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The Top 10 John Huston Films

By Martin Keady · June 24, 2015

John Huston is one of the most important figures in the history of Hollywood, a legendary writer, director and actor, who, during a near-50-year career, made some of the finest gangster, detective and adventure movies ever made, before concluding his career with a late literary-inspired masterpiece that may just be his finest movie and is certainly one of the finest literary adaptations ever filmed.

However, John was not the founder of the Huston film dynasty.  That was his father, Walter, who was Canadian by birth, making him, like Neil Young and Leonard Cohen, one of those apparently seminal “American” artists who is actually from America’s northerly neighbour.  Walter appeared in several of John’s finest films, as did John’s daughter Anjelica, and John’s son, Tony, wrote or co-wrote several of his father’s late films.  With John’s other son, Danny, now regarded as one of cinema’s finest character actors, the Hustons have arguably become Hollywood’s greatest family dynasty, far outliving some of their early rivals, such as the Barrymores.

Nevertheless, it is John who is the greatest Huston, and here is his Top 10.

10. CHINATOWN

(1974, Directed by Roman Polanski, Written by Robert Towne)

John Huston eventually emulated his actor father by performing in several films at the end of his long career, ranging from the original Casino Royale to Battle for the Planet of the Apes.  However, he always claimed that he had only ever been pleased with his performance in Chinatown, and rightly so.  Huston may not have written, directed, or “starred” in Chinatown but it is as much his film as it is Roman Polanski’s, Robert Towne’s or Jack Nicholson’s.

Huston was born in 1906 and so had lived through the period depicted in Chinatown, when Los Angeles became a metropolis, partly, the film suggests, by stealing water from the surrounding farmland.  Huston, by now a genuine Hollywood veteran himself, seemed to embody all the vanity and venality of “old Hollywood” or “old LA”, as he is gradually unveiled as the true villain of the piece.  And he is, quite simply, one of the greatest villains ever depicted on screen.

The key scene in the movie is when Jack Nicholson’s private eye, J.J. Gittes (Huston deliberately mispronounces it as “gits”, which is an old-fashioned English term of abuse), confronts Huston’s power-crazed patriarch, Noah Cross, with evidence of his many crimes, which include murder and incest.  Gittes genuinely wonders why Cross, who is already a multi-millionaire, could possibly want more wealth.  Cross simply but memorably points out that what he wants is “The future”, and that by controlling both Los Angeles’s water supply and his own family’s bloodline he will achieve that aim.

Nicholson was obviously watching closely at this point and learning from Huston’s scene-stealing (indeed movie-stealing) performance.  Some 15 years later, when he himself was a Hollywood veteran, his Joker in Tim Burton’s original Batman movie was clearly indebted to Huston’s performance as Noah Cross, from his oft-repeated line, “Think about the future!”, to the macabre, grinning death-mask of a face he wore, which, although covered in paint, bore a striking similarity to Huston’s face in Chinatown.

9. THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING

(1975, Directed by John Huston, Written by John Huston and Gladys Hill, based on the novella of the same name by Rudyard Kipling)

As if inspired by his on-screen success in Chinatown, a year later Huston stepped back behind the camera to make one of his great late movies, The Man Who Would Be King, based on Rudyard Kipling’s famous story about two decommissioned and disgraced British officers who become rulers of a remote mountain kingdom on the Indian subcontinent, but ultimately lose all their power.

The stars of The Man Who Would Be King were Sean Connery and Michael Caine, probably the two greatest British film stars of the 1960s (as James Bond and Harry Palmer, respectively) but by the mid-1970s their careers were largely drifting.  This made them perfect casting for a story about two men desperately trying to salvage something of their lives, and The Man Who Would Be King ultimately helped to reinvigorate both their careers.

It is also fascinating to consider that the original story by Rudyard Kipling was a novella, not a novel, which was first published in the fantastically titled collection, The Phantom Rickshaw and other Eerie Tales.  Huston was a life-long lover of literature and several of his finest films (including The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt Jungle) were based on novels.  However, he was equally adept at transforming relatively short stories (such as The Man Who Would Be King) into whole cinematic worlds, and he would achieve this feat again with his last and arguably greatest film.

