Directors like John Huston come into one’s universe by extension. By that I mean when you get hooked on the film’s of Humphrey Bogart as a youngster on late night TV you begin to notice things beyond the iconic leading man. Often it’s the character actors around him and in Bogie’s case there were plenty of stock players from the Warner Brother’s studio that he was long employed at. Then there are the credits that open a film and that final name that graces the screen as the story kicks in, Directed by ….. John Huston. This in turn led me to discover more classic films beyond those starring Bogie from this maverick director.
John Huston’s storied career reads like an adventure on it’s own. His career in movies began as an extra in the late twenties to a script doctor as early as 1930 and ended with his last directorial effort in 1987 with The Dead. He would pass away in August of that same year. Multi-talented, Huston, proved adept at writing and directing films for years before proving equally effective as an actor with a magnificent screen presence and a voice to match later in life as he went back and forth between on set duties.
And here we go with some tough decisions that may not match the selections you would have made. For those unfamiliar with Huston, I hope these picks might inspire you to see more of films in the years ahead.
A is for …. Asphalt. The Asphalt Jungle is another fine Noir effort from Huston starring Sterling Hayden heading a cast of thieves looking to make that final “big” score. Assembled here along with Hayden are James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, Jean Hagen, John McIntire, Louis Calhern and perhaps most famously, Marilyn Monroe. Another must see with one hell of an ending, Huston scored Oscar nominations for both his screenplay and direction.
B is for …. Bogart.
There is no way one can talk of either John Huston or Humphrey Bogart without mentioning the other. One of cinema’s great actor/director teams that was cut far too short with Bogie’s death at just 57 years of age. Prior to the icon’s death Huston directed his first feature, The Maltese Falcon with Bogie as Sam Spade followed by Across the Pacific, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The African Queen and finally Beat the Devil.
C is for …. Connery and Caine. In 1975 John Huston finally directed a project he had in his back pocket since the 1950’s, The Man Who Would Be King. One of his most memorable films from the later years of his directing career. Originally he had Gable and Bogart in mind for the film but when Bogie passed in 1957 the project fell apart. Sean Connery scored the Gable role and it’s interesting to note that Michael Caine (the former Maurice Micklewhite)who got the Bogie role claims he was a huge Bogie fan and took his stage name from the Bogart film, The Caine Mutiny released back in 1954.
D is for …. Dr. Erlich’s Magic Bullet. This 1940 release from WB was produced by Hal Wallis. At the time the studio was releasing a steady diet of fact based bios. According to Hal Wallis’ autobiography, Star Maker, he brought Huston in to do a rewrite of the first draft turned in by Heinz Herald. The end result was a solid vehicle for contract star, Edward G. Robinson, who would work with Huston the director before the end of the decade. Erlich’s directorial duties were handed to in house favorite William Dieterle.
E is for …. Evelyn Keyes. Actress Evelyn Keyes was married to Huston from 1946 to 1950. Despite their marriage, Keyes, never appeared in any of John’s film projects before, during or after their marriage. Miss Keyes turned up in a number of notable films. Most famously I suppose would be appearing in Gone With the Wind. She also starred in a number of solid Noir thrillers including Johnny O’Clock, The Killer That Stalked New York, The Prowler and 99 River Street.
F is for …. Falcon aka The Maltese Falcon aka The Black Bird aka The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of.
I’ll grant you that it would be hard to narrow Huston’s many classic films to one favorite but I will admit to The Falcon coming immediately to mind if cornered. The Maltese Falcon was Huston’s first directing assignment and it should be rather obvious to all that he hit a grand slam on his first time up to bat. The fact that he took a twice filmed project and injected new life into it only serves to strengthen his talent as both a scriptwriter and director. An amazing cast led by Bogie in a film that I never tire of and should be required viewing for one and all. I shouldn’t have to tell you the plot and If I do then all I can say is what the hell are you waiting for. Go watch it.
G is for …. Gandalf. Yes folks, long before Ian McKellan made the character of Gandalf from the Tolkien books his own, Huston, lent his authoritative voice to the character in 1977’s animated The Hobbit and the 1980 follow up, The Return of the King. Not a stretch to image John even playing the role in a live action film had that come to pass during his lifetime had he been healthy enough to undertake it.
H is for …. Heaven Knows Mr. Allison.
