Dressed like a baby Uncle Sam in stars and stripes, and slightly hunched over, the grimacing child in the photo on the back of the book's jacket has to be the oldest-looking 3-year-old in creation. With circles under his eyes and a body prone to maladies, film director John Huston seemed to have been born an antique.

He was on stage at 3 and soon was traveling and hanging out with theater people and various alcoholic relatives. At 12 he fell under the influence of a friend, "a young Edison gone rotten," building nitroglycerin bombs and stealing the materials necessary to complete the projects. Later, quite naturally, he grew into the craggy old sea dog whose reputation for mischief and cruelty -- unfounded, he says -- is legendary among film buffs. By the time "Chinatown" was released in 1974, his bravura performance as Noah Cross seemed to confirm the myth: shoveling expertly prepared fish and chilled white wine down his gullet one minute and caressing his granddaughter, who was also his daughter, the next, Noah was hedonism and ruthlessness whipped up to an apocalyptic frenzy.

For someone whose personal style is rabidly discussed and admired as part of Hollywood folklore, his professional work is not so highly regarded. Working in several genres, including detective, farce, western, melodrama, war and musical (the upcoming "Annie"), Houston is essentially an adapter, exerting dramatic control, taste and intelligence to best serve the material instead of transforming the project to a preordained style. (The eclecticism of his professional life extends to his private life, with marriages to "a schoolgirl, a gentlewomen, a motion-picture actress, a ballerina and a crocodile." The last, whom he married in 1972 and who must still cause him great pain, goes unnamed.)

Although various themes run consistently through his work -- the obsessed individual on a quest for treasure or money, who cannot deal with wealth once he acquires it; a risk-taker who distrusts women and appreciates irony -- some critics do not find a personal signature in it, and still classify him in less-than-meets-the-eye terms. His strongest and most eloquent defense, of course, is his filmography: "The Maltese Falcon," "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "The Asphalt Jungle," "The African Queen," "Moulin Rouge," "The Misfits," "The Man Who Would Be King," "Wise Blood" and many other first-rate pictures.

"I've refrained from making any dark disclosures regarding my secret life," he writes in ths autobiography. "My misdeeds are not sufficiently evil to justify their being but on display." Fair enough. But certainly the director deserves a far more focused and edifying, if not livelier, memoir -- a book that does justice to his great work as an actor, writer and director. The early sections are often engaging and bristling with insight as Huston describes his relatives: actor-father Walter Huston, newspaper report-mother Rhea Gore and classical-singer-aunt Margaret Huston. However, once he approaches his professional work, the writing becomes elliptical and threatens to splinter into a dozen different directions.

Huston skims along the top of his career, touching down gingerly on most of his films, and occasionally stops to get his feet wet: a predictable comment on Marilyn Monroe ("Something about Marilyn elicited my protectiveness."); a poignant remembrance of an ailing Carson McCullers visiting Huston in Ireland after the filming of her "Reflections in a golden Eye"; and a witty description of Tennessee Williams on location with "The Night of the Iguana" giving artificial respiration to his friend after the young man had panicked a bit while swimming. But little is explored in depth. Of Bette Davis, whom he directed in "In This Our Life," he writes that she has a "demon within her which threatens to break out and eat everybody, beginning with their ears." No examples, artistic or personal, are given.

The tone changes with a discussion of the filmng of "Freud." My reputation for cruelty appears to stem directly from this one picture," Huston says. He disputes this reputation, then dives into a full-scale account of the production right from the screenwriting sessions with Jean-Paul Sartre (who wanted Monroe as the female lead) to celebrated fights with Montgomery Clift, whose turbulent behavior drove the director up a wall, to the final cutting and opening of the picture. He gets his teeth into the story and here, more than anywhere, does Huston live up to his title.

Much of the memoir is waggishly and intransigently sidetracked with war stories ("Naples was like a whore suffering from the beating of a brute"), a tirade against HUAC, accounts of horse and camel racing and gambling and endless digressions on the animals he has known and loved -- a hobby that helped drive his third wife, actress Evelyn Keyes, to the divorce court. More than an "open book," it is, as far as his work is concerned, willful muteness sandwiched by two slices of mischief. It's amusing stuff, all right, and fitting in a sense. What else can you expect from a man who, in addition to directing "The Bible," played Noal, as well as the voice of God?