John Huston retrospective

A drunken god

He was a holy drinker, womaniser, sculptor and gambler. He was also an erratic and brilliant filmmaker. Paul Dale welcomes a season of John Huston’s films.

The prolific, gifted and deeply eccentric writer/director John Huston preferred to think that ‘God is not dead, just drunk.’ It’s a cute quote, which fits in with the air of Irish whimsy that Huston attempted to generate around himself and his uprooted family towards the end of his life. Huston went through five wives in his 81 years, two of whom bore him three children, while he also adopted a couple along the way. As a family man, if Huston has a modern day comparative he is somewhere between Frank Gallagher from the TV series Shameless and Ernest Hemingway. The director was flamboyant, reactionary, mad, irresponsible and wholly unreliable.

So how did such a man create some of the true masterpieces of US cinema? No doubt, like many of the talented and unhinged, Huston did not, by his own admission, try to guess what his audience would like, he simply concentrated on what he liked. It is this element of self-amusement that makes Huston’s filmography so hit and miss. When he was great he was stunning, and when he hit a nadir (The Kremlin Letter, The Barbarian and the Geisha) it was deep and full of filth and rats and primordial crabs.

Thankfully the eight films in this short season are at least interesting and half of them - The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon (pictured), The Asphalt Jungle and Key Largo are the works of a master. Sadly, though, Huston made 47 films in his long career, and this season is too slight to even scratch the dust of the flamboyant filmmaker’s oeuvre.

With the exception of 1987’s The Dead, a Joyce adaptation of considerable scope and inventiveness, and his seminal debut The Maltese Falcon (pictured), all these films hail from Huston’s first golden period of 1948-1966. Following a spell in which he had served his country during WWII (as a Signal Corps lieutenant and later a propagandist documentarian), Huston stunned the postwar audience with the remarkable story of isolation, gold and greed that is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. That period ended in 1966 when Huston, in his unreined madness, decided to make The Bible and cast himself as both Noah and the voice of God. Some might say ego was a bit of a problem for the great man.

Six fallow years followed, when his output varied from the putrid (Casino Royale) to the indecipherable (Reflections in a Golden Eye).

In 1972 Huston hit his second, and for many his most influential, period. It started with Fat City, a bleak, brilliant paean to the defeated and the down and out, starring Stacy Keach as a washed up boxer and a young Jeff Bridges as his young protégée.

Thrilling adaptations of Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Richard Condon’s Prizzi’s Honor and Joyce’s The Dead followed over the course of the last decade-and-a-half of his life. I’d like to see these films and others of that period in a later season, for they reflect the intransigence, economy, misery and despair of a man whose carousing ways were beginning to catch up with him.

John Huston on Tour, a BFI Touring programme in association with movie channel TCM, starts at GFT, Glasgow and Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 2 Feb.

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