From the archives: Director John Huston – the story of a story-teller revealed in new book (2011)

July 16, 2012

My favorite John Huston-directed film is not The Maltese Falcon (1941), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948), The African Queen (1951), or The Night of the Iguana(1964). Yes, one man directed them all. Nor is it The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Misfits (1961), orThe Dead (1987).

I have seen each of them, and each are exceptional films, to be sure. Each are also highlights in a long career studded with masterpieces as well as other notable works which include The Red Badge of Courage (1951), Fat City (1972), Under the Volcano (1984), and Prizzi’s Honor (1987).

Rather, my favorite John Huston film is Moby Dick (1956). I like it because it is such a literary film. When I first saw it, as a teenager on late-night television, I was enthralled and felt that I had discovered a little known gem. Largely faithful to Herman Melville’s novel, it is rich in detail and expository passages which evoke life at sea in the 19th century. The film’s closing scene, in which a dead Ahab beckons his crew to join him in what became his private Hell, is riveting and unforgettable.

Moby Dick was produced, directed, and co-scripted by Huston (along with sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury). Its exceptional cast includes Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab, Richard Basehart as Ishmael, and Orson Welles as Father Mapple. If you haven’t seen it, go find a copy. I know you will be impressed. It is certainly the best of the half-dozen or so adaptions of Melville’s masterpiece.

As much as anyone – perhaps more, Huston was a literary filmmaker; thirty-four of his thirty-seven films adapted important novels, stories or plays. In fact, Huston got his start as a journalist and short story writer (published by H.L Mencken, no less) before moving on to the movies and work as a screenwriter. Among the films he wrote before he turned to directing were Jezebel (1938),Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940) – for which he received an Oscar nomination, Sergeant York(1941) – for which he again received an Oscar nomination, and High Sierra (1941). Huston’s success as a screenwriter led directly to his work as a director. He then made an auspicious debut with a film based on a novel, The Maltese Falcon (1941). And the rest, they say, is film history.

John Huston: Courage and Art

Fittingly, Huston’s life story is recounted by a literary scholar, Jeffrey Meyers, in a fine new biography, John Huston: Courage and Art (Crown). Throughout the book, and this is where its strength lies, Meyers perceptively describes how Huston transformed the written word into the cinematic image. Meyers’ briskly told biography of the director, writer, actor (Chinatown), and Hollywood bon vivant details one of the more colorful lives of the 20th century.

Though he didn’t finish high school, Huston was accomplished as a painter, playwright, director of plays on Broadway and operas at La Scala, autobiographer, and political activist who crusaded against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunist witch hunts. Huston lived much of his life abroad – in Ireland and Mexico, and was a discerning collector of art, a raconteur, sportsman, and a connoisseur of literature, food, wine and women who successively married five younger wives.

Huston’s career as a filmmaker spanned some fifty-seven years and yielded thirty-seven feature films. Remarkably, as a member of one of the most acclaimed families in Hollywood history, Huston directed both his father Walter and daughter Angelica in Oscar winning performances. Huston himself won two Oscars, after having been nominated 15 times.

Today, Huston remains one of the most intelligent and influential of all filmmakers. With equal attention given to his impressive artistic output as well as his tempestuous personal relationships,John Huston: Courage and Art presents a vivid narrative of the director’s rich creative life.

Meyers is an East Bay writer, an independent scholar and the author of numerous books. They include well regarded biographies of writers Ernest Hemingway (Huston’s friend), F. Scott Fitzgerald, D.H. Lawrence, and Edgar Allen Poe – as well as cinema figures like Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, and Errol Flynn.

Meyers will be making a handful of appearances around the Bay Area to promote John Huston: Courage and Art. On Friday, September 30th, Meyers will be in conversation with Oscar-nominated screenwriters David & Janet Peoples (Blade RunnerUnforgivenTwelve Monkeys) at Book Passage in Corte Madera. On October 3rd, Meyers will introduce a screening of The Maltese Falconat the Lark Theater in Larkspur. And on October 5th, Meyers will discuss his new book at Books Incin Berkeley. The start time for each event is 7 pm.

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