Here is a list of some of the films John Huston has directed which I have screened:
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948)
Key Largo (1948)
The African Queen (1951)
Moby Dick (1956)
The Misfits (1961)
The Bible: In the Beginning (1966)
Casino Royale (1967)
The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
Under the Volcano (1984)
Prizzi’s Honor (1985)
The Dead (1987)
This is, to put it mildly, a strange list.
I did not recall prior to preparing this post that Casino Royale was a John Huston film, but the one that really jumps out at me is Victory!, a combination of the sports and prison camp genres with Sylvester Stallone as an American POW who joins forces with Michael Caine and Pele to play an exhibition match against the Nazis. The film culminates with an opportunity to escape at half time that the players eschew because…yep, you guessed it…they want to win the game more than they want freedom.
Granted, anyone can have one dog among forty-seven credits, and by that time Huston was (if I calculate correctly) seventy-five, so he may just have been working to work.
The anthology Interviews With Film Directors contains an interview with Huston conducted by Gideon Bachman for Film Quarterly. Here, as with a few of the other entries in the anthology, I sense an attempt to try to filter a director’s work through the lens of auteur theory whether or not the director’s work lends itself to it. Consider this exchange:
What about original material, where you are not adapting a play or a book? Are there any ideas of yours, basic ideas, which you try to express in your work? Do you feel that there is a continuity in your work in terms of a consistent ideology? In short, do you feel you are trying to say something coherent to mankind? (257)
There probably is. I am not consciously aware of anything. But even the choice of material indicates a preference, a turn of mind. You could draw a portrait of a mind through that mind’s preferences. (257-8)
Bachman’s question and Huston’s response uses the rhetoric often heard in English studies to champion a “Great Books” approach; it is a rationale that was prevalent in literature prior to the rise of the New Criticism, which shifted the focus in literary studies from the author to the text.
When Bachman articulates the portrait of Huston’s mind from his films, what he articulates is a unifying theme, not a style. Thus we get not so much a portrait of Huston’s mind, but a picture of what interests that mind:
I see that in your films there is always a man pitched against odds, an individual who seeks to retain a sense of his own individuality in the face of a culture that surrounds and tends to submerge him. I would call the style of your films the style of the frontier, or what the frontier has come to symbolize in American culture: a sense of rebellion against being put into a system, into a form of life and into a mode of thinking rigidly decided by others. (258)
Aside from the fact that this is a description of a theme rather than a style, Bachman’s analysis is sufficiently broad as to not really be helpful in bringing into focus what is distinctive about Huston’s body of work. The individual trying to stand out from and avoid assimilation into the culture is a rather universal theme dating back to Aristotle; it is a subset of the three basic conflicts in narrative art: man vs. man (including society), man vs. himself, man vs. nature.
That is not to say that the thematic interests don’t tie together disparate films in Huston’s oeuvre. It may explain, for instance, how The Bible: In the Beginning and The Treasure of Sierra Madre and Moby Dick focus on the iconoclasts. It may contribute to the reason that Victory! doesn’t work; both the prisoner-of-war and sports genres rely heavily on themes of camaraderie and sublimating one’s self to a great whole (and a greater good).
It is Abraham’s and Noah’s story that dominate The Bible: In the Beginning, and it is probably not a coincidence that each man embodies an archetype that would appeal to a mind drawn to individuals pitched against all odds and trying to retain a sense of individuality in the face of a culture in which he could easily become submerged. In The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Dobbs’s inability to balance individualistic concerns with the needs of communal peace leads to his self-destruction. By contrast, Hatch (Sylvester Stallone) sublimates his desire for escape to the wishes of the team in Victory!, and is karmicly rewarded with both.
The dark side, then of iconoclasm, is a selfishness that threatens the relationship of the individual to the community that provides the necessary infrastructure for the rugged individualist to prosper. Certainly Noah, Abraham, Ahab, and Hazel Motes (in Wise Blood) present a sort of Romantic idealization of individualism, avoiding charges of selfishness by grounding their rejection of the conventional society in a call for devotion or duty to a higher cause or rejection of conformity as a kind of death.
A find that dichotomy…well, not false, but a bit too convenient. Perhaps that is why Huston’s final film, of James Joyce’s short story “The Dead” is the most mature exploration of this theme. Gabriel Conroy has a level of self-awareness that many of Huston’s other iconoclasts lack. Over a Christmas dinner and subsequent hotel conversation with his wife, Gabriel has an epiphany of his own–of all human beings’–core of selfishness. Joyce denies Gabriel the easy retreat to self-righteous antagonism, which makes the story and the film more mature than many of Huston’s valentines towards cultural rebels. That there is no real resolution of the inner conflict, no comfortable middle way found or offered between conformity and isolation gives the film a sadness that is only intensified by the knowledge that Huston made it in the throws of a final illness that had him facing his own mortality.
Huston said of directing: “[...] I try to direct as little as possible. The more one directs, the more there is a tendency to monotony. If one is telling each person what to do, one ends up with a host of little replicas of oneself” (260). Maybe then the portrait of the mind of the director is found in his practice rather than his subject material. Ironically, Huston seems to be drawn to material about singular individuals but in bringing it to the screen, he doesn’t impose his will on the project. “Working with George Scott, I seldom even gave a clue of direction [....] His approach to the scene would be so real and true that I couldn’t add anything, except those mechanical camera directions” (267).
Perhaps Huston was what we today call “an actor’s director.” When one surveys his list of films, one thinks less of a signature visual style than a collage of iconic actors: Bogart in Sierra Madre, Gregory Peck as Ahab, Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor. Even Victory! gains what little gravitas it does not from its invocation of the Great War nor the up an coming Stallone but from the larger than life presence of Max Von Sydow as the German general who suggests the match. The celebrity is dependent upon the larger canvas on which his charisma holds sway. The icon is one whose presences creates not just a buzz but a pull, and Huston acts more as a surrogate observer than a promoter. In the Bachman interview he describes working with animals in the Noah scenes, and it seems clear that part of what he learned was to let go, to not try to replicate the picture inside his head but to facilitate or mid-wife the creative process as it was happening.
In the Western tradition, we tend to denigrate these sorts of directors, favoring the sort of technician like Hitchcock who controls every detail rather than one like Huston who stakes out the boundaries of possibilities and manages the logistics. Perhaps he wasn’t ever pulling or grating against the studio system enough to be a singular auteur, or perhaps he just found that he didn’t need to be to promote his own vision.