Deep Focus

John Huston
Courage and Art
Jeffrey Meyers
Crown Archetype, $30, 463pp.

John Huston & Arthur Miller on the set of The Misfits

“My other piece of advice, Copperfield,” said Mr. Micawber, “you know. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”

—David  Copperfield

Or, in the case of film director John Huston, result: a lot of movies he should never have made but did make in order to finance a lifestyle comprising, among other pleasures, African safaris, an Irish estate, thoroughbred horses and hunting hounds, Impressionist paintings and pre-Columbian art, several wives, and several children (legitimate, illegitimate, and adopted).

Many moviemakers—Orson Welles, Daryl Zanuck—have dedicated themselves to living large, but Huston was downright baronial not only in his acquisitiveness but his generosity, and it is to the credit of Jeffrey Meyers’s new biography that the graciousness gets just as much attention as the self-indulgences. Huston was a loving son to his famous actor father, Walter, though he scarcely knew him in childhood; a benefactor to Carson McCullers in the last months of her bed-ridden life; a nurturer of his children’s careers (though he also intimidated Anjelica, who became a famous actress, and Tony, who became an occasional scriptwriter); and much more than liberal to those friends who were willing to try to keep up with him. As a scrupulous biographer, Meyers struggles to reveal the whole man, warts and all, but unlike those chroniclers who become antipathetic to their subjects halfway through the research, Meyers doesn’t fixate on the warts. This is the account of an adventurer, and the author’s appreciation of his subject’s zest registers clearly.

Though major artists never lack character contradictions, Huston possessed many more than anyone’s fair share. Though harshly critical of his mother Rhea—he called her “dominating, demeaning, hysterical, overbearing, proud, protective”—he made sure he was buried next to her. Admitting to a homophobic streak, he was not only tolerant of, but downright affectionate toward, both Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. (He worked with Williams on The Night of the Iguana and with Capote on Beat the Devil.) But when Montgomery Clift couched with a male friend in his director’s Irish mansion, Huston became furious. A gourmand of sex, Huston wooed and usually won some of the greatest and most temperamental beauties of Europe and Hollywood, yet he spent his last years with a humble, homely Mexican peasant, and left her much of his (dwindled) estate. He was a restless man—geographically and temperamentally.

It’s not surprising that Meyers evokes Hemingway as both an influence on, and a kindred spirit of, the director. Both of them suffered in their early years from a stifling nearness of Mom and an emotional absence of Dad. Hemingway at least could tramp happily with his father on occasional hunting trips in the Michigan woods, but Huston, misdiagnosed at the age of eleven as having an enlarged heart, was confined to bed and a bland diet for two years. But as Meyers recounts, “One night he rose from his bed, sneaked out of the house and bravely went for a swim in a nearby canal. The floodgates were open and the canal turned into a crashing waterfall.” He survived, and “his new-found confidence in his body and strength set him free from invalidism.” This Hemingwayesque act was confirmed by later Hemingwayesque activities: lion hunts, boxing, wartime bravery (Huston took risks making World War II documentaries in Italy and the Aleutians), art collecting, and wife collecting (five, trumping Hemingway’s four). This biography’s subtitle implies that Huston’s machismo, like Hemingway’s, served to confirm his artistry.

But did it? The Hemingway comparison pinpoints (for me, not Meyers) the great drawback of the director’s lifestyle in relation to his art. Hemingway’s great theme was the courage that humans must summon to face a godless universe, and his forays into danger not only gave him subjects but also tested and validated his manliness so that he could depict with empathy and without envy the bravery of his protagonists. But Huston’s adventures and lordly habits too often drained his art rather than fortified it. Though his physical courage passed repeated tests, his craftsmanship suffered to a degree that Hemingway would never have tolerated. Needing money, Huston took on projects he shouldn’t have—The Barbarian and the Geisha, The Unforgiven (a 1960 atrocity not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s 1991 masterpiece), The Kremlin Letter, The Mackintosh Man, Victory, Phobia, and too many others that might have been rescued by a cold-eyed craftsman like Don Siegel or Mark Rydell but could only bore an idiosyncratic artist like Huston.* Consequently, he often detached himself from his productions halfway through the shoot and left the cutting-room chores to others, which probably made these films even worse than they had to be.

Huston did his best work at the beginning and end of his career. Starting out as a director in the early 1940s, after he had already become an experienced scriptwriter, Huston had to prove to Warner Brothers that he could efficiently execute the adaptations he had written of first-rate fiction. And so The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948, an improvement of the Maxwell Anderson play), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Red Badge of Courage (1951, semi-butchered in the cutting room but still good), The African Queen (1951), and Beat the Devil (1953), were all lean, sardonic, tense, and sporadically profound. Then came a long sag in the middle of his career, roughly from 1957 to 1975, when he alternated between utterly trivial projects and some that were too solemn for his sardonic talent—the honorable failure Moby Dick (1956); the leaden, pseudo-profound The Misfits (1961); Freud (1962), hobbled by a middlebrow script and an inadequate performance by the imploding Montgomery Clift; the somewhat interesting The Bible (1966) (but who needs a somewhat interesting Bible?); and the well-acted but plodding Reflections in a Golden Eye. An honorable exception was his loose-limbed adaptation of The Night of the Iguana (1964), but generally there was too much dross alternating with too much fake gold. He also relaunched his early career as an actor, playing, among other roles, the superlatively evil Noah Cross in Chinatown.

Then, in 1975, Huston’s talent awoke from its fitful slumber with The Man Who Would Be King, a favorite movie of a lot of people for all the right reasons—the great performances of Connery and Caine, the preservation of Kipling’s wit along with the rousing action, the poignancy of the conmen-heroes’ mutual loyalty nearly redeeming their greed and racism, and the vision of life as an exhilarating gamble no matter what it’s outcome (an apologia for Huston’s own life?). After this triumph, the director still took on some hack work (for example, Victory and Annie), but he interspersed it with projects close to his heart: adaptations of  Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, Richard Condon’s Prizzi’s Honor and James Joyce’s The Dead. Though Meyers values it, Volcano seems to me a hollowed-out rendering of a story that can work only on the page, but the other three titles are glories, and The Dead is a true rarity: an almost page-by-page translation from book to screen that is also cinematically inspired. What a finale!

Meyers’s straightforward prose (when he isn’t indulging his penchant for ghastly puns) is well suited to telling a life so full of external excitements, but he isn’t quite up to capturing the texture and rhythms of the movies themselves. For that you have to go to James Agee, the great movie critic and novelist who was Huston’s greatest critical supporter and, later, the scriptwriter of The African Queen. In an essay titled “Undirectable Director”, which has been included in the Modern Library’s Agee on Film, the critic wrote:

Much that is best in Huston’s work comes of his sense of what is natural to the eye and his delicate, simple feeling for space relationships: his camera huddles close to those who huddle to talk, leans back a proportionate distance, relaxing, if they talk casually. He loathes camera rhetoric and the shot-for-shot’s-sake; but because he takes each moment catch-as-catch-can and is so deeply absorbed in doing the best possible thing with it he has made any number of unforgettable shots. He can make an unexpected close-up reverberate like a gong.

Natural to the eye. Delicate, simple feelings. Emotional reverberations. Try looking for these at today’s multiplexes. When you fail, turn on your DVD player and feast on the work of John Huston.


* This sentence was edited to reflect the correct release date of The Unforgiven.

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About the Author

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.