Late Great

Nick Pinkerton on “Let There Be Light: The Films of John Huston” at FSLC

John Huston, Reflections in a Golden Eye, 1967, 35 mm, color, sound, 108 minutes. Leonora Penderton (Elizabeth Taylor).

JOHN HUSTON doesn’t have a flawless track record as a film director, but few have so perfectly embodied the idea of what a film director ought to be. With his deliciously drawn-out, folksy baritone and those long, eloquent hands, Huston exuded authority—a quality which other directors were happy to take advantage of. When Otto Preminger needed someone to play a Boston prelate in The Cardinal (1963), he tapped Huston for the job, and so launched his parallel career as an actor. Orson Welles, whom Huston had employed in his 1956 Moby Dick among other films, invited Huston to star in his The Other Side of the Wind as Jake Hannaford, an aging film director who shares Huston’s initials and many of his personality traits. (Never finished in Welles’s lifetime, the film is slated for a believe-it-when-I-see-it release next May.) Huston’s most famous role would be that of Noah Cross, the venal and corrupt overlord of Los Angeles’s water supply, in Chinatown (1974). The film is the work of Roman Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne, though Cross’s “most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything” would seem to square with the pessimistic worldview visible in Huston’s films.

Chinatown is among the non-Huston-directed works playing in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Let There Be Light: The Films of John Huston,” a three-week retrospective made up of a whopping forty-six programs, shown mostly on 35- and 16-mm celluloid, and including Huston’s innovative documentaries for the Army Signal Corps produced during World War II. (The program’s title refers to one of these, which deals with PTSD cases among returning veterans, among the finest documentaries ever made.) You can also see Huston, never one to turn down work, in the Italian creature-feature Tentacles (1977), or Clint Eastwood consciously impersonating someone other than Clint Eastwood for the only time in his entire career, playing Huston surrogate “John Wilson” in White Hunter, Black Heart (1990).

Eastwood’s film is based on a novel by screenwriter Peter Viertel, a thinly veiled account of his experience going on location with Huston in the Congo to shoot The African Queen (1951), one of the director’s most beloved pictures. It depicts Huston’s off-the-cuff shooting style, which may seem like the caprice of genius or, if you were the one putting up money, simply irresponsible. Eastwood’s sullen, easily distracted Huston makes a useful counterbalance to the portrait of the Prometheus Bound who appears in the book Picture, Lillian Ross’s account of every stage of the production of Huston’s 1951 adaptation of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. In it, Ross diligently documents every piece of hypocritical kowtowing through which a personal vision—in this case, Huston’s—is gradually whittled down by committee compromise.

Huston was born forty-three years before the events depicted in Picture, in Nevada, Missouri. His father, Walter Huston, whom he later directed to an Oscar in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), was then but a lowly vaudevillian. His mother, Rhea Gore Huston, may have been even more interesting—she was a newspaper sportswriter who would later work with young director-to-be Sam Fuller at the tabloid New York Evening Graphic. Knocking about the country, Huston accumulated one of those eclectic resumes particular to footloose, adventuresome young men who read too much Jack London. He entered the picture business eventually, distinguished himself as a screenwriter, and made his directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon (1941), the film credited with establishing Humphrey Bogart as a leading man and with anticipating the loosely defined cycle of film noir to come.

Ross’s depiction of Huston as an eagle-with-clipped-wings in Picture might seem a bit much, were it not for the fact that, in due time, he proved her thesis—that he knew better than anyone else how to put his talents to work on a film. In a rare turn of events, Huston’s “late” period—comprising, let’s say, the movies he made from the age of sixty onward—is also his greatest. It is a case of the American industry catching up with a man who was long at odds with its standards, in subject matter and technique, and in the process giving him a new lease on life. This renaissance begins shortly after Andrew Sarris evaluated Huston as “coasting on his reputation as a wronged individualist with an alibi with every bad movie” in his The American Cinema, a judgment almost as damning in auteurist circles as Pauline Kael’s enthusiasm for him.

Huston began to sparingly integrate the handheld camerawork of his WWII documentaries into his fiction films. He tested the new license made possible in light of a weakened Production Code, putting a bare-assed Adam and Eve in The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966), then going the whole hog in the following year’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, his adaptation of Carson McCullers’s novella of the seething hidden life of a southern military base, with Brando as Major Weldon Penderton, a glum closet case forever wary of being betrayed by his dainty bulkiness.

Huston’s Fat City (1972), a cult item which had the benefit of a two-week run at Film Forum in 2009, has increasingly been recognized for what it is, one of the greatest films of a great decade for American movies, and the purest distillation of Huston’s career-long engagement with doomed, hubristic personal quests and pyrrhic victories. A onetime amateur lightweight boxing champion of California, Huston took his crew to the armpit of the San Joaquin Valley to capture the texture of the sour side of the sweet science. In the scenes between Stacy Keach’s washed-up middleweight and Susan Tyrrell’s slatternly barfly, Fat City becomes a terrifically funny-sad movie—a quality also evident in Huston’s robustly bleak The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and Wise Blood (1979).

The last-named is a return to what we may broadly call the “southern gothic” terrain of Reflections, this time working from source material by Flannery O’Conner. In Huston’s hands it becomes a rollicking cornpone farce, a film of relentless, surging energy, dragged hither and thither by Brad Dourif’s Hazel Motes, a cracked veteran—shades of Let There Be Light—who comes home a self-styled prophet. To this haul we can add The Kremlin Letter (1970) and The Mackintosh Man (1973), among the finest of Cold War espionage films, both notable for their laconic, affectless tone, the latter a reunion with Paul Newman, star of Huston’s last and finest western, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972).

Huston plucked his source material from all over, but one overarching theme emerges before all others in his work: that of the death drive that lies coiled within (mostly masculine) ambition. This theme hardly begins with Huston, but it stems from his engagement with literary history—his Moby Dick is a key work. For nearly fifty years, Huston, in his films, told and retold the tale of the fatal, inexorable mission, a story older than Melville which, in due time, would be carried on by others. Mackintosh Man and Judge Roy Bean were respectively written by Walter Hill and John Milius, two soon-to-be directors whose work would show Huston’s influence, while another Melville, Jean-Pierre, praised The Kremlin Letter. Failure is Huston’s theme, but in his fecund run of the late 1960s and 1970s, you will find anything but.

“Let There Be Light: The Films of John Huston,” runs December 19, 2014–January 11, 2015 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.