It wasn't easy for me to enjoy The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. I wasn't prepared for a Western in which the hero is a strict enforcer of capital punishment who executes criminal after criminal and is glorified--indeed, almost idolized--by the filmmakers, as if we're expected to root for Judge Roy Bean and believe that everything he does is morally and justifiably right. That John Huston was one of the most progressive of American directors and that John Milius is still one of the most conservative of American screenwriters is a given, so it was odd for me watch this film, which often plays as an uncomfortable hybrid of the two filmmakers' differing political opinions. Looking at it from a Hustonian fan's point of view, I can certainly recommend The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, but I'm not sure I could say that it was one of his best films. In fact, I had to force myself to sit through a second viewing--because the movie made me angry when I first saw it, and it took all of my strength to keep from turning it off and giving my frustrations a rest. I've seen maybe a handful of Huston films that were simply mediocre, but I don't think a Huston film has ever made me angry before.
Let's examine the facts of case: if we were to ask Huston and Milius what the message of the film is (specifically where it stands on capital punishment as a form of justice), I think their answers would have contradicted one another. Though I don't want to speak permanently for him, I have a good feeling that Huston was opposed to the death penalty throughout his career, particularly in his films. Take for example how Sam Spade hopes that Brigid "doesn't get hanged by that sweet neck" in The Maltese Falcon. Or how Charlie and Rose are very nearly executed in The African Queen. How Danny in The Man Who Would Be King courageously refuses to allow his prisoners of war to be executed and then later, as if by cruel cosmic joke, is executed himself. How drunken Geoffrey in Under the Volcano is crudely executed by Mexican fascists. All of these examples suggest the work of a filmmaker who is skeptical about the death penalty and possibly believes that it does more harm that good. Even in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where a wretched villain like Gold Hat gets his just desserts in the line of a firing squad, Huston lightens the scene somewhat with that funny moment in which Gold Hat demands to be allowed to put on his sombrero first.
Now look at how this divisive issue is examined in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, in which the protagonist is a man who literally makes a living off of the death penalty. The movie's treatment of the subject matter is maddeningly unclear: are we supposed to be applauding for him? I was pleased that Huston gets immediately to the heart of the problem I had with the film in his autobiography An Open Book. He describes the sequence in which Bean (Paul Newman) is confronted by his marshals, who have been egged on by their activist wives to request that Bean stop hanging his criminals in public for everyone in town to see. They're afraid it will make a bad impression on businessmen visiting from the northeast, and they want the hangings to start being conducted privately, in a barn. Bean is disgusted with their request: "In a barn? Like they was ashamed of it? Why, I'd rather give up hanging!" Huston writes in his book that he believes scenes like this in the film "said something important about frontier life and the loss of America's innocence". He then adds, "I'm sorry to say that one famous critic took all this to be an argument in favor of capital punishment."
That "famous critic" was none other than Pauline Kael, but it's fair to conclude that Huston saw the film as a dissection of Bean's justice system, not as an endorsement of it.
But there is no doubt that John Milius probably has another opinion. Milius, who received notoriety after telling Joseph McBride, in a 1975 Daily Variety interview, that "I just absolutely hate liberals and people who are civilized", is Hollywood's baddest right-winger; and from Dirty Harry to Red Dawn he has been echoing his gung-ho beliefs loud and clear to inspire standing ovations out of America's red-state audiences. Was his screenplay for The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean another such work? Milius' evident endorsement of Bean's actions can be felt even before the first lines of dialogue are spoken in the film. After the opening image of a map of nineteenth century Texas, and after Huston cleverly turns his camera sideways and plunges us downwards into the Pecos River, we are brought into the film's first scene, in which a shadowy figure rides across the river and then the screen is filled with a prologue that is totally awash in Milius' anti-liberal, anti-civilized sentiment: "Near the turn of the last century the Pecos River marked the boundaries of civilization in Western Texas. West of the Pecos there was no law, no order, and only bad men and rattlesnakes lived there." Then, Milius writes: "...Maybe this isn't the way it was... it's the way it should have been."
So, you see, we have two differing political perspectives from the two filmmakers.
