or prestidigitation, consequently the editing and construction are as foursquare as he can manage, all the way to the end, which comes as a fait accompli, and this is all the more remarkable between The Maltese Falcon and Across the Pacific.

Failing to see the structure, critics from the first have seized upon Bette Davis’s performance as outsized and worthy of praise or blame on this score. It is precisely calculated on the side of careless destruction along with Charles Coburn as her uncle and to a lesser extent Dennis Morgan as her sister’s husband, opposed to Craven, Olivia de Havilland and George Brent as her carelessly destroyed father, sister and suitor.

Coburn and Craven, brothers-in-law, were business partners until Coburn, who brought no money into the firm, ruined his partner with capital investments on the eve of the Depression, knowingly, after which he bought the leavings through an intermediary.

And so, at the beginning of the film, the Timberlake mansion is being torn down, while Fitzroy lectures on the unique virtue there is in profit. The suitor (Brent) is a lawyer specializing in civil liberties, pooh-poohed as worthless by the uncle, who later anticipates the famous scene in It’s a Wonderful Life by throwing some business the young man’s way, in exchange for a more select clientele, merely a bribe to stop anti-slumlord suits.

Stanley (Davis) takes Dr. Kingsmill (Morgan) to Baltimore and marries him out of sheer wantonness, which brings him to suicide. Her uncle dotes so excessively on her that his passion causes him to rebuke her as selfish and inconsiderate, to himself.

Sister and suitor grieve painfully, but breeze along in a kind of void. Roy (De Havilland) chastises him with the example of young Parry (Ernest Anderson) working his way up from the stagnation of colored employment by reading law. Parry becomes a clerk in the office.

At a loss, Stanley makes a play for Craig (Brent) once again. Stood up at the Southside Tavern, she speeds home and kills a little girl without stopping. Parry was taking the car for a wash, she says. About to be arrested, she pleads with her uncle, who had begged her to move in with him as a respite to his illness. Now he has six months to live, and stares before him woefully.

Stanley is killed when her car goes off the road during a police chase. Roy and Craig are left together.

The girls have masculine names, indicating their parents’ wish. The rigorous ledger is mitigated by the playing and the even keel of the director. The psychopathology of Stanley is explained in her unhappiness after the suicide of her husband, which she can’t stand, she says, among so many happy people. “All she wants is to be happy,” says Roy, “no matter what it costs somebody else.”


Across the Pacific

An attack on the Canal Zone (cp. Henry King’s Marie Galante), planned for December 7th, 1941 and prepared by meticulous infiltration.

This part of the Japanese onslaught is defeated by placing an artillery captain undercover as a cashiered and bitter man, easily corruptible.

Fritz Lang gives this a major analysis as Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, Huston then takes it up again with The Mackintosh Man.

A laboratory experiment in which Huston invented a style he perfected in Beat The Devil. It proceeds from The Maltese Falcon by way of Hitchcock’s Number Seventeen, another stylistic crucible.

Huston repeats the court-martial’s dressing-down in The Kremlin Letter, playing the part himself.


Report from the Aleutians

Dutch Harbor gets a résumé, action properly begins with the airstrip on Adak. The customary style admired by Agee in Italy gives the lay of the land, strategy and so forth, then one of the daily bombing runs to Kiska.

If Huston played a part in Winning Your Wings (it has his remarkable frankness on the need for pilots, has the sense of a war footing with the USAAF assuming responsibility for training, etc.), it’s resumed here after Dutch Harbor in a “monument” proposed for pre-war fast drivers who’ve become fighter pilots, contrasted with the steadiness of those who fly the bombers. So Huston registers the turn of the tide in 1942 with the most notable documentary in a far-flung corner attacked alongside Midway Island and continuously fought as a holding action before invading for recapture of the closest point to Japan, which happens to be “Alaska, U.S.A.”


San Pietro

The image is of a helmeted soldier with rifle and bayonet storming the gates of St. Peter, as in the adage.

Huston is honest about the cost of this particular engagement, brutal images tell the tale, details of troop diminishment are not withheld, in one phase of the battle “a man a yard” is the measure of ground gained.

