Great Directors Made Little #2

Uncle Sam’s little Nephew John.

John Huston clearly picked up some theatrical mannerisms from his celebrated dad, the soft-show shuffle man turned classical actor Walter Huston (one of my favourite performers EVER).

Son John is a fascinating bastard. There are plenty of filmmakers who just seem mean, and some who seem mean because they sincerely believed it’s the only way to make pictures (“It would be nice to be nice,”  mused William Wyler after a hard day’s sadism), but Huston interests me because he put considerable ingenuity and thought into his evil. Elaborate and vicious practical jokes, savage and unrelenting bullying, devious and crafty lying and deceit. And yet he was not an insensitive man, nor a particularly hot-tempered one. And his autobiography, mischievously called An Open Book, reveals (to the extent to which it does reveal anything) a man who could feel deeply, and not only for himself. You feel that compassion in his movies about losers and no-hopers, often his best films.

Yet when a friend asked him why he persistently targeted people on the set who were a bit emotionally vulnerable, he replied with a twinkle, “Their heads are on the block, kid, their heads are on the block!” His charm is absolutely that of the Devil himself.


As far as the practical jokes go, they’re too entertaining to leave unquoted. Upon learning that his screenwriter on MOBY DICK, Ray Bradbury, was deathly afraid of fast transport, flying, etc, Huston was too amused by the irony of a science fiction writer with a horror of flight not to want to exploit this for evil comedy value. Huston was always chauffeur-driven, being a bad driver who had killed a woman on one occasion, and put actress Zita Johann (THE MUMMY) through the windshield of his car on another. Driving along with Bradbury in the backseat, he leaned forward and asked the driver to slow down (even though they were traveling at a perfectly average speed). “Yes, slow down,” urged Bradbury, suddenly nervous. They went back to their conversation, and a few minutes later, Huston interrupted by crying, “Slow down, man, are you trying to kill us?” Bradbury, sweating profusely (is sweat the only thing one can do profusely?) echoed his demand, despite the driver being well under the speed limit. This continued for some time, until they were fairly crawling along the curb, and almost being outpaced by it, with Bradbury, close to tears, still urging the baffled chauffeur to greater heights of deceleration. Mean, but creative, you see.

34 Responses to “Great Directors Made Little #2”

  1. I’d seen this photo before. There’s such knowingness in that face he could almost pass for a midget. Something of the”little man” in this fella.

  2. That pint-sized little snot most certainly is John Huston. Huston in his life affected a macho adventurer pose that he fearlessly crtiqued and subverted in his films yet always allowing it to retain a nobility, that’s there in his adaptation of ”The Man Who Would Be King”. It’s also there in his amazing documentary ”Let There Be Light” which dealt with Post-Traumatic Stress among veterans. Even if the film was optimistic in the efforts of the clinic to help them, the doc was suppressed by the military who didn’t want the public to know, especially since it was a war that was seen as “just” and victorious.

    I must say that I feel that he became a truly great film-maker only in his later years. My favourite of the early films is ”The Asphalt Jungle” and I like ”Beat the Devil” best of his Bogart movies. His real crowning achievements are his literary adaptations, especially his very last film.

    One absolutely good thing he did do, when he initially planned to make the Kipling film in the 50s with Clark Gable and Bogart, he travelled to India(he’d eventually shoot in largely in Morocco) and he met Satyajit Ray who was in the midst of shooting ”Pather Panchali” when he predictably ran into financial troubles. Huston saw the footage and was impressed enough to call the Museum of Modern Art to provide some funding for the film. A small helping hand to the cause of independent films the world over.

  3. Beat the Devil and Prizzi’s Honor are the key works of his jokester side. And it’s this side that undoubtedly spurred Welles casting him in The Other Side of The Wind — which I sincerely hope we’ll all be able to see one day.

    As this will surely become a general discussion of Huston, I’d like to put in a good word for some Huston maudits: A Walk With Love and Death, The Kremlin Letter, Under the Volcano and Phobia. (Yes, Phobia. It’s really quite interesting.)