I do love the sequence that follows. The shadowy Bean rides into a quiet little town near the river and arrives at the doorstep of a tavern where the "bad men" Milius writes of in his prologue are drinking inside. On the bulletin board is a reward poster for Bean's own gang of bank robbers, the Baldy Mitchell gang. He crosses out the picture of one of the gang members who is now dead, and colors a beard into the face of his own picture. He enters the tavern, and the outlaws (one of whom is played by a young Richard Farnsworth) greet him with unkind words. "Door," an outlaw growls at him. "Shut the door, squirrel." Bean asks for whiskey. They don't serve him. Everything is quiet.
He politely introduces himself. He says that that's his picture out there on the wall and tells of his gang's ill-fated attempt to rob the Granger's Trust in Magdalena. The outlaws don't care, and Bean, like Cody in Sierra Madre, is upset that he isn't among friends: "I always heard that a man on the dodge is welcome west of the Pecos... maybe I heard wrong." They tell him he heard right. But that the outlaws possess a book of the Revised Statutes of the State of Texas for no other reason than for "the whores to piss on" is a quick indication that something is wrong, and before Bean can react, the whores beat him up and loot his pockets, and the men tie his neck up to a runaway horse that carries him out into the desert. He wakes up to see a young Mexican girl regarding him sadly, like a small child. This is Maria Elena (Victoria Principal), and from here on out she will be Bean's angel. She fetches his gun for him, helps him to get back up on his feet, and pretty soon Bean is taking back the tavern by surprise, blasting everybody in his path. "RAAAAAAA!!!!!!!" he roars. "COME ON BACK HERE, I AIN'T THROUGH KILLING YOU! YOU HEAR ME? ALL OF YOUR KIND, I'LL BE WAITING!"
This is one of the best sequences in the film because we can actually empathize with Bean's fury. He is exploding, and so are we. In the moments when he has been hung by a horse and dragged off, we feel as if we have been left for dead out there in the desert with him, and we are just as eager as he is to waste that tavern and claim it as our own. It's no surprise that The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is Quentin Tarantino's favorite Huston movie, considering Bean's own telling line of how "God must have directed my bullets". There is a kingliness to the image of him sitting peacefully on a rocking chair in front of the tavern while the bodies of his enemies lie scattered around. This is his land now.
The underlining problem with this film, however, is that this sense of justified empathy with Bean's killing is felt only in this sequence, and then it is never felt again. For the rest of the movie Bean comes across as a totalitarian ruler--a reactionary whose tactics clean up the crime of the town, but in a way that is simply wrong. I intensely dislike, for example, the scene in which Bean and his new marshalls (Jim Burk, Matt Clark, Bill McKinney, Steve Kanaly, Ned Beatty) murder the disoriented Snake River Rufus Krile (Neil Summers) just for shooting at a wall poster of the famous Lily Langtry, whom Bean has a fetish for. Are we supposed to cheer at this scene, or laugh at it, or cringe at it, or what? And Bean's obsession with the absent Lily Langtry gets obnoxious fast; even though it is apparently true to the story of the real Judge Roy Bean (William Wyler used the Lily Langtry device for his own Bean flick, 1940's The Westerner), it doesn't exactly help us gain any more respect for him as a character. Bean gives one annoying lecture after another about how Langtry is a supposedly ageless woman, and how men who do her wrong deserve to hang and die. After some time of this, we're ready for him to shut up.
Now, it wouldn't be honest to say that Huston and Milius don't look at Bean's justice system objectively whenever they can. They do. The morning after Bean's slaughter at the tavern, Reverend Mr. Lasalle (Anthony Perkins) rides into town, and looks with shame on what Bean has done. Bean wants the bodies of the outlaws to be left for the buzzards, but the Reverend is a good man, and buries them. He does so because of an honorable principle that a fraudulent Christian like Bean so clearly does not understand: "I buried them because Christ had died for all of them." Perkins, though a fine actor in several other films, might have been miscast here as the Reverend, but his character makes a lasting effect; and in a witty voiceover from the grave, the Reverend pointedly observes of the fascistic Bean, "I haven't seem him since then, so he probably went to hell." Another scene of this strong caliber is the one that comes afterward, in which Bean and his marshals lynch the stuttering Sam Dodd (Tab Hunter). Though Dodd is a racist and a murderer, and deserves punishment, the way that Bean and his marshalls punish him is disputable; and it is hard not to agree with Dodd's own last words: "I am no worse and probably no better than the men who are about to end my days."