A certain high ground is taken and held, the Germans withdraw, counterattacking all the way. Huston views the battle overall, one of “thousands” like it. General Clark introduces the picture with grim-faced irony, forces in Italy were reduced for the invasion of France.

Agee saw and admired it, the whole thing makes sense the way Huston tells it.


Let There Be Light

The age of miracles is not past, but they are not recognized for precisely the same reason that Scopes was put on trial, “God moves in a mysterious way”. Huston records a few of them amid a general survey of psychiatric medicine after the war.


The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

What everyone saw was Mexico. Agee saw The Wild Bunch (and, in a tiny detail, McCabe & Mrs. Miller). Once his heroes have hit paydirt, a light goes on in Huston’s film, which first appeared in The Maltese Falcon and was later exacerbated into The Asphalt Jungle. There is a savor of Deliverance, The Train Robbers is the other side of the trick coin.

What Huston saw was fable made into concatenations of rigorous whimsy in a film that oddly enough is closely akin to Arthur Miller’s play The Ride Down Mt. Morgan to the extent that they tell the tale of Dysmas and Gestas and Christ (note here, before the complete homage to Erich Pommer in The African Queen, an opulent citation from Vessel of Wrath).

It’s contemporaneous with Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and means the same thing, out of Voltaire’s Candide. That being said, we can identify the strangeness of form in its most successful analysis, by Wise out of Crichton in The Andromeda Strain, where young and old are impervious. Pat McCormick the derrick promoter has a Tampico trollop on his arm when discovered by Dobbs and Curtin after bilking them, she wants to go shopping. Mrs. Cody of Dallas writes of “the greatest treasure”.

Humphrey Bogart’s performance was quite accurately noticed at once, a brilliant portrayal of a lunatic broken down by poverty and a mining accident, as pathetic as horrible. Huston regulates the cast the way a director who acts often does, all are treated equally, so that Tim Holt and Walter Huston and Bruce Bennett and Barton MacLane and the Mexican cast (many of whom are Emilio Fernandez regulars) make an easy impression for his camera, exactly on the note.

The hammock scene with a salt lick and a smile does not belong in a “lesser movie”, as Ebert says, but gives the range of action in a Dante structure whose motto is, “nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita”.


Key Largo

A conscious acquirement of To Have and Have Not (and The Big Sleep), which is to say the application of Huston’s technique to a play by Maxwell Anderson, the point being a technical rigidity (cp. The Night of the Iguana) required shortly in the making of Beat the Devil, Key Largo having consequences as far as Freud and The Mackintosh Man.

These are, this is the gang that hits the African coast in Beat the Devil.


We Were Strangers

The horrible sacrifice and effort of the war ultimately mean a defense against outrages and, at the same time, the nation acting for itself, this is represented as the overthrowing of President Machado of Cuba in 1933.

Simplicity itself, in the end, but the difficulties of construction proved too much for Bosley Crowther (New York Times), while Variety nearly followed the film, Halliwell not so well.

Huston reuses certain aspects of the material from another perspective in A Walk with Love and Death.


The Asphalt Jungle

Huston gives very precise indications at the outset that he knows what he’s doing, especially in one brief exterior demonstrating decisively that he’s been to Italy. With this having been said, he embarks upon an experiment in unrelieved brutality that is conveyed by the performances in a sustained environment of night interiors and garish lighting.

His conclusion presents an interesting formal problem, which is solved in two ways. First, at the doctor’s office, he borrows a composition invented by Cocteau for a photograph by Philippe Halsman (this is the railroad hand framing the shot by holding up a plasma bottle in his arm “good as anybody’s”). Then, in the very last scene, driving through Kentucky, Miklos Rozsa comes to the rescue with a very lush orchestration, until Huston’s joke on buying the farm comes into play.

Among the brilliant performers must be included the horses in this scene, who may have been paid with sugar cubes, and above all the cat earlier on in Gus’s diner, who not once but twice turns on cue at the proper moment.

One of the consequences of The Asphalt Jungle’s ferocious artifice was to liquidate a set of understandings Huston had with studio style, which paid him off in the great calm of The Mackintosh Man, and another was the acquired command of artifice itself, which he cultivated further and flaunted in The List of Adrian Messenger, and may be said to have perfected in The Man Who Would Be King.