  4. Huston’s literary adaptations strike me as variable — Wise Blood is 99% genius, Reflections in a Golden Eye doesn’t seem to work at all, and Moby Dick is very strong in places by disabled by miscasting. But The Dead was an amazing way for him to go out.

    I second your enthusiasm for Beat the Devil, although William Wyler remarked on seeing it, “It’s the kind of film that, when you make it, you ought to make another film as soon as possible.” I guess “ahead of its time” is the only expression.

    A lot of the time it seems to me that the bad Hustons aren’t as bad as people say (The Kremlin Letter builds to a fine pitch of despairing nastiness; Sinful Davey at least starts spry) and the “great” ones maybe aren’t so great as is assumed. But I do find them very enjoyable.

  5. I remember Gregory Peck saying that he had the impression that if his death were required to get a particular shot in Moby Dick, that would trouble his director not one bit. Huston’s an interesting one, all right, also where love was concerned. He stomped on ladies’ hearts like daffodils in a flower bed, but seems to have been done the same by that English aristo he was so in love with.

    Anyway I love his films, though he’s a bit out of fashion at the moment.

  6. Huston in his lifetime always split people into camps. Initially he was seen by the likes of James Agee as the best American film-maker of his generation but in the 50s, the budding auteurists saw him as being serious and chasing after big themes and so uncool. John Ford also shared the opinion, in an interview with Bertrand Tavernier, when asked for his opinion on American cinema, he cited McCarey and Walsh among his favourites and Fuller among younger film-makers, but said of Huston, “I think he’s a faker.”

    But on the whole he was amazingly influential. The fevered Nathanael West absurdist tone of ”Beat the Devil” was ripped off by the Coens for ”The Big Lebowski”. ”The Asphalt Jungle” was the most influential crime film of the 50s, inspiring ”Rififi”, ”The Killing”, Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime films(he once said there was a certain number of crime genre variations and all of them can be found in ”The Asphalt Jungle”) and Andrezj Wajda’s ”Ashes and Diamonds”. It’s still one of the greatest of the films noir and it was Sterling Hayden’s breakthrough.

    I like ”Reflections in a Golden Eye” a great deal. The cast is superb and it’s true to the McCullers story although I can’t for the life of me understand why he used those golden tints.

  7. I don’t remember much caring for RIAGE when I saw it; but the tints didn’t make much of an impression, unlike South Pacific where they filled me with murderous rage. And I am on record disliking Beat the Devil. But The Asphalt Jungle and The Maltese Falcon are two I could watch over and over. To me Huston is also a superb adventure director, as in Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Man Who Would Be King. The opening of Moulin Rouge is incredible and the color in that one is stupendously beautiful. I caught up with The Kremlin Letter during the Shadows of Russia and liked it, although Patrick O’Neal is an odd choice for a sexy leading man, despite his seductive voice.

    One that I’m curious about, a famous Huston disaster: A Walk With Love and Death. Anyone seen that one? David?

  8. A Walk with Love and Death is TERRIFIC. Fascinating to see it now and wonder what the critics were reacting against in Angelica Huston’s perf — she’s clearly very good and completely natural. The guy is much weaker, but he doesn’t sink it.

    John Simon said “A face like a gnu and a body of no discernible shape.” Not hard to see where that rat is coming from, but the critiques of her performance seem willfully blind. And she’s in fact transcendentally beautiful..

    Apparently Huston took a shine to little Mervyn Hayes and kept him around for ages after he was really wrapped. Hayes is a TV comedy icon in the UK but unknown elsewhere, though he plays the young Frankenstein in Curse of…

  9. I think Reflections in a Golden Eye is one of his best. Especially in the correct gold-tinted version. McCuller’s novella (which is about her husband) is truly bizarre. And Huston looks at everything straight on without blinking.

    No less an eminence than Jean-Pierre Melville is crazy about The Kremlin Letter. How can a movie featuring George Sanders in drag, and Barbara Parkins opening a safe with her feet possibly be less than a masterpiece?