A few of the other scenes that look at Bean's justice system objectively are more humorous. Such as when old Grizzly Adams (played by none less than Huston himself) sneaks into town at night with a truck full of big furry mammals ("I cohabited with the b'ars!") and is forbidden by Bean to commit suicide, inadvertently exposing Bean's right-wing belief that suicide should be illegal but that lynching is okay. Adams gets the last laugh, however, by leaving Bean with a baby grizzly bear named Zachary Taylor, who spends a picnic with Bean and Maria Elena in the silly but amusing "Marmalade, Molasses and Honey" sequence, featuring all three characters riding a see-saw log to the music of Andy Williams. There's more humor in the intrusion of the evil albino Bad Bob (a hilarious Stacy Keach), who wants his horse cooked blue and screeches, "Hey, Bean! I'm here to rip your eyes out! And then... I'm going to take my ivory-handled knife and cut your head off and sell it to a friend of mine in a carnival!" The funniest moment is when he really pisses Bean off by talking trash about the town's most popular martyr: "Lily Langtry is a WHORE, BITCH, DOG! And I wouldn't waste my bullet on her... let alone my seed!" Admittedly, Bad Bob is the only other villain in the film that Bean is probably justified in killing, although--ironically enough--the townspeople are quick to point out, even before we do, that by shooting Bad Bob in the back, Bean never gives him a chance.
When the lawyer Frank Gass (Roddy McDowell) comes into town, however, the tables are turned. He comes to Bean with a federal government contract that designates the Jersey Lily tavern as his property--and what's more, he even proves that this is protected under the Texas lawbook that Bean carries around as if he knows it by heart. Bean, being the undemocratic leader that he is, tears this page out of the book and illegally overturns the law; then, when Gass complains, Bean throws him into the cage with Zachary Taylor and threatens to have him eaten alive. Even though Bean then proceeds to make a deal with Gass and promote him as the town attorney, it is only because of an obligation that Gass will otherwise be executed. Although Gass is not an entirely sympathetic character (he is suspected of hiring an assassin to try to whack Bean, and privately refers to Bean and Maria Elena's unborn child as a "bastard"), he comes off as a far more democratic leader; and sure enough, when Bean returns home from an unsuccessful trip to meet Lily Langtry, he finds that the women of the town have had Gass elected as mayor. The moment when Gass stops him from wrongfully executing a doctor (David Sharpe) who failed to save Maria Elena during her fatal childbirth confirms that he is a better leader than Bean.
I'm going to go out on a limb now and suggest that the film should have ended here. At ninety minutes, it would have been content to have Bean riding out of town and never looking back. But the last half hour of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is a superfluous anticlimax; it's little more than a needless catharsis for Bean to return and strike back. By this time, Gass has become an oil entrepreneur who has helped the town prosper in economy and civil rights; and despite his hiring of shady figures in his law enforcement, the town is certainly no worser off than it was under Bean's watch. Though I can sympathize for Bean's marshalls, who have been reduced to drunks with low-paying jobs ever since Bean's departure, I can't sympathize with Bean's decision to rally them together again and engage in a pointless gang war with Gass' law forces that ends with everything in town except for the Jersey Lily burned to the ground. Whether Bean and Gass die in the firefight is never explained. Another disappointment is the character of Bean's tomboyish, grown-up daughter Rose (Jacqueline Bisset), and although Bisset tries her hardest, she doesn't make much of an impression. One also needs to really listen to Gass' confrontational words that are supported by the townspeople: "We've stood for this long enough! Raze that place! We must be done with Beanism!" Well... he's right, isn't he?