This 1957 film may have been the first John Huston film I saw growing up. Of course I didn’t know it at the time. I just knew the guy playing the marine stranded on an island in the Pacific with a Nun was the coolest guy in movies. That marine was none other than Robert Mitchum. The Nun was Deborah Kerr. I’ve loved this film since childhood and revisit it every couple of years. Huston not only directed but scored an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay.
I is for …. In This Our Life. Huston’s solid follow up to The Falcon was this WB feature that sees Bette Davis in a tailor made role as a society climbing temptress at odds with her sister, Olivia de Havilland. A great cast here including Charles Coburn, George Brent and Dennis Morgan. Some sources claim that the cast of The Maltese Falcon make a brief cameo in this film as a form of wishing John good luck on his second outing. Maybe I need to rewatch it as it’s been years but I never spotted them in the bar scene where they were supposedly to appear when I did see the film.
J is for …. Jezebel. This 1938 release was one of many that Huston either wrote himself or contributed to. In this Bette Davis classic for which she won an Academy Award, Huston is one of three credited writers on the screenplay. The other two being Clements Ripley and Abem Finkel. The film was directed by William Wyler and I pulled this blurb from the trivia section from the IMDB …. “To keep from falling further behind on schedule, writer John Huston was asked to direct the duel scene. It was his first time directing.”
K is for …. Key Largo.
This 1948 film reteamed Bogie and Huston for an outstanding variation on The Petrified Forest. It’s a tension filled tale of Eddie Robinson and his gang of hoods holding Bogie, Bacall and Lionel Barrymore hostages in a hotel at Key Largo. As the years go by Bogie seems to take on a mythical presence in this film and not only is it another fine film for the actor and director but it adds to the legend of Bogie and Bacall and for my money is the greatest gangster portrayal ever given by Robinson. It should also be said that Claire Trevor won a well deserved Oscar for playing Eddie’s one time beauty who has declined into alcoholism. On the record, Eddie is far better here than he ever was in Little Caesar.
L is for …. The Lawgiver.
Huston joined the world of The Planet of the Apes portraying the legendary Lawgiver that is referenced throughout the film series by the likes of Dr. Zaius and Cornelius on numerous occasions. Huston’s Lawgiver turned up in the fifth and final film of the original series,, The Battle For the Planet of the Apes released in 1973.
M is for …. Mr. North. Released in 1988, John’s son, Danny, directed this effort that was co-scripted by John himself. The aging John was also slated to appear in the film but with his emphysema leaving him too weak to appear, he reached out to Robert Mitchum to take over the part. Mitchum stepped in and the film was completed. If I recall it played the art house circuit before ending up on VHS tapes in the corner store. As for Danny Huston, he seems to have made a home playing villainous characters in front of the camera after leaving his directing duties in the past.
(I can’t help myself….. M is also for The Misfits. My favorite Marilyn Monroe film and the final film for both her and Clark Gable. If you haven’s seen it already drop everything you’re doing this minute and go watch it.)
N is for …. Noah X2.
On two separate occasions, John Huston, portrayed characters named Noah. He first appeared as the biblical Noah in the big budgeted 1966 epic that he also directed, The Bible. That film was a star studded affair and I’ll leave it up to you as to where you believe it may rank in his catalog of titles. His second go around was as the all powerful Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown opposite Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. Not to be missed I have no problem if someone chooses this film as the best picture made during that decade.
O is for …. Otto Preminger. While Huston had made a number of cameos in his directorial efforts he had never actually taken an acting role or credit on film. Surprisingly he didn’t take one in a film of his own but in one from fellow director, Otto Preminger. The film, The Cardinal, scored Huston a supporting actor Oscar nomination and opened up a whole new career for him. He had that perfect voice for the movies and would subsequently appear in over 30 acting roles divided between movies and television projects.
P is for …. Prizzi’s Honor.
Proving he could still direct a hit picture well into his final years, Huston, cast Jack Nicholson opposite Kathleen Turner in this dark comedy of mob life and a pair of hired killers falling in love. Most notably, John, cast his daughter Anjelica Huston in the secondary lead for which she would win an Oscar for best supporting actress. The film also landed John a Best Director nomination, his 5th and final nod.
Q is for …. The Queen.
Huston directed Bogie to an Oscar as Charlie Allnutt in 1951’s The African Queen. An enormously popular film that remains so to this day thanks to the unlikely casting of Bogie and Katharine Hepburn falling in love while riding “The Queen” down an African river intent on destroying a German warship during WW1. This one’s a winner on all counts. It’s an adventure, it’s comical, it’s romantic and stars two icons of movie history. Making the movie on location alone is the stuff of legend. I think my favorite on set story is that the entire cast and crew were ill at some point during the shoot. All those except for Bogie and Huston who refused to drink anything other than Scotch Whiskey. According to Bogie, “All I ate was baked beans, canned asparagus and Scotch whiskey. Whenever a fly bit Huston or me, it dropped dead.”
