His voice was one of the most distinctive in movies, either in roles he took, or in interviews. It was instantly identifiable as Huston. His life was as great an adventure as many of his films, travelling the world, a documentarian for the War Department during WWII, deep-sea fishing, safari in Africa, and boxing with Hemingway, Huston lived a life many envy. He directed films for forty-six years, many of them among the greatest American films ever made, nearly all of them based on great works of literature, or plays. As a writer first he adored the written word, and early in his career was a screen writer, and despite great success as a director he wrote or adapted nearly all his films.
He ventured into acting late in his career, and in Chinatown (1974) created perhaps the most despicable villain of the decade, a smiling, threatening old demon to rich to get too.
Yet it is forever as a director, the long, lean artist will forever be remembered. Five times he was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Director, winning once. In chronological order, here is the list of top movies of John Huston.
1. The Maltese Falcon (1941)
an extraordinary debut overshadowed only by another remarkable debut, that of Orson Welles and his film, Citizen Kane (1941), made it clear Huston was hugely gifted as a director. The Maltese Falcon (1941) would help establish film noir as a genre, along with bringing Humphrey Bogart the best role of his career to that point. The mysterious Falcon, the object that was the stuff of dreams, dominates the film. Bogart, and Mary Astor are superb.
2. Key Largo (1947)
The film brought him together with Bogart again, this time with a nasty Edward G. Robinson in a film that would win Clare Trevor an Oscar for supporting actress. Tension filled, with tight writing but strong performances it remains a rock solid example of forties studio filmmaking. By now he and Bogart were locked in step, loved working with one another, and could work using an unspoken language.
3. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
This film is a searing study of greed tinged with bitter irony, remains his greatest film, arguably the greatest film of the forties and one of American cinema’s finest, most ironic films. Three men go into the Sierra Madre mountains seeking their wealth in gold, very different men. One of the trio is a talkative old man experienced as a prospector, portrayed by Huston’s father, actor Walter Huston. The old fellow had warned that finding gold warps a man’s soul and we first see the paranoia setting in with Dobbs (Bogart). Slowly he goes mad, leaving the group only to encounter bandits who, oblivious to the gold he carries is murder him. Bogart was never better, but would not even be nominated. Eventually with great irony the gold they so carefully gathered, blows into the wind, back to the Sierra Madre, to be found again. The film won Huston Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay as well as an Oscar for his father for supporting actor. This great American film lost Best Picture to the British film Hamlet (1948), the first time a non-American film won Best Picture. Should not have happened, and Bogart should have won his Oscar for this.
4. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)
A heist film, a behind the scenes look at crime, one of the first films to be sympathetic to the criminals. A crew is brought together to pull off a robbery but a gun goes off by accident, spelling eventual doom for the group. Sterling Hayden is outstanding in the film, and a very young Marilyn Monroe makes a strong impression. One can watch this and understand where Reservoir Dogs (1992) was born. Darkly brilliant. Huston was nominated for an Oscar for his direction and script.
5. The African Queen (1951)
The film saw the director decide, much to the chagrin of his studio he was going to shoot his adventure love story on location in the dangerous African Congo. True to form, off they went, Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in one of the screens most beloved love stories. With the potential for real danger all around them, it gave the film a heightened sense of danger. Hepburn gave an arch performance as a woman who gradually succumbs to her passion for the river rat Bogart portrayed with such humor, winning his only Oscar. Huston was nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay along with both his actors, but just Bogart won. Beautifully shot, with Hepburn radiant. .
6. Moby Dick (1956)
Moby Dick is the greatest of American novels and I find it surprising only one feature film has been created from the book, and nearly sixty-five years ago. Huston worked on the film for three years off the coast of Ireland, creating a fine adaptation of the story. Gregory Peck might not have been the best choice for Ahab at the time, but he is quite good in the epic. The visual effects involving the white whale are quite extraordinary for the time, and Zorson Welles steals the movie as the Reverend. Huston won the New York Film Critics Circle Award as Zbest Director, but the Academy shunned the film.
7. Fat City (1972)
Fat City remains one of his greatest films, a gritty, powerful, sweaty study of club boxers slowing hammering their way to a title fight. He captured the world to perfection in the film, and the performances of Stacey Keach, Jeff Bridges, and Susan Tyrell, were among the very best of the year. After having a rough go in the sixties, Huston benefited enormously with the coming of the New American cinema and freedoms offered directors. Fat City explored the underbelly of a dark world, Huston so detailed we can all but smell the stench of sweat.
8. The Man Who Would Be King (1975)
This brilliant, grand adventure, allowed Huston to achieve a dream that had begun in the thirties. He had been wanting to make the film since then, first with Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, later with Humphrey Bogart and Burt Lancaster, finally achieving his dream with Sean Connery and Michael Caine. An old-fashioned adventure told on a grand scale, bolstered immensely by two brilliant performances from the actors, The Man Who Would Be King (1975), remains one of his greatest films and among the best films of the seventies. A sprawling epic yarn with an intimate friendship at its core, it is often a breathtaking work. Connery was never better than he is here as the ordinary man who starts to believe he is a God.
9. Prizzi’s Honor (1985)
With Jack Nicholson as a not so bright hit man for the mob, and Anjelica Huston as the black widow spider of the family Maerose was met with rave reviews. Pushing eighty Huston had created one of the finest black comedies ever made, with a vicious love story twist. It was brilliant, nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress, winning only the latter. Huston became the only director in film history to guide both his father and daughter to Oscar wins. Anjelica Huston is magnificent as the puppet master of them all. The film won Best Picture, Actor, Director and Supporting Actress from the New York Film Critics Circle.
10. The Dead (1987)
A haunting film based on the work of James Joyce, the film is steeped in Irish culture. Anjelica Huston, by now a formidable actress is brilliant, oncecagain guided by her fathers gentle, firm hand. Critics loved the film, but sadly it never really found an audience. Huston directed much of it from a wheelchair, an oxygen tank at the ready. When he passed, a legend went with him, though much stayed behind. Directors too, are immortal with their work.
And His Worst Film?
Annie (1982) was a dreadful, noisy mess of a film, the Broadway musical mashed together with the famous thirties comic strip, is a grand mess of a movie, with leaping shrieking urchins, ridiculous dance numbers, and a silly story. Painful to endure, the shots of Annie smiling, twinkling, will bring you to the brink of suicide. The single saving grace is Carol Burnett’s boozy Miss Hannigan, the only one who gets that the kids are contemptible.
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