And I don't really know what to make of the final scene in the film, either. At last, Lily Langtry (played by Ava Gardner) has decided to come and visit the town--but by this time, the Judge and most of his companions are now deceased. Rose has gone off and married an aviator. The Jersey Lily has been turned into a museum. Miss Langtry inquires about some of the things Bean did in her honor during his lifetime--and we discover that she has just as sick of an idea of justice as Bean did we she deems Bean's barbaric murder of Snake River Rufus Kile as "most appropriate". Again, these scenes strike me as flat and unnecessary. However, Professor Lesley Brill makes a case in defense of these scenes in his 1997 book John Huston's Filmmaking: "Miss Langtry's immortality is directly connected to the Judge's worship, his faith has divined the goddess within her and brought it to full realization. Bean's own immortality thus resides not only in the perpetuation of his memory but in Lily Langtry's deification." Brill's eloquent reading into the film's ending scenes does make me want to reconsider this rather dubious cinematic conclusion.
Paul Newman believed that The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean was the best movie he ever made. "I was really surprised that it didn't get the kind of following it deserved," he later said. "I thought that was a wonderful piece of Americana. I think that's probably my best work--if not my best work, certainly close to it... I look back on that experience as the most rewarding experience that I've had as an actor because he [Huston] really let me crawl out of my skin and do the work that surprised me." I can see definitely where Newman was coming from--even when taking into account my own reservations towards the role. Milius reportedly had reservations of the opposite complaint; he wasn't pleased with Huston's decision to cast a Hollywood liberal (#19 on Nixon's public enemies list, to be exact) in a right-wing lead character role. Ultimately, Newman's work here, like his work on Altman's Quintet (1979), is proof that his 1970's performances were riskier, and far more experimental than his previous work. Drawing from those observations, I agree: Newman's performance in this film was one of his finest.
So, it's a troubling movie. It doesn't always work. Its hero is despicable, its message is uncertain, and it's too long. Nevertheless, it is an important film in Huston's career. I don't know if it's a great film, but I think it deserves more contemporary discussion. The cinematography by Richard Moore and the catchy music by Maurice Jarre are impossible to dismiss, and so is the film itself. That it is an antiheroic Western in the spirit of Peckinpah is another strong factor, which makes it important as a staple in cinematic American Westerns. Hot off Peckinpah's romanticism of honorable bad guys in The Wild Bunch, here were Huston and Milius--a progressive director and a conservative screenwriter--collaborating together, echoing the old days and the despair of a twentieth century in which the West was a thing of the past. In Milius' screenplay, "the desert reclaims it own" when Bean's marshalls burn down the town at the end, but surely the desert won't hold it forever.
"It's all changing," Bean sighs. "The country's changing. The railroad's coming. People will pass by and look out the window and never know what it took to make all this. They won't know about the bear... they won't know about me. I guess it doesn't matter." It's a brief monologue that illuminates the differing worldviews of the two filmmakers: Milius fantasizes about the order of a judge who hates liberals and hates people who are civilized, and wipes his feet on the basic human rights of the criminals who stalk his land. But in Huston's world, crime is only a left-handed form of human endeavor--and when Judge Roy Bean's ruthless system of order was finally changed, the country changed, too.
John Huston begins Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) with an ocean, an island, a raft, a man, and no dialogue. For seven and a half brilliant minutes, not a single word is spoken as the camera approaches the same drifting raft at least five times before finally getting a glimpse of what is inside: an unconscious marine. This is Corporal Allison (Robert Mitchum), and he has not seen land for days. When he wakes up, he walks on shore and drags the raft behind him--as the camera takes the point of view not of Allison, but of the raft. Then we follow Allison as he plunges into the forest and crawls agonizingly on piles of sharp, unseen debris scattered around on the sand. He reaches a lagoon, drinks from it, then swims across it to a small cottage on the other side. Out of the doorway sweeps Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr), startled by his presence. Allison has the first line of the picture: "Let's keep it quiet, ma'am." He asks her if she speaks English. She does. She asks him if the Americans have landed. No, it's just him. He asks her if she's alone. "God has been with me," she replies.
