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JOHN HUSTON’S THE MALTESE FALCON

May 17, 2011  |  An Auteurist History of Film
John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon
The Maltese Falcon. 1941. USA. Written and directed by John Huston

The Maltese Falcon. 1941. USA. Directed by John Huston

These notes accompany the screenings of John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon on May 18 (in Theater 2), 19 (Theater 3), and 20 (Theater 2).

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.

The Maltese Falcon. 1941. USA. Directed by John Huston

The Maltese Falcon. 1941. USA. Directed by John Huston

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.

Comments

Say what you will, John Huston is the preeminent American adapter of literary works to the screen. He is to American film what David Lean is to British film. As visualizers of our literary heritage, these two are the gold standard.

Charles Silver’s assessment is incorrect. Houston was a talented director who had moments of genius based on the experiences that were, at times, distractions to his work and artistic development. Approaching work the way he did, he made a contribution that was unique and encouraged directors who followed him to work at tangents to cinema trends. In my mind, Houston was an indispensable inspiration to 1970s American movies.

@Dr. Zaslavsky, you can see Mr. Silver’s response to your comments in the new Auteurist History post: http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2011/05/31/michael-curtizs-casablanca

Mr. Silver’s assessment of Director Huston is too generous and does not go far enough; the list of maladroit and misguided films is much longer than he allows. He did not include dull programmers like “Across the Pacific” and fizzled biopics such as “Freud” and the superficial “Moulin Rouge”. Then there is the downright dullness of “A Walk with Love and Death” (featuring his daughter, no less) and “The Kremlin Letter” (featuring Orson Welles). Although the making of “The Red Badge of Courage” was profiled by Lillian Ross in her book, “Picture”, as a work ruined by the studio, I suggest that its truncated, 2-act structure must be attributed to Screenwriter Huston. To add to Mr. Silver’s charges of frivolousness and intransigence, let me say there are many films where Director Huston seems bored with his material or couldn’t quite get a handle on it and slacked off. Among these are “Moby Dick”, “The Roots of Heaven”, (both with Welles again) “The Misfits”, “Night of the Iguana” and “Under the Volcano”. And let’s not forget that prosaic remake of “The African Queen”, “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison”! (“Annie” can be written off as necessary commercial work to pay the bills.) It’s a long, regrettable list, especially when one considers the number of first-rate talents that worked with Huston. Worse, Huston frequently let down his actors when he should have helped them. One has only to think of Kirk Douglas and George C. Scott in “The List of Adrian Messenger” and the dreadful embarrassments of John Wayne’s work in “Geisha”, and Deborah Kerr’s lugubrious performance in “Iguana”. — Of course, “The Bible” is a terrible film which Mr. Silver included. — How could any “great” director commit such follies to celluloid? Fortunately, gems like “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “The African Queen”, “Beat the Devil”, “Reflections in a Golden Eye”, “The Man Who Would Be King” and, of course, “The Maltese Falcon” will keep Huston’s reputation in high regard. As he himself said, “People forget your failures,” (all except for grinchgrinds like me, that is!) Thus, I suggest the Huston enigma amounts to this: He was a courageous writer/director/performer of huge ambitions who lacked the inner fortitude to see many of them through. May I also add that “Wise Blood” is a strange and unusual character study in need of revival?

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