8. FAT CITY

(1972, Directed by John Huston, Written by Leonard Gardner, based on his novel of the same name)

After a largely barren 1960s, by the end of which he was largely written off as a relic of a bygone era of film-making, Huston spectacularly returned to form with Fat City, one of the finest American films about boxing and the poverty that drives most men into it.

Fat City was a return to the setting and subject matter of Huston’s early masterpieces, such as The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt Jungle, but instead of filming gangsters or detectives he shot the world of another sub-class – fighters.  Stacey Keach (in his greatest ever screen performance, one he did not come close to matching until his role in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, more than 40 years later) plays a past-his-best boxer, Billy Tully, who is inspired to return to the ring by his successfully sparring with a young boxer (played by a young Jeff Bridges), but ultimately both men – young and old – are defeated by the hard realities of boxing, which has been memorably described as “the only sport that isn’t a game”.

Besides the superb performances and assured direction (Huston was clearly happy being back among the bums of skid row, having largely failed with supposedly more epic subject matter, such as that of Freud), Fat City has many other treasures, in particular the cinematography of Conrad Hall.  Hall is one of the greatest cinematographers ever, having won Best Cinematography Oscars three decades apart for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in 1969 and American Beauty in 1999, and he is one of the legendary cameramen celebrated in the fabulous documentary about cinematography, Writing With Light.  Hall’s work on Fat City is among his finest, as he found a latter-day, colour-saturated equivalent of the grim, black-and-white worlds that Huston had created at the start of his career.

7. THE AFRICAN QUEEN

(1951, Directed by John Huston, Written by John Huston, James Agee, Peter Viertel and John Collier, based on the novel of the same name by C.S. Forester)

Huston was one of the great cinematic explorers, choosing the setting of many of his films to allow him to travel the world, and The African Queen is a classic example of that process. It tells the story of a cynical, world-weary sea captain, played by Humphrey Bogart, who gradually learns about love and hope from Katharine Hepburn’s missionary, as she commandeers his steamboat to launch a daring attack on a German warship in revenge for the destruction of her mission and the death of her brother.

The African Queen is particularly noteworthy for the performance Huston elicited from Hepburn.  Huston was undoubtedly a great director of men and most of his earliest films were about the male-dominated worlds of crime or war.  But Hepburn, the first (and arguably still the greatest) feminist film star, more than held her own against Bogey, proving that she, and not Bogey’s boat, was the real African Queen.

6. THE MISFITS

(1961, Directed by John Huston, Written by Arthur Miller)

The Misfits, currently re-released by the British Film Institute in London, is one of the most extraordinary Hollywood movies ever made, not so much for its on-screen story (although that is remarkable, as befits one of the great latter-day westerns) as for its off-screen story.  It was effectively the epitaph for three of its stars – Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift – as well as for the marriage of Monroe and its writer, Arthur Miller, the great playwright, for whom The Misfits was one of his few screenplays.  Such was the drama of the making of The Misfits that it inspired not one but two plays: Misfits, by Alex Finlayson; and Miller’s own last play, Finishing the Picture.

The Misfits of the title are nominally the wild mustang horses that are rounded up and killed for dog food, but the real misfits are the humans – both the characters in the film and the actors who play them.  The characters are old, down-on-their-luck cowboys and the women who love them (and are invariably left by them), and the actors who play them are screen legends struggling to make the transition from the old Hollywood studio-based system to the new Hollywood of the 1960s, in which cinema itself was struggling to compete with the newest form of screen entertainment, television. 

As with Hepburn in The African Queen, for all the forcefulness of the male performances in The Misfits (Clark Gable is particularly good, seemingly playing a character who is the great-grandson of Rhett Butler) it is Marilyn Monroe’s performance that is most memorable.  Marilyn was reputedly unprofessional on set (and off), but she still made many films (more than 30 in total), even if relatively few of them are deserving of celebration.  However, in The Misfits she gives a dramatic performance, concluding in an apparently autobiographical rant about men and their insatiable desires, that is almost as good as her comedic masterturn in Some Like It Hot.  In those two films at least, the inimitable brilliance of her screen acting (conveying both smouldering sexuality and tremendous vulnerability) is preserved forever.