They walk into the cottage for some shade, talk some more, and then Allison, exhausted, slides down the wall. "Excuse me, ma'am, I'm real beat," he explains. He entered the picture exhausted, and now he's exhausted again. For Allison is a marine, and as we will learn throughout the course of the picture, he can only do so much--for his country, for a woman--before tiring. "Now, you look at me, ma'am," he tells her in a scene later on, "what do you see besides a big, dumb guy? I'll tell you: a marine, that's what I am. All through me, a marine--just like you're a nun. You got your cross, I got my globe and anchor." Yes, but he's not a marine incapable of losing his strength.
They both came to the island, called Tuasiva, under horrible circumstances that Huston wisely decides not to dramatize for the picture. Allison was the survivor of an attack launched on his submarine by the Japanese and, we figure, the only survivor of his crew. Sister Angela landed on the island four days ago with one "Father Phillips", a very old man who was in his 70's. They were supposed to rendezvous with another colleague from their church and set off for Fiji, but then the Japanese scared their colleague off--and then Father Phillips died. Of exhaustion, perhaps.
The narrative of a man and a woman banding together in the middle of wartime is a concept that Huston had, of course, already used in The African Queen (1951), and the similarities between the two pictures are impossible not to notice--from Allison's drunken tirade inquiring why Sister Angela ever became a nun (recalling Charlie Allnut's "skinny old maid" speech), to the heroes being saved from destruction by another form of destruction, as when a bomb dropped by the U.S. Navy intervenes just before the Japanese can threaten Allison and Sister Angela with a grenade (recalling the African Queen torpedoing the Louisa before Charlie and Rose can be executed). Or the symbolism of fire and water in the two films: fire eliminates Rose's village and Sister Angela's cottage (and the getaway raft to Fiji), while water transports Charlie and Rose to their destination in one piece and safely washes Allison onto the shores of Tuasiva.
These similarities and more are all covered in Professor Lesley Brill's John Huston's Filmmaking (1997), an invaluable piece of literature for those seeking out auterism in Huston's work. Brill writes that Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison "brings to the dramatic situation of two people isolated in a world at war slightly less fantastic assumptions and more realism... generically, Allison has less of romance and more of irony than The African Queen. Mythologically, the consequences of the Fall are more present in Allison than they are in the earlier film. The civilizations that exist elsewhere and that periodically impinge upon the protagonists' solitude in both films have more power to affect the lives of the central figure in the later one. Sister Angela and Mr. Allison are less able than Rose and Charlie to recreate themselves in a latter-day Garden of Eden, to escape the effects of history and of the world beyond the jungle, or to achieve a personal, private salvation."
Less than a decade later, Huston would literally dramatize the Garden of Eden in his The Bible... In the Beginning (1966); but Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is decidedly a much more clearly defined Hustonian version of the Adam and Eve story: Huston doesn't look at it from an exaggerated perspective, as he did with The Bible, or as he did with the more damning, atheistic perspectives on display in later works like Wise Blood and The Dead. Consequently, Brill argues in his book that Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is the most sympathetic of Huston's films to regard Christianity--not just in how it respects Sister Angela's beliefs more than it does champion Allison's nonchalant attitude towards religion (despite his claim that "anyone with any sense believes in God"), but in the ways Huston looks upon the complicated romance between Allison and Sister Angela. It's a matured perspective of the ways the real Allison and Sister Angela might have behaved. There is no sex, no amorous signs of affection--not even a kiss between them. This is Huston's idea of what Adam and Eve could have done right.
Allison and Sister Angela are two different people, and they have wildly different perceptions of things like nature and war. Looking around for food on the island, Sister Angela spots an enormous shell relaxed on the ocean's waves, and happily beams, "Look at the turtle, Mr. Allison! Sunning himself!" Allison sees not a creature of God but a bare necessity: "We're gonna catch that turtle, ma'am!" A Japanese spy plane (a "meatball") soars over the island and Sister Angela's first intuition is to run, while Allison immediately pulls her down to the ground and covers her from sight with palm fronds; her white dress is so attractive to enemy eyes that Allison will have to keep her out of plain sight, "even at night--if there's a moon." And when Japanese troops invade the island, forcing them to retreat to a hidden cave, Sister Angela decides that the most peaceful option would be for her to turn herself over; Allison begs her to reconsider "for the sake of my morale."
