Prizzi’s Honor (1985) Written by Richard Condon and Janet Roach Directed by John Huston
John Huston only had two years left in his life. I suspect he realized this. By 1982, he had to use an oxygen tank almost all hours of the day for his emphysema. He didn’t slow down in his filmmaking though making seven movies in the 1980s, even one the year he died in 1987. Prizzi’s Honor was his second to last film, the picture that won his daughter, Anjelica, her first Academy Award. Once again, he’d gather a cast of strong actors to deliver a deceptively dark comedy about love & business in the world of organized crime. I don’t think any of the films I’ve watched previously were overtly a comedy as much as this one. And it is a strange creature.
Annie (1982) Written Carol Sobieksi Directed by John Huston
The 1970s were a fruitful period for Huston, with several acclaimed films and an expansion of his aesthetics to fit a modern style. Huston also worked in front of the camera as the iconic villain Noah Cross in the neo-noir Chinatown. He voiced Gandalf in the Rankin-Bass animated production of The Hobbit. Huston even starred as the lead in Orson Welles’ final & delayed film, The Other Side of the Wind. On the bleaker side of life, Huston was diagnosed with emphysema in 1978, which would plague him for the rest of his life. He’d been a heavy smoker since he was a young man, so it was only a matter of time until it caught up with him. In the early 1980s, Huston was approached by producer Ray Stark to direct an adaptation of the Broadway musical Annie. Huston had never made a musical in his forty years directing, so he decided to give it a shot.
The Man Who Would Be King (1975) Written by John Huston & Gladys Hill Directed by John Huston
In a 180 from the bleakness of Fat City comes this large-scale adventure film with a message. Based on Rudyard Kipling’s novella, The Man Who Would Be King was a story that Huston had wanted to make for twenty years. I assume Humphrey Bogart was initially in mind for one of these characters as the themes and plot feel very similar to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This is a picture about treasure hunters going off into a land foreign to them only to learn that their quest for a fortune is doomed from the start. I don’t think there is another director who could have made this picture as perfectly as Huston.
Fat City (1972) Written by Leonard Gardner Directed by John Huston
After directing The Misfits, John Huston continued his work with Montgomery Clift in Freud: the Secret Passion. Huston was an avid supporter of psychotherapy, and the film is narrated by the director. It’s a somewhat Messianic portrayal of Freud as enlightening humanity. Huston would adapt the Tennessee Williams’ play Night of the Iguana in 1964, followed by The Bible: In the Beginning in 1966. That latter film produced by the legendary Dino de Laurentis was one of the last big overblown Biblical epics of the era. Huston appeared in the picture as Noah. These movies were not well received by critics & audiences, which was disappointing. Fat City would turn the tide as the director surveyed the changes happening in American cinema and adapted his style.
The Misfits (1961) Written by Arthur Hiller Directed by John Huston
The Misfits is a heartbreaking film, both from what you see on screen and what was happening behind the scenes. This would be both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monore’s final performances. Montgomery Clift, who would only make three more appearances before his death in 1966, had a troubled background and struggled with his health and sexual identity. It was very fitting that these actors be the ones playing these broken characters, lost in the Reno wastes, trying to figure out where they were going and how to connect with others. While not a violent movie, The Misfits is the bleakest picture I’ve seen from John Huston. Despite its slightly hopefully ending, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what happens next.
The African Queen (1951) Written by John Huston, James Agee, Peter Viertel, and John Collier Directed by John Huston
Despite his track record of dark, crime-centric movies, John Huston was also a romantic. That was on full display in The African Queen. This wasn’t Huston’s last film with Humphrey Bogart, but it is considered his last great film working with the actor. He was working with a lighter, comedy type of film. Huston also shot on location in Uganda and the Congo. The African Queen was a Technicolor picture that added difficulty to the production. The cameras needed for the Technicolor process were large and somewhat unwieldy. But in an effort for authenticity, Huston refused to shoot most of the picture on a soundstage.
