He was a divinely ugly man -- forlorn, rangy and disheveled as a neglected stalk of corn. He had the face of a galoot, part hayseed, part cowboy, with mismatched features, a busted-up nose and a leering, snaggletoothed grin. It was a face that suited him, more of a mug, really, and not one that had been well taken care of. Instead it was lived-in, weathered, beaten about by drink and long nights and exposure to the elements -- the face of a classic American rogue.
In his famous 1950 essay on Huston for Life magazine, James Agee tagged him "the undirectable director," and that, then and now, seems nearly perfect. But with the benefit of some 37 years and 30 more films (he made a total of 40), we might add "unclassifiable" and "unpredictable" to the list of modifiers.
John Huston, who died yesterday at 81, had the affect, if not the substance, of a dilettante. He was a teller of great American tales. And his own life story was something of an American tall tale itself. He was born John Marcellus Huston on Aug. 5, 1906, in the tiny town of Nevada, Mo., which his grandfather, a professional gambler, had won in a poker game. He looked, and behaved, like the scoundrel son of a tycoon, though his family, a colorful bunch of world travelers, gamblers and entertainers, never had money. With a different turn of luck, one suspects, he might have become any number of things: a soldier (he fought with the Mexican cavalry), a reporter (he worked for the New York Graphic), a painter (he studied in Paris) or a prizefighter (he was, at one time, the amateur lightweight champion of California with a record of 23-2).
"John was well into his twenties," Agee wrote, "before anyone could imagine he would ever amount to more than an awfully nice guy to get drunk with." He wrote his first script, so the legend goes, to prove to a girl that he was something "more than a likable bum." And he was forced to move from screenwriting to directing because he was sick of what the Hollywood professionals were doing to his scripts.
His first picture was an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon," the title of which, he reported in his 1980 autobiography "An Open Book," very nearly became "The Gent From Frisco." Few filmmakers have made the kind of immediate impression with their first efforts that Huston did with his. The movie, which featured Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet and Mary Astor, is hard and lean and beef-jerky tough. It's an example of a director working in close to his subject, working sparely and empathically. "The Maltese Falcon," released in 1941, has a nasty, wasplike sting to it, and it epitomizes not only a certain kind of American hard-boiled writing but a type of clean, pointed, unfussy American filmmaking as well.
In a recent interview, Huston said, "I like it when an audience forgets there's a screen, forgets it's a story, and just beholds." That's as good a description as you could come up with of what John Huston did at his best. What you pay attention to in a movie like "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" or "The Man Who Would Be King" is the story, not the storyteller. Huston was a perfect interpreter of the work of other artists. His adaptations of Crane and Kipling and O'Connor were appreciations -- the work of an intelligent and gifted critic and fan. Certainly, not all of his films were adaptations, but perhaps his greatest talent was that he could turn himself over completely to the demands of his material; when working from a novel or a short story or an original script he adapted himself to meet its needs, rather than adapting it to suit his.
The range of his career is mighty. It covers ground from Carson McCullers and the Bible to Herman Melville and Malcolm Lowry. He is perhaps best known for the three films he made with Humphrey Bogart -- "The Maltese Falcon," "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" and "The African Queen." On the strength of these three alone he would have to be considered for any pantheon of great American directors. But if we add to them "The Asphalt Jungle," "The Red Badge of Courage," "Moby Dick," "The Misfits," "Reflections in a Golden Eye," "Key Largo," "Fat City" and the three documentaries he made, "Report From the Aleutians," "The Battle of San Pietro" and "Let There Be Light" (to prepare only a partial list), then admission is guaranteed.
But filmmaking was only one of the things he did. He seemed equally at home with jockeys, street toughs and ballerinas, and if pictures can be trusted, as comfortable in a geisha house as on the back of an elephant. His favorite authors were Joyce, Hemingway (whom Agee considered his closest literary equivalent) and O'Neill, though he was a passionate reader of tip sheets and racing forms. He was a man of grand enthusiasms, and part of the expansiveness we feel in his films comes from the sense of a larger life, the life outside the movies that he brought to his material. Huston never settled on one style or subject. There is no such thing as a John Huston film in the sense that there is an Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks film. If there were, he might have been more dearly prized and his name evoked with greater reverence. But Huston was too enthusiastically curious to be restricted to one style, to one voice. It's hard, therefore, to talk about him in terms of theme. In his films as in his life he liked a particular kind of person. And for this reason he was drawn to actors like Bogart and Ava Gardner and Sean Connery and Robert Mitchum and his father, Walter Huston -- professional men, and women, who had the look of experience about them.
Unlike some directors he loved actors and was something of one himself (though Bogart contended he was, quite simply, "lousy"). His best-known performance was in "Chinatown" as the sinister patriarch Noah Cross (perhaps a cunning reference to his role as Noah in "The Bible"). And maybe as the son of an actor, he was better able to draw out the best in other actors. And maybe it was the actor and the son of an actor in him that inspired him to draw Katharine Hepburn aside during the making of "The African Queen" and suggest that she play her priggish character as Eleanor Roosevelt, perhaps the single most famous piece of advice ever to pass from a director to his star.
A great deal of lore has grown up around the man. Most of it is fantastic, in both senses of the word, and very probably bunk. Once in a bull ring in Madrid, he found himself in a position where it seemed inevitable that a bull would tear open his gut, but it didn't, Huston claimed, "because he knew how I felt about him ... that I was a friend of his."
Had the bull lifted its head, we wouldn't have had "Prizzi's Honor" or "Wise Blood" or "Beat the Devil." (We wouldn't have had "Annie" or "The Mackintosh Man" or "Moulin Rouge" either.) But it didn't, and we can be grateful for that.
Instead Huston, struggling with emphysema, worked for as long as he was able to, even though at the end he had to be tethered to an oxygen tank to breathe. His last film, which he completed just recently, is taken from a story by Joyce titled, ironically enough, "The Dead." There is a mordant, perverse humor in that, which, I'm sure, was not lost on the old man. He was fond of such jokes. At the end of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" the characters played by Walter Huston and Tim Holt, who have lost their gold and are left with nothing, sit and laugh at themselves and their fate. It's one of the great scenes in American movies, and that deep, ringing belly laugh is John Huston's signature. A trace of it, at least, is in all his best work. You can hear it clear as a bell -- the laughter of a man who, out of all the things he could have done, made movies because that's what he liked most of all.