Huston, cinema's greatest adapter of literature, wrote the screenplay with John Lee Mahin from the book by Charles Shaw (described by Huston as "a very bad novel which exploited all the obvious sexual implications of a marine and a nun cast together on a South Pacific island"), and covers the film's production in a mere four pages in his autobiography. He tells the familiar story about the dangerous stunt Robert Mitchum had to perform in crawling along the sharp debris along the island's sand--a stunt that left Mitchum bleeding from the neck down. He tells a lesser-known story about Deborah Kerr reportedly having nightmares for years and years over the sequence in which she had to lay down in the swamp at night, during the sequence in which she flees from Allison in the middle of his drunken tirade. Huston also writes in great detail about the film's difficult finale, in which Tuasiva is ravaged by explosive warfare delivered from both sides: one explosion was so hazardous that it came very close to harming him and his crew.
One of the most delightful aspects of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is how well it plays as a two-character drama. Even more so than The African Queen, this is a film where there are only two principal characters; indeed, with the exception of some occasional lines from the American navy soldiers who occupy the final scenes, Allison and Sister Angela have all of the (discernible) lines of dialogue in the screenplay. The Japanese soldiers do much of their own talking, but Huston avoids subtitles and keeps their dialogue in untranslated foreign language.
What's great about the portrayal of the Japanese in this film is that these are not the kind of stereotyped bad guys that, say, Bogie mows down with a machine-gun turret at the end of Huston's early studio picture, Across the Pacific (1942), but disciplined soldiers who are only playing their part in the war. Huston milks tremendous suspense out of a sequence in which Allison sneaks into the Japanese compound and has to hide in food shelves overnight when soldiers nearby begin playing a game of draughts; the soldiers themselves are human, enjoying their moment of free time while Allison waits for them to leave (a curious rodent almost spoils his hideout). And there is some tragedy to a scene in which Allison is forced to stab a Japanese soldier who spots him fleeing from a food tent, but, then again, they are trained soldiers with the objective of having to kill one other--and this is war. At the same time, there is some comedy to the fact that this enemy soldier is in Karate gear when he spots Allison and attempts to slice down his foe with his fighting tools (and in a sly Hustonian touch, Allison disposes of the body in the ocean, only for the waters to expose this secret to the enemy a short time later--a plot point recycled from Key Largo).
That water is both a benevolent and betraying force in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is a testament to Huston's complex study of this natural element as a plot device. Brill argues throughout his book that water is a principal element in Huston's filmography, and talks most in-depth about how it is employed around the scene in which Allison proposes marriage to Sister Angela. After this scene, Huston bookends each of the following scenes with images of waves crashing along the island's shores. Brill suspects that Huston got the inspiration for this imagery from the prose in Chandler's The Big Sleep describing how "the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness." In other words, the changing tides of the waters surrounding Tuasiva reflect how Allison and Sister Angela's emotions surrounding Allison's marriage proposal are constantly changing.
The marriage proposal scene itself is an interesting one. The Japanese have left the island--permanently, it seems--and Allison and Sister Angela are free to be alone again after an evening of witnessing a series of sky bombings equivalent to "a Joe Louis fight". Sitting together the next day, Allison celebrates by singing "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)", and Sister Angela listens carefully to the song's lyrics. "Ah, this terrible war," she mutters, "taking young men away from their sweethearts." She tells him that he should have a wife and family. Then, after hesitating, Allison asks Sister Angela to be his wife. She tries, politely, to decline the offer, as she is technically already married to Christ. As of now she wears a silver ring, and once she has taken her final vows, she'll wear a gold one. Embarrassed, Allison tries to get her to forget he ever asked such a silly question... but the raging waters around the island suggest that his irritation with her refusal can only get worse, and that she can only get more uneasy over his concealed, but no less apparent, frustration.
