Though he died in 1987, John Huston recently gave me the best gift I’ve had in years.
I watched his “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” purely by chance, and I was in awe. “Treasure,” the harrowing Humphrey Bogart adventure considered one of the great films ever made, made me realize it was time to pay my dues to Huston, the beyond-legendary entertainer whose reach in Hollywood went far beyond this one film.
Huston was the poster boy for working-class, studio-built talent. While filmmakers today stall and allow projects to gestate for years at a time, Huston stayed busy keeping audiences riveted, and he did it by any means possible.
“The Dead,” “The Treasure Of Sierra Madre,” “The Man Who Would Be King,” “Prizzi’s Honor” and “The African Queen” are just a handful of the everlasting works of Huston’s career. And that’s just his directorial work. Huston was also an Oscar-nominated actor (“The Cardinal”), screenwriter and producer.
Huston’s first job was a testament to his abilities and work ethic. He convinced Warner Brothers to let him direct “The Maltese Falcon” after years of writing and knowing well that two versions of the film had already been produced. The film, Huston’s debut, is arguably the greatest work of crime noir ever put to film, far stronger than “Zodiac” or “The Departed” could ever even strive to be. It’s the kind of effortless, assured work seldom seen from newcomers.
From there Huston churned out movies and didn’t stop. Warner Bros. helped nurture his talents as he kept pushing for work, but it was in 1948 that Huston would make his mark on cinema.
Possibly his finest film, “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” is classic Huston. It’s a drama of masculine greed and all that drives our primal urges. Humphrey Bogart’s (a frequent Huston collaborator) Fred C. Dobbs is a landmark in schizophrenic, paranoid acting, while Huston’s father Walter gives nepotism dignity by providing the film with its humanity as a crazy old coot prospector.
You know the line about “not needing any stinking badges”? It came from this movie. Hoarding gold and the toll it takes has never been this harrowing, or entertaining for that matter. If ever a film deserved its Oscars, this is it.
If it seems like his movies are laundry listed in such short space, it’s only to parallel how much Huston crammed into such a small part of his career. In the 1940s, Huston went off to war as a documentarian, but that wouldn’t deter his thunderous motivation. In 1948, he also directed Humphrey Bogart in “Key Largo” – another Oscar winner – the same year as “Madre.” In 1950, “The Asphalt Jungle” was released, much to delight of the public. “The African Queen” was released in 1951, Huston’s exemplary literary adaptation. To prove he could handle music and flair, 1952 gave the public “Moulin Rouge,” a rare and earnest love story.
Each of these films earned Huston deserved Oscar nominations. And to think that people were freaking out when Soderbergh got a double nomination for directing.
Huston slowed a bit as he got older in the ’60s, and he almost vanished into obscurity during the ’70s until he burst back like a powder keg with the 1975 smash “The Man Who Would Be King.” It was a rousing return to the sturdily assured works of his earlier career, and it afforded him his last leg in Hollywood.
Huston died in 1987; his last film was “The Dead.” Irony of the title notwithstanding, this film of sorrow and regret is as accomplished as anything Huston ever directed.
His prolific career spanned more than 40 years. In that time he directed more than 45 films, wrote more than 30 and performed in almost 50. Seldom similar in content and style, Huston was more consistent in his ability to make a film all the more compelling solely because of his singular involvement. Nominated for 15 Oscars, winner of two, Huston had serious bragging rights.
Why harp on about a man whose efforts were relished and relinquished before we were born? Because more people should be envious and admiring of him. Huston may be gone, but his works have barely aged at all.
If you haven’t seen Huston’s movies, get up and get one. Now. He was beloved by critics and general audiences alike, but the he only way to really appreciate him is to look at his work individually. Don’t take my word for it – get “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and see for yourself.