  10. A Walk With Love And Death, trailer:

  11. David C., I must be blind because I always thought Anjelica was dazzling too. Her mother was even lovelier though. AH tells a story about overhearing a conversation between her father and mother, one of them saying it was a shame that Anjie wasn’t going to be pretty. She said it had a terrible impact on her, as one might expect.

    I also recall that AH spoke up against the roasting Sofia Coppola got for Godfather III, rapping critics for the incredibly personal nature of the comments about Sofia’s looks. And I think Huston even said she was influenced in part by how she got treated after her first movie.

    John Simon … where did he go wrong? I don’t understand critics, in print or on the Net, who seemingly write with full intention to wound as much as possible. It makes me think more about the writer’s psychology than the actress’s looks, and isn’t an approach I value, to say the least.

  12. John Simon was a pretty nasty critic, at the AIRC you have a collection of some of his writings and you never get the feeling that he had any love or feeling for cinema. That it was his job and he was writing about it. Peter Bogdanovich was especially harsh. I find him vastly inferior to say, Bosley Crowther.

    AWWL&D is one Huston film I’ve been wanting to see. Anjelica Huston is indeed beautiful, even today, one reason why I liked The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the film that got me into Wes Anderson, was because of how striking she was in the film. And I’m pleased she stood up for Sofia, who isn’t all that bad, just inexperienced. It’s still better than most performances in movies today. But then dynasties always attrack bad press be it the Hustons or the Coppolas.

  13. RUSHMORE was the first Wes Anderson film I’d seen. To be honest, I’m not big into comedies per se but I love the humor in his films. Anjelica is wonderful in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, the way she plays off Gene Hackman’s Royal is priceless. Anyone notice a recurring element in his first three films? In BOTTLE ROCKET Luke Wilson’s character falls in love with a Latina, in RUSHMORE Max ends up with Margaret Yang, and in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS Anjelica’s Etheline marries Danny Glover’s character.

  14. FFC’s idea of casting an amateur in that context was pretty misguided, and exposing his daughter to that criticism looks like a mistake too, which doesn’t let anybody off the hook for being gratuitously mean about her. In a way her weakness as a performer took the heat off the film’s other failings, so it may have helped them scrape by.

    There’s a valid comparison between the two actors because Huston is similarly introverted in AWWL&D, but since it’s a leading part she kind of creates the context in which that can work. Sofia, surrounded by blowhards like Pacino and quiet intense types like Garcia can’t hope to carve out her own piece of the movie.

  15. Initially Winona Ryder was to do the role, she backed away(but made it up again when they made Bram Stoker’s Dracula). So Coppola turned to Sofia.

    Wes Anderson’s films really embrace multi-culturalism on several levels.

  16. You never know with Winona — she might have been as disastrous as Sofia turned out to be, or she might have made it her own.

    Wes Anderson seems to be the new name my students mention to describe what they’re after. It’s certainly a clear set of stylistic parameters!

  17. Indeed. Plus he’s Too Cool For School!

  18. Nico, singing Jackson Browne’s lyrics (his guitar playing too I believe). Jackson performed behind her for a time when she was doing the coffee house circuit in NYC, he was still pretty green, she was anything but. I remember the thrill I got seeing/hearing this for the first time on the screen, sheer magic.

  19. Jackson Browne was 15 year’s old. Nico was his first girlfriend.

    Here’s Terry Melcher’s version of that song, with backup by Mom —

  20. Christopher Says:

    2 faves ,often overlooked..

  21. Yes, I like both of those. Mitchum is terrifically sensitive in Mr. A.

    That pipsqueak who played Lautrec in Baz Luhrmann’s glittery abortion version of Moulin Rouge was snooty about Jose Ferrer’s perf, makes me want to slap him. “He was so stiff!” Gee, maybe that was the CHARACTER he was playing…

    Robert Mitchum said something similar in defense of his own work when he was sometimes accused of being inexpressive or half-asleep: maybe that’s the character.

