The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon discusses the career and influence of John Huston.
John Huston began his career in film as a script editor, but soon began writing dialogue and then complete screenplays. His success as a writer led to Warner Brothers giving him a chance to direct, with his choice of material. His first directorial effort was The Maltese Falcon (1941). Because previous adaptations of the Dashiell Hammett novel had not done well at the box office, Warners had low expectations for it and gave it a small budget and B-movie level marketing, but it was a critical smash.
Like John Ford, Huston shot very few takes; unlike Ford, Huston relied on storyboards. Each sketch indicated the framing and lighting of a scene. This allowed him to shoot only what he wanted and minimize the editor’s work. His training as an artist allowed him to visualize scenes as he wanted them. He thought that whatever the human eyes can do, the camera should be able to do also. In an interview with Bill Moyers, Huston explained that blinking is like cutting.
While not a universal theme in Huston’s films, the heroic quest is probably the most consistent theme he explored during his career, and he seemed to prefer stories in which the quest, whether for material gain, power, or romantic love, fails. Huston was not much of a fan of happy endings, and this probably contributed to his films’ inconsistent performance at the box office.
Huston also worked as an actor, sometimes in his own films (e.g., Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Bible: In the Beginning), sometimes in the films of other directors (e.g., Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal, Roman Polanski’s Chinatown).
Some of Huston’s best-known and best-loved films include: The Maltese Falcon (1941, to be reviewed), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, to be reviewed), The Asphalt Jungle (1950, to be reviewed), Key Largo (1948, to be reviewed), The African Queen (1951, to be reviewed), Moulin Rouge (1952), The Misfits (1961), The Man Who Would Be King (1975, to be reviewed), and Prizzi’s Honor (1985). He directed films for which his father (Walter Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) and his daughter (Anjelica Huston, Prizzi's Honor) won Academy Awards.