08/03/2009 10:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John Huston's Century

This week marks the birthday of legendary director John Huston. In the eighty outsize years he actually had on this earth, he seems to have lived several lives and lifetimes. Those who remember him best for his occasional acting forays, most memorably as Noah Cross in "Chinatown", should also explore Huston's memorable work behind the camera.

The tall, gangly son of noted actor Walter Huston, John started as a screenwriter, and by his early twenties was already scripting such high-profile Warner Brothers' pictures as William Wyler's "Jezebel" (1938), starring Bette Davis. Then, on the set of Raoul Walsh's scorching "High Sierra" (1941) which he also penned, Huston would encounter Humphrey Bogart, a seasoned Warners supporting player who, with the younger man's help, would soon make a late bid for stardom.

By this point, John had earned a chance in the director's chair, and the feature he'd helm was a re-make of Dashiell Hammett's best-seller, "The Maltese Falcon". After Warners star George Raft foolishly turned down the starring role of private detective Sam Spade, Bogie was tapped with Huston's enthusiastic support. The film became an enormous success, with a cool, assured Bogie playing opposite Mary Astor's Brigid O'Shaughnessy, a shifty femme fatale who needs help finding a jewel-encrusted statue of a falcon. Some other nefarious types want the same item, including "The Fat Man" (Sydney Greenstreet, a distinguished sixty-year old British stage actor in his film debut). Spade is locked in tight since the case also resulted in his partner's murder. "Falcon" stands as the first definitive private eye film, with its assortment of unsavory characters vying for that big score in a treacherous urban landscape.

Henceforth Huston would direct (and sometimes write) most all his movies, achieving a career high with twin 1948 triumphs that once again featured Bogart: "The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre" and "Key Largo".

"Treasure" concerns three down-on-their luck Americans in Mexico (Bogart, Tim Holt and Walter Huston), who pool their meager resources and set off to search for gold. Once they locate it, they must decide how best to protect it, and before long the seeds of distrust take root. A savage human drama with liberal doses of humor, suspense and action, ultimately "Treasure" remains a stark, striking meditation on the nature of greed. Not only did John win a Best Director Oscar for this, but his father, Walter, also took home a statuette for his inspired performance.

In "Largo", as a huge tropical storm develops, WWII vet Frank McCloud (Bogart) visits a hotel in the titular Florida coastal town to pay his respects to Nora (Lauren Bacall), the widow of a deceased war buddy. Run by Nora's father-in-law James (Lionel Barrymore), the place is harboring some sinister urban types-namely, the infamous mobster Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) who's slipped back into the country and quietly taken control of the establishment. But with sturdy Frank around, a showdown feels inevitable. Based on Maxwell Anderson's play, the tingling "Largo" features taut direction and indelible turns from stolid good guy Bogart and from Robinson, returning to tried-and-true gangster mode as the menacing Rocco. While the supporting cast is equally fine (especially Oscar-winner Claire Trevor as a drunken moll), it's Rocco's sadistic, savage power that occupies center stage.

Two years later, Huston scored again in what remains one of the finest noir films on record: "The Asphalt Jungle". A vivid chronicle of the planning, execution and aftermath of a daring jewel robbery, "Jungle" revolves around the suave Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a respectable married businessman who in fact is both extremely crooked and in desperate need of cash. He masterminds a heist, drawing out the more skilled denizens of the city's criminal element. This riveting, tense mood piece is loaded with furtive underworld figures ably played by the likes of Sam Jaffe, James Whitmore and a young Sterling Hayden. And Calhern was never better. Also look for an early Marilyn Monroe appearance as Alonzo's child-like mistress.

Incredibly, Huston's best-known feature still hasn't enjoyed a proper domestic DVD release: "The African Queen" (1951), the story of a dishevelled, alcoholic skipper and female missionary thrown together by circumstance in the wilds of Africa circa World War One. Originally intended as a vehicle for Bette Davis years before, this first-time pairing of Bogart and Katharine Hepburn worked a charm, netting the aging actor his first and only Oscar. By all accounts, the location shoot was as fascinating as the movie itself. For instance, reportedly Hepburn was so peeved by Huston and Bogart's heavy drinking on-set that she restricted herself to water, causing a severe bout of dysentery, much to the delight of the boozers.