5. KEY LARGO

(1948, Directed by John Huston, Written by Richard Brooks and John Huston, based on the play of the same name by Maxwell Anderson)

Huston had one of the longest careers of any Hollywood director, but it is undeniably true that most of his greatest movies were made in his first decade as a film-maker.  Indeed, such was his productivity (and hit rate) during this period that he could make two masterpieces, Key Largo and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, in the same year.

Key Largo is a movie about a hurricane that is also a storm of emotion and recrimination.  It is intriguing that it was originally a play, because so much of the movie’s force derives from the footage of actual tropical storms that Huston cut into it.  Of course, the real hurricane takes place inside the Florida hotel in which the story is set, as Humphrey Bogart’s returning war hero is trapped alongside the hotel-owners (including Lauren Bacall, playing the widow of one of Bogart’s war buddies) by a group of mobsters, led by the notorious Johnny Rocco, played by Edward G. Robinson.

Huston excelled at the intricate plotting and counter-plotting of noir, and Key Largo exemplifies this, as Bogart has to survive first the hurricane and then its aftermath, during which Rocco and his mob force him to take them to Cuba by boat.  His escape hinges on one of the great cinematic “clinches”, in which Rocco’s discarded girlfriend steals Rocco’s gun and passes it to him, before he turns it on Rocco himself.

4. THE ASPHALT JUNGLE

(1950, Directed by John Huston, Written by Ben Maddow and John Huston, based on the novel of the same name by W.R. Burnett)

Huston directed Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits and in her breakthrough role, as a crooked lawyer’s mistress in The Asphalt Jungle.  But Marilyn is just one of a whole ensemble of characters in the film, which is one of the finest film noirs and also one of the finest explorations of the psychology of criminality, simultaneously showing its ordinariness and its otherness.  As the crooked lawyer famously says of his gangster clientele:  “Oh, there’s nothing so different about them. After all, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor.”

The Asphalt Jungle effectively established the template for heist movies, showing a supposed criminal “mastermind” approaching a robbery as it if were any other business investment, first securing the funds he needs from a money-man (the crooked lawyer) and then recruiting the “crew” he needs, referring to each member by their particular skill: a “box man” (or safecracker); a “driver”; and even a “hooligan”, or heavy, to provide the requisite muscle.  This approach to the heist movie – showing the beginning, middle and (invariably unsuccessful) end of the operation – has directly and indirectly influenced almost every other heist movie made since, from Kubrick’s The Killing to Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

It is the ending of The Asphalt Jungle that is most celebrated, and most poignant, as one by one the “heisters” are cornered and captured.  The “mastermind” lingers too long in a diner watching a beautiful young girl dance to the records he keeps putting on, while the “hooligan” (Sterling Hayden in one of his greatest screen performances) finally escapes “The Asphalt Jungle” – the concrete city in which he, a farm-boy, is adrift – only to collapse and die of his wounds within sight of the green pastures he has always dreamt of returning to.  Huston himself was a devoted outdoors man who loved fishing and travel, and his affinity with nature is evident in this tragic ending to the movie.

3. THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE

(1948, Directed and Written by John Huston, based on the novel of the same name by B. Traven)

Walter Huston was a distinguished screen actor who appeared in more than 40 movies, including The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), in which he played the Devil and provided something of a template for his son John’s performance as another devil in Chinatown.  Today, however, he is best remembered for his performances in two of his son’s finest films, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon.

In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Walter plays an ageing gold prospector, Howard, who meets two much younger men, Dobbs and Curtin (played by Humphrey Bogart and Tim Curtin respectively), and persuades them to join him in a desperate attempt to find the titular treasure, which is supposedly located in a remote mountain range. 

As if subconsciously (or even consciously) honouring his father, John Huston makes Walter Huston the moral centre of the film, the only man who keeps his head (and his principles) when everyone else is losing theirs.  It is he who helps the local villagers, saving the life of a young boy, for which he is ultimately honoured and given a safe home to retire to.  His fate certainly contrasts with that of the younger men, particularly Bogey’s Dobbs, who becomes one of the many “victims” of the treasure when he is killed by bandits while Howard is busy providing medical assistance in the nearby village.  In this way, both Hustons show that the only real treasure is not gold but life itself. 

