The Sunday Dozen: John Huston

The auteur theory was all the rage when I was a young film buff. According to its French proponents, film directors who had a consistent visual style and worked in the same genre were auteurs. Even though he was one of the finest writer-directors of the 20th Century, John Huston was never considered an auteur because he liked making different kinds of movies. That left Huston unfairly underrated in many quarters but not at Adrastos World Headquarters. John Huston could do it all.

Huston and his films were nominated for many awards, and he won his share. The featured image is of John and his father Walter with the Oscars they won for The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. The Huston family line continued after John’s death with daughter Anjelica, son Danny, and grandson Jack.

John Huston was always up for a challenge. Difficult terrain? No problem. Tricky plots twists? No problem. Adaptations of books previously thought unfilmable? No problem. John Huston could do it all. He was also a fine actor, as his brilliant performance in Chinatown confirmed.

Were there misfires? Hell, yes. His version of the musical Annie is nearly unwatchable as is his bloated adaptation of The Bible. The best thing about that unwieldly production was Huston’s performance as Noah.

I will be covering some of the same ground I covered in my Bogart and Nicholson dozens. Huston had excellent taste in collaborators and friends.

John Huston *was* an auteur. Why should I listen to people who think Jerry Lewis is a genius?

The movies are listed in order of preference. One of my standards is whether it’s a film that stands repeat viewings. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen the number one movie on the list.

John Huston could do it all.

On with the show this is it.

The Maltese Falcon has a special place in my filmic heart. It was my introduction to film noir, crime fiction, Dashiell Hammett, Bogie, John Huston, and the dynamic duo of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet. It remains one of the best debut films of any director. Huston nailed it.

The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre is the greatest adventure film ever made. But it’s so much more: It’s a mediation on greed and how it can transform decent human beings into monsters. I could go on and on about its greatness but who wants to read a 5,000 word post?

Dr. A and I rewatch Key Largo every hurricane season. The setting is claustrophobic, and the acting sublime, especially Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor. This great movie is why I named a feisty calico cat after the Oscar-winning actress.

1975’s The Man Who Would Be King was a movie Huston had been trying to make for decades. He envisioned Bogart and either Spencer Tracy or Clark Gable in the starring roles. The screen legends couldn’t agree on billing. It was a lucky break: Connery and Caine were born to play these parts. As great as they were, Christopher Plummer as Rudyard Kipling stole every scene he’s in. Plummer had a way of doing that.

Here’s what I said about The African Queen in my Humphrey Bogart Dozen:

“Bogart finally won an Oscar for The African Queen. I wish he had won for a more characteristic role such as Rick in Casablanca. Rick, Sam Spade, and Philip Marlowe are the ultimate Bogie roles.

I still love this movie but there was a time when it would have been #4 on the list. It’s not that it hasn’t aged well, my tastes have changed. The Bogart-Hepburn-Huston combination still packs a powerful punch. Have I told you lately that John Huston is my birthday twin?”

I forgot to do that at the top. Leos not only rock, they rule.

Prizzi’s Honor is one of the best gangster movies of all-time. It features Jack Nicholson’s most unusual performance: he plays a dim bulb but still lights up the screen. That was bound to happen because he worked with Kathleen Turner in her prime. Turner has one of the best movie voices this side of John Huston.

It wasn’t called film noir at the time, but The Asphalt Jungle is as noir as hell. It’s also capery. What’s not to love about a movie with Sterling Hayden as a quirky hood? His voice was pretty darn special as well.

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is one of Huston’s neglected classics. Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum are stranded together on an island during World War II. It’s one of the few truly original films about that conflict.

Kerr plays a nun and Mitchum is the soldier who tries to respect her calling by resisting her charms. Holy weird sexual tension, Batman.

Fat City is a 1972 boxing movie set in a grimy gym in Stockton, CA. It was Huston’s best reviewed film in years. It features breakout performances by Stacy Keach and Jeff Bridges. Mike Hammer and The Dude in the same movie? Why the hell not.

Wise Blood was one of the difficult literary adaptations I alluded to in the introduction. Flannery O’Connor’s oddball novel was considered unfilmable, but John Huston pulled it off.

Speaking of difficult literary adaptations, Under The Volcano was a highly regarded novel but was considered too downbeat for the big screen. It’s another movie Huston had wanted to make forever. It was worth the wait for Albert Finney’s amazing performance as the drunken protagonist of the piece.

The Life and Times Of Judge Roy Bean was unfairly maligned upon its release. I first saw it on an airplane and fell hard for the movie and performances of Paul Newman and Ava Gardner.

That concludes the John Huston Dozen. The hardest film to omit from the list was The Dead, Huston’s James Joyce adaptation. Consider it number 13.

Here’s the quick and dirty breakdown of the John Huston Dozen.

  1. The Maltese Falcon
  2. The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre
  3. Key Largo
  4. The Man Who Would Be King
  5. The African Queen
  6. Prizzi’s Honor
  7. The Asphalt Jungle
  8. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
  9. Fat City
  10. Wise Blood
  11. Under The Volcano
  12. The Life and Times Of Judge Roy Bean

Before becoming a director, Huston wrote some swell screenplays including Jezebel, Juarez, High Sierra, and Sergeant York. 

Major Huston won accolades for his brilliant World War II documentaries Report From The Aleutians and  San Pietro.

John Huston could do it all.

The last word goes to Huston’s Treasure cameo with Bogie as Fred C. Dobbs.

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