The Red Badge of Courage

Huston was now free of the studios, and they didn’t like it. The film as made and marred by M-G-M is a gross torso.

Several Huston jokes remain, amid the scattered limbs of a great film, and the point digested to a dead certainty, that courage fills a man or it doesn’t.


The African Queen

The simple wartime allegory ought to be enough, an English missionary and a Canadian skipper take on the Imperial German Navy in Africa, aboard a 30-foot steam launch called the African Queen, “she’s representin’ the Royal Navy.”

But there is a wobbly line all throughout that makes the representation even more heroic than this, in a way, so that Huston contrives one of the great love stories in the cinema.

And there is still more, another dimension indeed, as the 1st Methodist Church of Kungdu burns at German hands and the parishioners are drummed into service, the pastor dies of shock, and a long slow retribution takes its course.


Moulin Rouge

A film in two movements on the artist as twice-victorious, over the world and his fame.

Huston cannot compete with Toulouse-Lautrec’s colors, he has the advantage of light, seen to effect.

The Count and his son appear with fox hunt in The List of Adrian Messenger, the painter facing the morning in Freud.

It is one of the films Ken Russell must have seen and admired, already Savage Messiah.

The nakedness of purpose in the first movement and the artist in his station for the rest give ample witness, the show is a good one, and Huston like Russell has direct evidence for the camera to ponder.


Beat the Devil

If Across the Pacific may be said to be the chrysalis of Huston’s first film, this is the butterfly, and a rare creature it is. The trip to Istanbul proposed at the end of The Maltese Falcon (and later accomplished in The Man Who Would Be King) is the starting point, though this is not a sequel, and the nominal destination is Nairobi or thereabouts.

As Preminger studied Huston (and Hitchcock), Huston studied Hitchcock (and Pommer). So many consequences of Rich and Strange are fully realized here that it might be thought a model, and not the background work filtered through Huston’s understanding of film.

A pivotal film, at least in that the theme of The Man Who Would Be King is explicitly stated early on, material from The Mackintosh Man is exposed, etc.

It is possible that the subtlety and fineness of the editing show the influence of Emilio Fernandez. Beat the Devil is a film of conscious movement, sung in Da Ponte arias with the charm of Covent Garden, a perfect comedy.

Legend has it that Peter Sellers re-dubbed some of Bogart’s lines, actually a couple of lines by Robert Morley and Bogart in the beach scene on the African coast, evidently to alter them in post-production to reflect a change in the script so that Peterson’s swindle of the Arabs is now and henceforth referred to by the company name Alio (or ALIO), as it sounds.

Bogart’s remarks on the film must be understood to express a producer’s disappointment at the box office receipts.

Joseph Conrad’s (or Victor Fleming’s) Lord Jim figures instrumentally. It is beyond all belief that reviewers at the time, and some until now, could not perceive the firework-humor of Huston’s film. The bullfighter’s limousine is a standing joke from Minnelli’s Yolanda and The Thief, suitably heightened.

The supreme of wit.

“A wet firecracker,” said the New York Times reviewer. “Under John Huston’s stylish direction a fine acting standard is maintained”, though Variety didn’t invariably get the jokes so there are “intended comedy situations that misfire.”

“Seldom as clever as it thinks it is” (Time Out Film Guide). “The birthplace of camp” (Dave Kehr, Chicago Reader).

Halliwell’s Film Guide reports, “audiences were mostly baffled”.


Moby Dick

The key of Huston’s work is provided by Griffith’s understanding of the Civil War (The Birth of a Nation, Abraham Lincoln).

It is thus the clearest analysis possible, which is half the point, the rest presents the whalemen of New Bedford, with more help acknowledged in the opening credits.

Huston has the direct memory of the Second World War prophetically figured, as it was by Griffith.

The visual conception is grand and correct (Huston and Morris share the credit for devising a color scheme of oak and brine). Out of this and the beautiful script Huston carves quite brilliant characters and imperishable scenes such as the whaleboats standing to while Moby Dick sounds in eerie quiet but for the cries of gulls suddenly gathering, with the Pequod in the background, a scene repeated for the emphasis it must have had in Hitchcock’s mind when he made The Birds. Stanley Donen must have remembered Elijah’s backstepping farewell in Charade (“Pardon... pardon...”).

