John Huston (1906–1987) has always been something of an enigma to me. The director of The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle, The Red Badge of Courage, The African Queen, and late-career gems like The Man Who Would Be King, Prizzi’s Honor, and The Dead is too formidable to be dismissed out of hand. Yet there are too many instances where Huston seems to fail to be engaged or, over his two-decade-long middle period, seems blatantly frivolous. To the uninformed, Huston is frequently lumped with John Ford and Howard Hawks as “classic Hollywood directors.” However, he lacks the former’s visual gifts and the latter’s comprehensive worldview. In short, he is a talent but not a genius.
Huston’s early life was the classical “born in a trunk” story, travelling with his vaudevillian parents until their divorce when he was seven. He subsequently pursued boxing, a career in the Mexican cavalry, and a stint as a journalist. By the time John had sort of settled down in Hollywood, his father, Walter, had become one of the leading stars of early talkies. This led to writing assignments for the movies, but John was soon off again to Paris to become a painter. Back in California, he did become a fulltime screenwriter (with credits like Jezebel, High Sierra, and Sergeant York) doing intelligent and erudite work for major directors like William Wyler, Raoul Walsh, and Hawks. Finally, with The Maltese Falcon, he took the plunge into directing his own script.
Although we are primarily concerned here with directors, let’s pause for a moment to pay tribute to Jack Warner for assembling his extraordinary stable of actors. Where would the cinema of the 1930s be without James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, and the character actors who make The Maltese Falcon so memorable: Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook, Jr.? Mary Astor had a luminous beauty to rival Garbo and Gish when playing opposite John Barrymore as a teenager. Now, playing a cynical older woman (at 35) in The Maltese Falcon—after an affair with Barrymore, four marriages, numerous scandals, a suicide attempt, and struggles with alcoholism—she remained beautiful, projecting an intelligence that was the perfect match for Humphrey Bogart.
Dashiell Hammet’s Sam Spade had appeared twice on the screen before, incarnated by Ricardo Cortez and Warren William. Bogart had spent most of the 1930s wandering in and out of films that didn’t quite know what to do with his lisping staccato. Raoul Walsh finally made him a star with They Drive by Night and High Sierra, but Huston’s scripts and direction solidified Bogart’s status.
In 1950, Huston’s future collaborator on The African Queen, James Agee, wrote of him: “To put it conservatively, there is nobody under 50 at work in the movies, here or abroad, who can excel Huston in talent, inventiveness, intransigence, achievement or promise…he stays at it because there is nothing else he enjoys so much.” Agee never lived to see The Barbarian and the Geisha, The List of Adrian Messenger, The Bible, or Annie, and one wonders whether enjoyment alone was enough. One also wonders how Agee could write off people like Max Ophuls, Luchino Visconti, Roberto Rossellini, and Otto Preminger—not to mention Orson Welles, who had already made three films better than anything Huston would ever direct.