"Queen" was swiftly followed by the colorful, atmospheric "Moulin Rouge" (1952). In late nineteenth century Paris, frustrated by a childhood injury that deformed his legs, well-heeled painter Toulouse-Lautrec (Jose Ferrer) immerses himself in the bawdy world of Montmartre's lively show club, "Le Moulin Rouge", quaffing cognac and observing can-can acts while refining his art. One night, he meets Marie, a prostitute trying to ditch a policeman, and the two begin a tumultuous relationship. This engrossing biopic is drenched in vivid hues lifted from the artist's own palette. Shot mostly from the waist up, but acting on his knees, Ferrer is remarkable as Lautrec, whose infirmity cripples his self-esteem but also informs his flagrant art. Zsa Zsa Gabor, as entertainer Jane Avril, is captivating, while Georges Auric's now-classic score gives "Rouge" a melancholy cast. The flamboyant opening sequence ranks as one of Huston's finest set pieces.

By this point, it appeared that most everything John Huston touched would turn to cinematic gold. It may be the writer/director began to believe this himself, and got complacent. Certainly with success he could and did indulge in more real-life adventures; he was in fact a renowned sportsman and hunter.

Regardless, the ensuing twenty years would yield only a few good Huston outings ( notably 1957's war drama "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison"), and far too many releases unworthy of his talent ( "The Barbarian and The Geisha", "The Bible", "Reflections In A Golden Eye", "Sinful Davey", and "The Kremlin Letter", to name a few).

Thankfully, three films from the 1970s saw the director return to his old form: "Fat City" (1972), "The Man Who Would Be King" (1975), and "Wise Blood" (1979), the last just released on DVD by the Criterion Collection.

In "City", Huston presents a spare, bleak portrait of humanity on the skids in the world of small-town boxing. In Stockton, California, Tully (Stacy Keach), a once-promising fighter past his prime, is torn between subsisting as a migrant worker and giving the ring one last shot. As he works through this, he befriends Ernie (Jeff Bridges) a younger fighter who reminds him of his former hopeful self, and Oma (Susan Tyrrell), a sloppy drunk in whom Tully finds a kindred lost soul. Not easy or pleasant to watch, the film's impact sneaks up on you, as Huston's spot-on evocation of this down-and-out world eventually creeps under your skin. The acting bar is set high, with Keach believably tragic in the central role, and Tyrrell stealing the picture (and nabbing an Oscar nod) as the bitter, broken down Oma. Though by Hollywood standards a "small picture", "Fat City" still scores a knock-out.

Next, in "The Man Who Would Be King", adapted from a Rudyard Kipling tale, British sergeants Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery) and Peachy Carnehan (Michael Caine) are tired of soldiering in late nineteenth century Colonial India, and it seems their ungrateful country has tired of them too. They suddenly find themselves without prospects in a far-away land, and resolve to travel to remote Kafiristan in search of fabled treasure. Once there, the two make the natives believe Danny is a god, and at once, all manner of luxuries get bestowed on them. All too easily, it seems, their mission is accomplished, so as long as the populace never learns their king is actually mortal. Huston had wanted to do this project for years (originally with Gable and Bogart), but it's hard to think of better casting for the two rogue adventurers than Connery and Caine, whose real-life friendship helped spark a palpable on-screen chemistry. Here Huston crafts a grand combination of humor and suspense, culminating in a stunning climax.

In the brilliant, offbeat "Wise Blood", an ill-tempered war veteran (Brad Dourif), haunted by memories of his grandfather, a fire-and-brimstone revivalist (Huston), is consumed by his ambivalence for God and those who claim to speak in his name. Street evangelicals of every stripe are legion in his hometown, but he is most offended by the cynical sidewalk salesmanship of a blind prophet (Harry Dean Stanton) So he starts his own sect, claiming Jesus is a fraud, and that mankind doesn't need to be redeemed. Young Dourif anchors this film with a memorable turn playing a man at war with faith. He is helped, of course, by a terrific cast including Stanton and Ned Beatty as an oily con man. Dark, twisted, and perversely funny at times, "Wise Blood", based on a book by Flannery O'Connor, takes square aim at old-style belief but not at the underlying impulse that leads people to long for personal salvation.

Characteristically, John Huston never retired. For his often hilarious "Prizzi's Honor" (1985), with Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner portraying two competing mob assassins who fall in love , he'd become the first and only person to direct both a parent and a child to respective Oscars (daughter Angelica deservedly won for "Prizzi").

Fiercely proud of his Irish heritage, the director died of emphysema shortly after completing his reverential screen adaptation of James Joyce's "The Dead" (1987), another family affair featuring a script by son Tony, and starring Angelica.

It would serve as a fitting swan-song to an amazing life and career.

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