  22. John Huston was all praises for Mitchum. He noted that for one scene he crawled through a bush unprotected and came out covered with nettles. Mitchum was the unpretentious macho cool that Huston aspired to.

    With Wes Anderson you can tell right from ”Bottle Rocket” that every shot, every cut was intentional, planned and just right. And he has an incredibly distinctive visual style, bright storybook colours, toybox compositions, even his music sensibility is distinct to the point that every song he uses feels like it was written just for him and his film, Scorsese did that before him but he did it in another way. Wes Anderson is also unusual in that he feels old-fashioned, his sensibility I feel is closer to that of Preston Struges, Lubitsch, George Cukor, Leo McCarey and Tashlin rather than the hallowed Scorsese-Coppola generation.

  23. Christopher Says:

    I really like Deborah Kerr, in “Allison”.Shes very appealing in spite of waredrobe..She and Mitchum make a good couple,sort of an African Queen on land…Ferrer’s dialog really crackles in Moulin Rogue and the scenes with the 2 women in his life are terrific…Huston got great performances out of his actresses..

  24. It’s worrying to hear that “Wes Anderson” is what the kids are after. “We have a great idea for a soundtrack and don’t want to have to think too much about where to put the camera.” I mean there’s Character Studies, and then there’s just hiring interesting actors and dressing them funny. Recast Anderson’s films with unknowns and you have NOTHING.

  25. I’m not sure… I think the funny ones would still be funny if the actors were GOOD. And his shots are beautiful, even if he always uses the same lens and composes flat.

    Readng between the lines, I suspect Huston probably made Mitchum crawl through shrubbery until he was bloody just to see what would happen. It’s in keeping with his behaviour as reported elsewhere. Mitchum won his respect by uncomplainingly doing it. Acting was so lacking in manly appeal for Mitchum that anything which added physical hardship to the job was probably welcome. More dignified that way.

  26. Would people rather have kids be Quentin Tarantino? Ideally of course the thing to do is “To thine own self be true!” that’s what Wes Anderson or Jim Jarmusch(who nobody seems to want to be!) or Abel Ferrara or Martin Scorsese and even Quentin Tarantino do, but Wes Anderson is an encouraging model especially for English film-makers since today’s British cinema is overflowing with portentous over-seriousness. Anderson’s light sensibility should be a welcome influence in my view.

  27. Most students in my experience want to make light films, or else allusive, artistic ones. I don’t know where the solemnity comes from. I guess student filmmakers are like children and young professional ones are like moody teenagers.

    Jarmusch isn’t a bad role model at all, although in his weaker stuff he doesn’t seem to be putting in enough effort (most episodes of Coffee and Cigarettes feel like he simply gave his actors the floor and left the room while they droned on). But maybe that’s the price we pay for the good stuff, which appears effortless in a more positive sense.

  28. Rather fond of this one:

  29. Well, those guys are well equipped to make a scene work with no help from ANYONE! Which is less true when it comes to the White Stripes.

  30. I adored Jarmusch when I was in film school (the films we watched repeatedly: Stranger than Paradise, Mean Streets – a truncated version taped off TV – Raging Bull, L’Argent) but lost patience around the time of Coffee and Cigarettes. His laconic cool looks more and more like what somebody upthread accuses Wes Anderson of being – just casting pretty people and watching them, y’know, DO stuff.

    I must be alone in my dislike of Wise Blood, but I think it’s a nasty caricature of Flannery O’Connor, and Huston’s greatest weakness, his lack of compassion for his characters, lies wholly exposed here. It’s a beautifully cast film, though, and I can’t imagine anybody, anywhere, could better Brad Dourif’s Hazel Motes. I prefer Fat City, from late-period Huston.

  31. Fat City seems to me to be FULL of compassion, while clear-eyed about the rather hopeless nature of the lives it films. Huston apparently tried to change the ending of Wise Blood, but was talked out of it. “Alright, it’s a happy ending,” he sighed, “God wins.”

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