2. THE MALTESE FALCON

(1941, Written and Directed by John Huston, adapted from the novel of the same name by Dashiell Hammett)

The Maltese Falcon is the first great film noir, and it remains one of the finest.  What is most extraordinary about it is that it was Huston’s directorial debut, but it was a debut made after many years working as a screenwriter, culminating in his script for the hugely successful High Sierra. He was rewarded for that success with directorial control over The Maltese Falcon, a 1930 novel he had long loved and was determined to film, even though there had been two earlier unsuccessful screen adaptations.

The Maltese Falcon is one of the most important movies in Hollywood history, and indeed in the entire history of cinema, as it effectively gave birth to two of the greatest cinematic careers: that of Humphrey Bogart, who, after years of playing bit parts, was finally given the starring role he craved (and he made so much of it that he ultimately became the greatest ever male movie star); and that of Huston himself, who capitalised on this early success to make many other great films over the next four decades.  In effect, it was as if Bogey and Huston themselves had been searching for “The Maltese Falcon”, or its equivalent – a chance to change their lives forever – and that sense of determination, even desperation, permeates the whole film.

It is also intriguing to consider how Huston escaped the fate of so many film-makers who make great debuts but subsequently fall out of favour, the ultimate example being Orson Welles.  During his long career as a director, and particularly in the 1960s, Huston had periods where he was defiantly out of fashion and favour.  Nevertheless, like his most celebrated screen heroes, including Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, he never gave up and finally secured the glory that he had always sought.

1. THE DEAD

(1987, Directed by John Huston, Written by Tony Huston, adapted from the short story of the same name by James Joyce)

Few are the film-makers, or artists of any kind, who can legitimately claim that their greatest work is their last work, but John Huston is one of them.  His adaptation of James Joyce’s short story, The Dead, was his last film, made while he was in a wheelchair and reduced to using an oxygen tank, but it is arguably his greatest film and unarguably one of the finest literary adaptations ever filmed.

The great Pauline Kael, the legendary New Yorker film critic, wrote of The Dead, that “he (Huston) went into dramatic areas that he’d never gone into before – funny, warm family scenes that might be thought completely out of his range.”  And, as was so often the case, Kael was right.  Most of Huston’s earlier films were really about men (and occasionally women) without families: criminals, drifters, or even detectives who pursued largely solitary lives.  But The Dead is one of the great “family movies”, subtly but profoundly depicting the events of a Dublin evening in 1904, during which one family (a pair of middle-aged sisters) throw a party that eventually leads to another family (a married couple) being torn apart.

Part of the reason for this emphasis on family in the movie may be that Huston worked closely with his own children on The Dead: his son, Tony, was the screenwriter; and Anjelica, his daughter, was the star. Tony’s screenplay is one of the finest cinematic adaptations of any great literary work, while Anjelica’s performance allowed her finally to escape the shadow cast both by her father and her long relationship with Jack Nicholson, and to emerge as a true movie star in her own right. 

According to Anjelica’s recently published autobiography, John Huston was a devoted but often distant father, as his work frequently took him away from his children, especially when they were very young.  But on The Dead, it is as if the whole Huston family is triumphantly reunited, working closely together to create a magisterial film that is perhaps the finest last film of any director. 

A TRAGICOMIC CODA

Huston had been in poor health while making The Dead (hence the wheelchair and the oxygen tank) and died before it was released.  For a director who positively revelled in audience reaction to his movies, that must have been heart-breaking: he never got to see the effect that his marvellous last drama would have on anyone who saw it.  And yet, in filming his son’s superb script and belatedly launching his daughter’s career as a movie star, he ensured that his already extraordinary cinematic legacy would have a remarkable closing chapter.  And with his grandson, Jack, now consolidating his own acting career (having appeared in Boardwalk Empire on TV, he is the lead in the forthcoming remake of Ben Hur, due for release next year), the great Huston movie dynasty, which began with Walter’s first forays into film acting nearly a century ago, seems set to continue far into the 21st century.