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Reflections on a golden filmmaker

John Huston at the Brattle
By STEVE VINEBERG  |  September 27, 2006

REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE: Perhaps the least known of Brando’s great performances.

John Huston had such a long, illustrious career as a film director — just a few years short of half a century — that any series in his honor that isn’t comprehensive has to feel truncated. At 14 pictures, the Brattle’s tribute is generous; still, you wince at the omission of The African Queen, and you wonder why, selecting from among his final films, anyone would opt for Under the Volcano rather than Prizzi’s Honor or The Dead. It would be nice to see The Bible on the big screen again, but then again, the double bill of Moby Dick and The Red Badge of Courage isn’t a conventional choice, and both are magnificent to look at, the second in its richly brooding ocean colors (shot by Huston’s favorite cinematographer, Oswald Morris), the first in black and white, lit by Harold Rosson to suggest Matthew Brady and 19th-century tintypes.

When most people think of Huston’s movies, it’s probably in Hemingwayesque masculine terms. He made half a dozen pictures with Bogart, including Bogart’s three best — The Maltese Falcon, which marked Huston’s astonishing debut in 1941, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen. The series offers movies about boxers (Fat City), colonial adventurers (The Man Who Would Be King), Civil War soldiers (The Red Badge of Courage), whalers (Moby Dick), Wild Westerners (The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean), modern-day cowboys (The Misfits). You see how he directed such men’s men as Clark Gable, Paul Newman, Sterling Hayden (in the tight, efficient heist picture The Asphalt Jungle), and, as the self-doubting protagonist of Red Badge of Courage, the most highly decorated veteran of the Second World War, Audie Murphy.

But if you look carefully at the material he was drawn to, it also shares a tone — irony, often of the extravagant, romantic kind. The end-of-the-line cowboys played by Gable and Montgomery Clift in The Misfits sell mustang meat for dog food. Henry Fleming in Huston’s beautiful (if infamously edited) treatment of The Red Badge of Courage is a coward before he becomes a hero in battle; heroism sneaks up on him and his companions, and then some other regiment gets the glory. The fade-outs of The Asphalt Jungle, Moby Dick, Reflections in a Golden Eye, and The Man Who Would Be King — not to mention the celebrated ones in The Maltese Falcon and Sierra Madre — are rife with irony. So is Huston’s treatment, over and over, of the men who possess the old-fashioned male virtues of pride, loyalty, bravery, physical prowess, stick-to-it-iveness, stoicism, and solitariness. Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t admire the hell out of those men.

Many of his movies are literary adaptations. A passionate reader, he was audacious in the work he brought to the screen — Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, Genesis. In this series you find, among transcriptions of Carson McCullers, Stephen Crane, Rudyard Kipling, and Dashiell Hammett, a noble — if misbegotten — attempt to film Malcolm Lowry’s notoriously interior novel Under the Volcano. There’s also a movie version of Tennessee Williams’s play The Night of the Iguana and a collaboration with Arthur Miller, The Misfits, which Miller wrote for his wife, Marilyn Monroe — though in truth Monroe comes off far better, at the outset of her career, as Louis Calhern’s luscious mistress in The Asphalt Jungle. Huston almost always did the adaptations himself, either alone or in tandem with someone else (often Anthony Veiller); he had a remarkable feel for how to find the dramatic rhythms in fiction. It’s telling that when he let Leonard Gardner adapt his own Fat City, in 1972, Gardner botched it. The movie feels as if it had been written by a novelist — the monologues, the clumsy exposition, the lack of shape, the focus on novelistic rather than dramatic detail.

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  Topics: Features , John Huston , Walter Huston , Entertainment ,  More more >
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