R is for …. The Red Badge of Courage.
This 1951 film adapted from the Stephen Crane novel is a fine film starring Audie Murphy released in 1951. But it’s also a case of “What If?” At just 69 minutes in length, the film was supposedly cut down from two hours leaving film buffs and historians to wonder just what Huston had put together. Is this a lost classic? I’d like to think so. With a little luck, maybe an original print will surface and allow us to see if indeed the film is as good as Huston claimed it to be before the studio pulled out the scissors.
S is for …. San Pietro. During Huston’s war time service, he along with many of Hollywood’s leading directors went overseas to capture battles and front line footage. In Huston’s case he filmed The Battle of San Pietro. Apparently the war department saw the film as an antiwar film and ordered cuts. John’s reply is a classic. “If I ever made a picture that was pro-war, I hope someone would take me out and shoot me.” For more on those directors who went to war, be sure to read Five Came Back or see the documentary series based on the book that hit cable.
T is for …. Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Released in 1948, this is another film that instantly comes to mind if I’m trying to narrow the field to one favorite of either Huston or Bogart. Another location shoot in Mexico, the film scored John and Dad, Walter, Academy Awards. Bogie’s performance may be his all time best and he’s matched by costar Tim Holt as a pair panning for gold with an old prospector. And don’t forget Alfonso Bedoya.“Badges? We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges. I don’t have to show you any stinking badges.” The film was also the first one that John as director stepped into for a cameo as the man in the white suit that Bogie keeps putting the bite on for a handout. If you’re into rating films then just mark this one a 10 out of 10.
U is for …. The Unforgiven.
I’ve always enjoyed this western made in 1960 that gave Huston a strong cast to work with. Burt Lancaster during the height of his fame takes the lead opposite Audrey Hepburn in this frontier tale of a family caught up in racial tensions between whites and the Kiowa tribe. Lillian Gish, Doug McClure and a notable performance from Audie Murphy in what proved to be the only western of Miss Hepburn’s career.
V is for …. Victory. Michael Caine returned to the world of John Huston for the second time in this Rocky inspired story of a soccer team made up of POW’s against their German captors during WW2. Rocky inspired? That’s what you get when Sylvester Stallone appears in a sports themed film. Perhaps they can somehow win the game and escape from their captors? I seem to recall this film was picked on by critics of the era and if memory serves it wasn’t a smooth shoot which may have had something to do with a certain star’s ego at the time. Don’t take my word for it.
W is for …. Walter Huston.
John’s father Walter Huston was a Canadian born actor who found fame in the movies at the dawn of the “talkies”. He starred in a number of successful films early on including 1929’s The Virginian and 1931’s The Criminal Code and would receive an Oscar nomination for his role in 1936’s Dodsworth. He was memorable as James Cagney’s father in Yankee Doodle Dandy and would score a well deserved Oscar under son John’s direction in The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Walter also made small cameos for John in The Maltese Falcon and In This Our Life. Walter passed away in 1950 at age 67 leaving cinema wanting more.
X is for …. ? Again, damned if I know. Feel free with some suggestions.
Y is for …. Young Giants. Totally unknown to me is this 1983 film that Huston appeared in as a Priest who is apparently looking to save an orphanage from foreclosure. Perhaps he should have called upon Jake and Elwood for assistance. Let me know if you’ve seen this one and what your thoughts are on the film. Thanks.
Z is for …. Zanuck. Huston worked with the legendary producer Darryl F. Zanuck on a pair of late 1950’s films. First up, The Barbarian and the Geisha, starring a totally miscast John Wayne. Pains me to say that but a pairing of Huston and the Duke should have been a triumphant action picture instead of a boring drama. Secondly Zanuck produced Huston’s The Roots of Heaven starring Trevor Howard and Errol Flynn. Supposedly as a vehicle for his then girlfriend Juliette Greco. While neither film proved a hit at the box office, film buffs should tune in simply because of the talent involved.
In closing do yourself a favor and read up on this one of a kind director who contributed numerous classics to the world of movies though his writing, acting and most notably, his directing.
John Huston (1906-1987)