Ambiguity is generated by Gregory Peck’s representation of Ahab as a thunderstricken Abe Lincoln, with a streak of white hair leading to a scar down his face and a tinge of white in his chinwhiskers.


Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

The secret of the form goes back at least to the impression left on Huston by his experience as a Signal Corps filmmaker in Alaska (Report from the Aleutians), where the great and terrible victory at Dutch Harbor was attended by a daily campaign to dislodge the Japanese on Kiska, a laborious and thoughtful fight. This impression stayed with him and finds expression here as a fighting Marine (and therefore a convert) given his second baptism of inspiration.

“Not deep,” said one reviewer, who noted the agreeability of the presentation but probably missed the beautiful setup of Cpl. Allison’s plight at sea, and how Sister Angela came to be there (he was deployed from a submarine, she accompanied an elderly priest looking for a colleague). The sea is a flood, the tinpot Japanese army of occupation accounts in part for Allison’s heroics, yet it can kill.

The voice of God inspires him to disarm the Japanese howitzers so an American landing can be made “without hardly anybody getting killed,” the entire premise and structure as a string of deadpan jokes involving a Milwaukee roustabout and an Irish nun in the Pacific leads to this point in the trial of her vows and his warfare, and this deadpan is keen to show its other face behind the caricature that never cuts, well-studied and authentic.

The African Queen and Moby Dick are situated briefly in the opening sequence and the sea-turtle hunt with the perfect technique displayed throughout.


The Barbarian and the Geisha

Only the critical failure of Huston’s film (Variety and the New York Times were bored) can account for the similar failure of Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August, and there the direct comparison does not end. Formal command, subtlety of inflection, thirst for Japanese culture in its sublimity and greatness, with the skill to represent it effectively and even to create it, are common to these two, and who is to say it did not take Kurosawa a quarter-century to make Huston’s film his own, and more directly? Huston certainly knows his Japanese cinema, Drunken Angel has a visible place in the corridor of an assassin’s trajectory.

He goes to Japan with more skill after Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick than is needed, and puts his art so entirely at work in the exclusive confines of this one film set in Shimoda and Edo (Townsend Harris, first consul) that only one likeness remains to himself, Okichi’s “a great man” resembling Beat the Devil. And all of this were indeed needed to bring off the depiction of a fishing village unknown to foreigners, the Shogun’s court at Edo, Franklin Pierce’s emissary and the protégée of a provincial governor, if there were one film to show of Huston’s that must give the measure of his greatness all at once, this one for its objectivity and terribilitas, the sheer majesty of its concerns and of its images, the minute shadings of its observations and characterizations. Huston does a lot of different things, here he bends himself to an entirely unexpected purpose and a twofold account in which Harris’s ambassade is made to reflect relations between the two countries a hundred years later with the greatest understanding and tact, telegraphed in a series of images very precisely calculated to tell the tale, and filmed on location so that no Japanese director could complain that local talent was not used.

The war is a cholera outbreak caused by Western sailors jumping ship and ended by setting fire to the town. The Shogunate has a youthful ruler governed by lordly counselors, they are divided on the treaty, ancient tradition means insularity. As Huston observes, it also means a kind of diffidence at Governor Tamura’s court, a lackadaisical complaisance dispelled by Okichi’s song, she is the beautiful woman everywhere and the soul of Japanese culture. Her position is lowly, like the Kabuki troupe in Ozu’s Floating Weeds she is barely above a prostitute (her withdrawal from the scene finally evokes Ozu’s film as well in the material performed).

Huston pursues this line to its vicissitudes through a proposed marriage and retirement in the mountains “with no neighbors” against the democratic ideal expounded by Harris out of Whitman, ending in a symbol of modern Japan “among the community of nations” but maintaining its culture inviolate even though by its very nature this culture has a universal expression, because such an expression only exists by virtue of tradition, so Huston explains.

His use of actors is unique, more so than he would have liked, perhaps, limited as he was by the film’s failure. John Wayne is a leading man in a difficult role ideally suited and only beginning to reach the dimensions of his activity, Eiko Ando’s geisha is one of the great performances in the cinema as conceived by Huston. None of this was perceived by critics, Crowther saw pageantry (as nowhere else, be it said), Variety heard a lot of Japanese spoken, a good deal of it by Sam Jaffe as Harris’s American interpreter.


