(1906 - 1987) Biography from Baseline's Encyclopedia of Film
Occupation: Director, Also:
screenwriter, actor, producer /Born: August 5, 1906, Nevada, MO
/Died: August 28, 1987, Middletown, RI /Education: Smith School of
Art, Los Angeles
In THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975), co-written and directed by John Huston, two rogues, Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine) and Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery), desert their British army post in India in the 1880s to go adventuring. In a retrospective voice over, Peachy fondly remembers their encounters with native tribesmen: "At night, we told them stories of our own devising, and they loved them, because we showed them that their dreams could come true."
In the years immediately preceding his death in 1987, John Huston's critical reputation as one of America's leading directors was reestablished with the twin success of PRIZZI'S HONOR (1985) and THE DEAD (1987). But it is his earlier films, especially THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) and THE MALTESE FALCON (1941) which will ultimately be responsible for Huston's place in film history as a teller of imaginative tales of enchantment, quest and loss.
The son of noted stage and screen actor Walter Huston (who would win an Oscar for his role in his son's THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE), John Huston was a juvenile actor on the vaudeville circuit, a champion boxer, a painter, a leading man on the legitimate stage, a writer and reporter and even a lieutenant in the Mexican cavalry. After an abortive career as a screenwriter in the early 1930s, Huston returned to Hollywood later in the decade and achieved great renown with his contributions to six screenplays written under contract at Warner Bros., including JEZEBEL (1938), HIGH SIERRA (1941) and SERGEANT YORK (1941). Even after he became a director, Huston would continue to contribute substantially to the screenplays of all his films.
Huston made a stunning debut as a director with THE MALTESE FALCON. One of the first examples of film noir, this stylistically assured feature revealed his interests in ironic comedy and the motif of the unresolved quest. THE MALTESE FALCON is one of the most influential and enjoyable of the cinema's masterworks.
Huston's wartime filmmaking experiences for the Signal Corps resulted in equally groundbreaking documentary work, including THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO (1945) and LET THERE BE LIGHT (1945), the latter an account of psychological dysfunction among American GIs which federal authorities withheld from release for many years.
Between 1948 and 1952, Huston produced a succession of important films. THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE refined the Huston theme of the quest into an archetype and cemented his critical reputation, largely thanks to a series of reviews and articles by James Agee&emdash;who would later write the screenplay for THE AFRICAN QUEEN. THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950) proved Huston's ability to manipulate simultaneously a variety of characters and stories; the film's sharply drawn milieu and unusual symphathy for its criminal protagonists mark it as among Huston's most compelling works. THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE (1951) began Huston's identification as an adaptor of literary classics. This film also marked the first of several visually stylized features which Huston based on specific visual sources. THE RED BADGE took its groupings of figures and sun-bleached tones from Matthew Brady's daguerrotypes of the Civil War; the compositions in MOBY DICK (1956) emulate scrimshaw carvings from the whaling days it depicts; and MOULIN ROUGE (1952) utilizes a color scheme based on Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings, which are themselves an important part of the film's narrative. This period of maturity and experimentation also saw the production of THE AFRICAN QUEEN, an essentially two-character film which underscored Huston's deft control of actors.
Beginning with the disappointing reception accorded his offbeat comic thriller BEAT THE DEVIL (1954), Huston's reputation suffered a series of setbacks over the next 20 years. A tumultuous personal life mirrored this decline, but Huston continued his dedication to literary adpatations. In 1963, with Otto Preminger's THE CARDINAL, Huston began an acting career, appearing in his own and others' films. He provided narration for a multitude of TV shows and documentary films, and appearances in public service campaigns and his outspoken opposition to colorization gained him further public recognition. By the time of his death, Huston's craggy, beautifully ugly face and melodious baritone voice made him one of the few directors of his era as familiar to his public as any of his stars.
FAT CITY (1972), a sorrowful story of the ebbing fortunes of a washed-up boxer, marked the start of Huston's comeback in the critical community. THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING (1975), originally planned more than 20 years previous as a vehicle for Bogart and Gable, remains Huston's most fully realized quest narrative. WISE BLOOD (1979), a compelling piece of Southern Gothic based on Flannery O'Connor's novel, similarly represents one of Huston's greatest achievements as an adaptor of literature. After the disasters of VICTORY (1981) and ANNIE (1982), Huston scored another triumph with PRIZZI'S HONOR (1985), a grim but somehow hilarious and touching comedy of love among mobsters. The film won a supporting actress Oscar for Huston's daughter Anjelica, mirroring father Walter's win for THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948).
Huston's final completed film was THE DEAD (1987), another long-cherished literary adaptation, of James Joyce's short story. Huston's son Tony adapted the story and Anjelica was featured in the cast. At the time of his death, he was involved in the production of MR. NORTH (1988) as writer and producer, with his son Danny directing.