The Asphalt Jungle (1950) Written by Ben Maddow & John Huston Directed by John Huston
John Huston was fascinated with the state of the urban in post-War America. We saw in Key Largo that there was a looming fear that the old Prohibition-era mobs would return to power. In The Asphalt Jungle, Huston takes a much more nuanced look at the criminal element, refusing to present them as one-dimensional and no good. The Asphalt Jungle was a challenge to get made as MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer did not like it. He was overridden by the head of production, Isadore “Dore” Schary. Schary was a Jew born in New Jersey who eventually worked his way up to run MGM after Mayer left when his direction was losing the studio money. Mayer favored dazzling wholesome spectacles, while Schary wanted darker movies that had a message.
Movie Review – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) Written & Directed by John Huston
John Huston served in the U.S. Army during World War II, making films for the Signal Corps. He directed several films, both narrative & documentary, about soldiers and the war during this time. Despite the acclaim these pictures received, they were ultimately banned because some of them focused on failures of the U.S. military. The brass labeled them as “demoralizing to the morale of the troops.” He seemed to develop a fascination with war documentaries for the rest of his life as his daughter, Anjelica, said that when the family moved to Ireland, that was most of what they watched at home. I think something about men put in desperate situations surrounded by violence must have appealed to Huston, and it was the basis of his next film.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) Written & Directed by John Huston
John Huston was born into entertainment. His father, Walter, got his start in vaudeville and then transitioned into movies. When John was born, his parent ended their earlier careers (his mother was a sports editor) to be more domestic. Walter became a civil engineer for a few years but eventually returned to acting. The couple divorced when John was six, and he spent much of his childhood at boarding schools, ferried between his two parents. Watching Walter act on stage profoundly affected John’s burgeoning love of storytelling and set him on his path to becoming a filmmaker.
Wise Blood (1979, dir. John Huston) Starring Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton, Amy Wright, Dan Shor, Ned Beatty, William Hickey
I first became aware of the author Flannery O’Conner during my Freshman Comp II class with Dr. Greg Carpenter. We read the classic short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and was shocked and happily surprised at how bizarre and quirky the piece was. I would continue expand on my knowledge of the late Southern writer in American Lit II, Southern Lit, and a short stories class all with Dr. Greg’s wife, Dr. Dana. In her Lit of the South class I read Wise Blood, the novel that serves as the basis of this film and found some deep insights and themes that are woven into the fiber of everyday life here in the South.
So, how did Academy Award winning director John Huston do when it came to adapting the novel? Good and bad. If you are one of those people who hates for a film to deviate too far from its source material then I guess you’ll be happy. In my own opinion, Huston stuck so close to O’Conner’s novel that you see how poor of a film it truly makes. The book benefited from the omniscient narration of O’Conner to talk about the psychology of our characters and provide backstory. Here we just have characters speaking the author’s words but with no idea of who they are beyond that.
The biggest problem with the film are the stylistic choices Huston chooses to make. The Southern Grotesque that O’Conner brought to all her work is all but absent here. The film is so bright and the score is horrendous. The music definitely pulled me out of the film on multiple occasions. It’s a bizarre mix of synthesized folk tunes and doofy Hee Haw-esque musical cues. While watching, I couldn’t help but think how the film would have benefited to have been filmed in black and white and to have had no musical score at all. I anticipate a lot of people who love O’Conner disapproving of the film’s contemporary (late 70s) setting. While there are elements of her work that could be argued to be set in a specific time in the South, her stories are equally without grounding in a specific era. Huston’s decision to make it contemporary though, seems to reflect budget constraints rather than artistic choices.
The one character who was used terribly was poor Enoch Emery. The young man who steals a shrunken head doll and dresses as a gorilla is played in a strange way. We aren’t quite sure if he is simply a religious simpleton or has serious mental issues. My own opinion was the latter, but his portrayal in the film feels very uneven. Amy Wright does a great job as the Sabbath Hawkes and Harry Dean Stanton does an adequate job for the small role he is given. The weight of the film rests on Brad Dourif’s shoulders as Hazel Motes and I can’t criticize him too much. The problems with the film come down to a strict adherence to the novel and a lack of strong cinematography.