The Roots of Heaven

The living Creation was planted by Heaven, and if any part of it were to die “the stars would go out”.

To espouse the full position one must have been in a Nazi prison camp, or be a naturalist, or a misanthrope. There are halfway positions mitigated by political ambition or greed.

Sky King laughed at the impossible dilemma.


The Unforgiven

The brother dies to make the husband, in a tale of Kafkaesque splendor.

It’s one of the films that goes into Hitchcock’s The Birds, Pinter’s play The Room is an adequate analysis.

Bosley Crowther (New York Times) missed the point, Variety almost noticed Huston’s virtuosity, Geoff Andrew (Time Out Film Guide) praised Franz Planer’s cinematography and not much else, Halliwell’s Film Guide has no idea, and Stanley Kauffmann notoriously came a cropper, “ludicrous”.

Nemerov has “that boy... / Falling asleep on the current of the stars / Which even then washed him away past pardon,” Eliot the cattle on the roof, or nearly.

Screenplay by Ben Maddow, from the author of The Searchers.


The Misfits

The end of things, an end. Wild horses roped for “the dog and the cat.” The last to see it are the cowboys.

There’s a last surge of endeavor to prove the point, then they take off after a star, for home.

Major damage by the initial critics was inflicted probably without thinking.

Reno is the convenient image of the sudden break.



Huston places Freud with Copernicus and Darwin among men of science, quite apart from the evident genesis of his film in Let There Be Light, which owing to Government censorship was not available to audiences.

Hysteria, the unconscious, hypnosis as therapeutic tool and instrument of research, supplanted by dream analysis and conscious observation, finally a general theory to identify a potential source of trauma common to all. The rabbinical physician and scientist with a keen mind and ready wit is faced with professional and personal difficulties that are not merely explained by his theory but contribute to its discovery.

Montgomery Clift plays to the foreground in a magnificent performance that is constantly attuned, Susannah York has a formidable technique down to the hemidemisemiquaver, and Huston calls for a variable tessitura among the cast, which operates on several different levels. The conjunction with Russell is assuredly in the dream sequences, which extend from Mahler at least to Altered States, The Lair of the White Worm and beyond, not to mention the common ground of Hitchcock’s Spellbound on the precedent of Das Cabinett des Dr. Caligari.


The List of Adrian Messenger

Witnesses to an act of treason in Burma during the war, all murdered.

Messenger is “a good writer”, his books include Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (unfinished), Romany Ways and Memoirs of a Fox Hunter.

Gen. Gethryn, late of M.I.5, investigates the murders, including that of Messenger. It is simply a matter of erasing the past and killing an heir.

A memory of the war in Europe and the Pacific.

The screenplay is by Anthony Veiller and can easily be understood as a variant of Welles’ The Stranger, there is also Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets.

The famous clues are signposts to the identity of the assassin, not a gypsy horse-trainer known to Messenger, not a shirking ex-serviceman, not an Italian organ-grinder, not the lady placarding blood sport, but the tourist with a Baedeker, and kindly Mr. Pythian from downstairs, and a vicar bound for Montreal, and an old groundsman.

This much for the paradox of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp erupting on an English manor house.


The Night Of The Iguana

Blake’s Tours of El Paso, Texas, “we cover the south west and Mexico”.

The man of God and the Sunday School teacher, the tour guide and the daughter of Thunderbird Heights, “the oldest living and practicing poet”, the hotelkeeper.

The driving of a seed to earth, the great earth, where it takes hold.

Or, the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon against Redskins of Pleasant Vale (Valley), Virginia, and Baptist Female College.

The jokes are many, all of them lost on the critics, who didn’t matter in the slightest.

The Nazi tourists whom oblivious Crowther did not lament are all about the piece, just the same.

Shannon’s hammock comes from The Maltese Falcon, Fred’s hotel from Beat the Devil, and the whole thing previsages Under the Volcano.

A perfect film, made perfectly by Huston in a remote and now well-worn location, somewhere south of Mexico in the border regions.

Very fine score by Benjamin Frankel, cinematography by Gabriel Figueroa, Emilio Fernandez behind the bar on the beach.


The Bible: In the Beginning...

Huston’s Bible is the representation of a man’s life from first consciousness to last hopes.

The creation of the world, the forming of Adam (which Russell admired and emulated in Altered States along with the transformation of Lot’s wife, the destruction of Sodom figured in his staging of Madama Butterfly), the perfectly marvelous temptation and fall (the tree in the garden is Stroheim’s apple-tree from The Wedding March), then Abel and Cain with an incredibly eloquent crane-shot and Griffith pantomime, Noah played by Huston out of Chaplin (Kurosawa takes the last shot for Dreams), Nimrod on the scale of Intolerance (he anticipates Herzog’s Aguirre by asking, “Shall the monkeys gibber against me?”), and finally Abraham, which as Kierkegaard would say is unfathomable.

The animal actors of The Asphalt Jungle are now a menagerie in Noah’s Ark and Abram’s sacrifice. The trip to Mount Moriah passes through the ruins of Sodom.

The conclusion illustrates the bomber pilot’s advice in Report from the Aleutians, “say, ‘Hello, Father Abraham.’”


Reflections in a Golden Eye

The eye of accomplished art (the eye of Pvt. Williams is that of a novice).

“Something tiny and grotesque” there, three short-circuits from life (three officers at Leonora’s party are a kind of laboratory control by comparison, à la Robert Lowell).

Brutishness is masculine and strongest (Col. Langdon, Leonora).

Æstheticism (Alison, Anacleto) in its passive sense is feminine and weaker.

Homosexuality (Maj. Penderton) has something of both, and stops the novice from reaching the goal.

The wartime analogy extinguishes one officer’s wife and one soldier.

The leading roles are thematic to Taylor (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and Brando (Apocalypse Now).

Huston films in Panavision and Technicolor for a deep articulation and realism before the gold tone is applied.


Sinful Davey

A different analysis than The African Queen of Pommer’s great Vessel of Wrath.

“Another work out of John Huston’s current tired period, which includes ‘Freud’, ‘The List of Adrian Messenger’, ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye’ and ‘The Bible,’” said Vincent Canby of the New York Times.

Variety remarked “the club-footed, forced direction”.

“Inconsequential but likeable”, says Tom Milne in Time Out Film Guide.

L’amour c’est la mort, n’est-ce pas?

“Highly implausible” (Halliwell’s Film Guide).

“Don’t you threaten me, you filthy blackguard. I’ll have you shot at sunrise, or would you prefer to black my boots, and kiss my feet the while?”


A Walk with Love and Death

During the Hundred Years War, a gipsy-scholar and a lady meet and marry, “outside it’s death.”

A study, with accompanying bleakness, for the sub specie æternitatis of Fat City.

It did not succeed with critics (Roger Greenspun, Roger Ebert, Variety, Time Out Film Guide).


The Kremlin Letter

How Sturdevant of the OSS became head of the Third Department.

The MacGuffin sought by subcontractors eventually finds its home in Peking, dividing the opposition.

The structure of the film is an analysis of Ritt’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, arriving at Henry King’s Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing.

This accounts for the richness of detail that so perplexed the critics and the public.

The story is a reflection of the chimerical Nazi wish to have England on the side of Germany against Russia, and this provides a mirror of the Cold War as essentially a continuation of the one that began so long ago in 1914, under another guise.

Huston has The Asphalt Jungle and wartime experience for the stark brutality of this, a fight undertaken tit for tat.


Fat City

Huston gives “the mortal tedium of immortality” its terrible signification.

Eureka, one might say. Boxers in Stockton, Orphée and Cégeste.

“Spanish knives”, Oma’s three husbands (the one about the Indian, the white man, and the black guy).

The gust of joy at the end of Le testament d’Orphée is further explained, and perhaps with reference to Sam Wood’s The Pride of the Yankees.

The horrible solace of companionship against the mortal void is Huston’s reading of the disparition.


The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

This diamond in its ramshackle setting appears to have been all built up out of an episode in one of Henry Hathaway’s great contributions to How The West Was Won, “The Rivers”. You can see how it was done, but you can only be dazzled by the three-ring circus Huston gets out of it, a picaresque biography, like Sinful Davey or Freud. It mattes in a falling oil derrick from Tulsa to add the final episode.

Time brings in its revenges. Bean’s nemesis is Gass, a squirt. The whole kit ‘n caboodle comes crashing down, the lady of the town (Langtry) receives the pistol of the prudent jurist, and reads his tale.

“A generation of vipers,” he has to deal with.

Beanism is the squirt’s call to arms, believe it or not.

The judge’s cry is “justice, y’ sons o’ bitches!”

Finally, an epitaph, “his boots will be forever empty.”

“The overkill and the underdone do it in,” Variety said. “I guess,” said Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times.

“On the whole,” said Tom Milne (Time Out Film Guide) after scribbling up a storm, “an underrated film.”

Don Druker (Chicago Reader) takes a simpler approach, “the bear has the best bits.”

Halliwell’s Film Guide too is simple, “sporadically entertaining”, etc.


The Mackintosh Man

This is Across the Pacific, right down to the beating, greatly magnified and extended by Fritz Lang’s Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, which greatly resembles the earlier film, so that a sharp reading would have Lang and Huston working in relays on the theme.

It was Samuel Spade’s word against Kasper Gutman’s in Huston’s first film, but that was just a passing detail at the close. Here, on the other hand, and on the very island of Malta itself, is the dialogue.


The Man Who Would Be King

Huston recognized in Kipling’s story a kinship with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon and Beat the Devil, with a crux from the Book of Daniel and Architectural Digest. The essence of it, ultimately, is how Rudyard Kipling got the story, which is “a tale well calculated to keep you in Suspense.”

This is, also, a study in the manner of The Asphalt Jungle, come a long way in color and depending rather on lightning batches of parodistic material presented as sleight-of-hand maneuvers on the field of battle, you might almost say. The spectacular Hollywood synthesis of Er-Horeb, somewhat after the manner of Tarzan’s Three Challenges, for example, is in the same category, and quite in keeping with the import of Kipling’s satirical poetics.

It begins as a flashback, in the manner of D.O.A., and is presented gradually as a cock and bull. Huston’s technique is essentially trained on a long series of variations on the angle of the reverse shot commonly used in filming conversations.

The compressed or elliptic scenes, often very brief though filmed in far locations, further sketch elements of The Gold Rush, Zulu, Gunga Din, and, at the very end, before the cock and bull takes on a legendary aspect, Plummer’s reaction shot is the reflection of Michael Redgrave’s at the end of The Go-Between. Two extraordinarily swift shots, in view of the logistics involved, quickly trace the mounted charge in Henry V (with a snippet of Lawrence of Arabia) and the general exodus in The Ten Commandments.

The upshot of all the compression and concision is to create a single image of total surrealism. As in Richard Brooks’ Wrong Is Right, the visionary element here supervenes mightily in the glorious resemblance of Saeed Jaffrey to General Musharraf, and that of Doghmi Larbi to President Karzai.


Wise Blood

Here, the ministry of Christ is seen to be at large in the city for the incidental purposes of countering and destroying the false worship represented by a supposed blind beggar who cries “a dollar for Jesus” and a straightforward mockery of Christ’s teaching, which is presented under terms that convey its radicalism as the Church of Truth without Jesus Christ Crucified.

It’s as a result of these rebukes, which take in the latter end of Simon Magus, that the ministry is concluded, there having been established a mediation between the fulminating Jehovah played by Huston himself and the unregenerate folk trodden under and whisked away by a new Interstate.

Christ finally becomes the sacrifice and receives the punishment of all, who were else damned. This is not their province, however, and so Wise Blood is reconciled with Capra’s Meet John Doe.

These comprise the serious underpinnings, the firing-platform of Huston’s continual high Sierra of a firework-show, perfectly contrived to give the maximum effect of comedy by means of an imperfect style that manages to leave no rocket unignited.



An intricate representation of psychological functions given as arising from guilt complexes. Atonement or analysis relieves them, an experimental program called implosion therapy is a kind of conditioning against the object of phobia, the voluntary subjects are convicted criminals suffering from agoraphobia, acrophobia (a dynamiter in a bank robbery gang), fear of men, claustrophobia (a car thief), fear of snakes (an armed robber who also killed his wife’s lover).

A compulsion to avoid punishment has been visited on the medico, the patients die intrinsic deaths according to type.

The director of Freud and Let There Be Light has an object lesson in the medical art, on a theme that occupies him from Wise Blood through Victory at least (the hockey games in Phobia are a preparation of sorts).

Critical notice of this appears to have been minimal.



Huston has, by this time, transcended style itself, and that is a point of construction. The technical expertise he brings to bear upon every scene is the main device of the whole film, a meeting ground for technically-accomplished actors and footballers.

His homages are to Leni Riefenstahl, Don Siegel and Frank Capra. The game with its official ceremony is Olympia writ small, the dummy head used in the escape recalls Escape from Alcatraz, and the international commentators are a brief gag from Meet John Doe.

Then there is John Sturges, but all this is set dressing for the tour de force, which has two aspects and has never been properly noted.

The first is the game itself, which is derived from historical incidents. The Nazis turn a sporting match into a one-sided propaganda tool, with injurious fouling unreckoned and the panoply of the Third Reich eked out by piping in canned cheers from the silent French crowd over the radio. The Allies limp off at the half, preparing to literally “drop out” through an escape tunnel in their locker room, but they decide at the last minute to win the game instead. Pelé scores the final goal by leaping into the air arsy-versy and kicking the ball in. Huston has a fine zoom on the prison camp commandant taking in the awe-inspiring play, which is analyzed in various shots. Soon the crowd bursts out of the stands and sweeps onto the field en masse, clapping hats and coats on the Allies, all rushing through the stadium gate into the city and liberation.

Notwithstanding the fact that this is a work of art at least partially written by the great Evan Jones, there are some who object that the football players who took part in such a spectacle during World War II met with a tragic end. Such heroism, they say, ought to be borne in memory and not falsified.

But even the most ardent fan of Victory, who admires its technical precision and terse grandeur, missing nothing of its many subtleties, and who generally speaking is also a football fan, appears unable to brook the victorious ending or is resigned to a blank elation accompanied by the finale of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony as echoed by Bill Conti (who earlier evokes Alex North as the players take the field for the second half to the strains of something rather like Patton).

The crowd, which sits apart from the reviewing stands full of Nazi officers (with a stray functionary wearing a gibus here and there) and their red banners emblazoned with swastikas, is still throughout the first half of the game, but gradually becomes inspired as the Allies brush aside their callow adversaries. The chant, “Victoire! Victoire!,” rises from the stands, and then the Marseillaise is gloriously sung a cappella. This is the second aspect.



In effect a transposition of Little Lord Fauntleroy (dir. Jack Gold) with Daddy Warbucks now a Republican under the New Deal.

He watches most attentively the death of Camille at Radio City Music Hall (dir. George Cukor).

One of the funniest gags is from Melford’s The Sheik.

Critics noticed a resemblance but failed to register it or Carol Reed’s Oliver! for the dramatic conclusion.


Under the Volcano

The British Consul in Cuernavaca, lately resigned after the Munich Pact, his wife gone to New York for the stage and a divorce after an affair with his half-brother the Marxist newspaperman just back from Spain, on the Day of the Dead is done to death by Mexican Nazis.

“Just think of it, all those bloody corpses each holding a first-class ticket! Corpses hand-in-hand with bloody first-class ticket holders standing in line for miles waiting for transport!”


Prizzi’s Honor

A remake of The Maltese Falcon. “Louie Pallo was so suspicious that he checked the car for bombs every time he started it, but he woulda let some beautiful broad walk over, get in an’ sit on his face.”

The score by Alex North contributes Rossini (La Gazza ladra) and Herrmann (Vertigo or Marnie).


The Dead

Oh, Ireland, to have a story of some forty or fifty pages in paperback tell its tale and be done with it, and Mr. John Huston to film it, astonishingly rapid.

Let us grant the snows of Resnais’ L’Amour à mort for the filming, and Sinclair’s Under Milk Wood for the evening’s drollery, and John Ford for the Saturday dance like a night at the fort.

The point was rather lost on critics, as perennially the custom with Huston.