Allison's impatience finally pops during the scene in which he gets drunk on a bottle of burning sake (which, as Brill cleverly notes in his book, lies uncertainly somewhere between Huston's contrasting symbolism of water and fire displayed throughout the film), and then complains to Sister Angela about her unnatural beauty. Why did she have to be a nun? Nuns shouldn't beautiful. He sings the apple tree song again, but this time out of drunken spite: he's angry at Christ for taking his sweetheart away from him. "We don't belong to nothing beyond this island!" he cries. "All we got is each other--like Adam and Eve. Like we was the first two people on Earth, and this is the Garden of Eden!" Sister Angela bursts into tears and flees out into the rainy wilderness, and Allison has to recover her quivering body the next morning when the Japanese return (Brill, himself a Hitchcock scholar, suggests that Allison's eloquent rescuing of Sister Angela may have inspired the sequence in Vertigo, released the next year, in which Stewart saves Novak from drowning in the San Francisco Bay). When she wakes up, Sister Angela, impressed with Allison's valiance, hints that "perhaps God doesn't intend me to take my final vows". Well, does he?
Huston believed that Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison was "one of the best things I ever made." He continued that "the picture-maker's life is subdivided into many lives. When one of those lives has been a joyous experience, as Mr. Allison was, I hate to see it end. Nor do I like to say goodbye... in the case of this picture, I lined up the last shot and left before the take." So, for that matter, do Corporal Allison and Sister Angela part company before reaching any sort of amorous climax. Unlike Huston, they wish each other goodbye--although the intrusion of the U.S. Navy will interfere with any romance they could have had together. But they will exit the picture together, and Sister Angela will follow closely behind the navy soldiers carrying Allison across the miniature bridge and off the island. She will not be his wife. But like a guardian angel, she will hold up her cross, and she will make sure that he is transported to sanctuary while he recovers from their past days of hard work, exhausted. Or, as Allison himself might put it, "beat."
by Chris Z. "It was Huston’s creative restlessness, story-telling genius and professional dedication that transformed the film into a pioneering masterpiece. “Every scene to be shot is to be the key scene of the film” advised the studio producer, and Huston set out to realise exactly this. A diamond falcon, imperious, ageless and magnificent as this one is, becomes the object of desire for many of film’s characters (prophesying the profit-driven Sierramadrics). Its power lies not in transforming people, but in magnetising those with the most intense, self-centred, indelible features. A vain Mafioso (Greenstreet), a deceiving female (Astor) a small-time crook of short stature (Lorre) and an unscrupulous private eye (Bogart) will clash and confront each others’ lies, quick-witted minds and instincts, in order to find themselves in the most desirable position in the whole story."
"As to whether or not John Huston was an auteur, I tend to say no. While filmmaking is no doubt a very collaborative process, the way an 'auteur' shines through his/her work, at least according to me, is through composition, movement, and editing, the basic tools that differentiate cinema from a play or novel. If these visual characteristics come through in a form unique to the filmmaker, and are a central focus of the film, instead of merely 'flourishes' for a script, I say they qualify. Orson Welles is an auteur, in other words, as the aspects I mentioned that are unique to cinema tend to drive his films, where as Sidney Lumet is not, as he seems to be more concerned with how to tell a story in an effective way, like a stage director working in another medium.
"Keep in mind that this is a fairly nebulous idea, but I specify the auteur definition in that way because it seems to me to be the distinction that is most useful. Depending on how the label is defined and applied, one person's auteur can be another's faceless hack. Also, this tells us nothing about a director's 'greatness', as far as I'm concerned, unless your idea of greatness is automatically weighted towards the more "cinematic" filmmakers. So, in other words, John Huston may not be an 'auteur', but, in the long run...who gives a shit. The important thing is what you get out of a filmmaker's works (like me laughing my ass off watching Beat the Devil), and not whether you can come up with an objective slotting system for 'greatness'."
"Many of his main characters in his other films are individualist and adventurous. And they often deal with moral complications, sometimes demonstrating a smidgeon of decency compared to the hopeless world around them. I think this description fits well of the two most compelling characters in The Bible: Noah and Abraham. Injustice was another theme of Huston’s. Rising above the persecution of his community are Noah and his family, very much a minority. Huston shows him being laughed at and publically humiliated in front of his sons. Yet Noah continued to follow his inner voice. Something I think Huston could identify with; he’s even been called the 'the auteur of life on the ropes'."
"Another director I might compare Huston to would be Otto Preminger. Both are known to take seemingly conventional Hollywood material, and use it instead to push the envelope, subverting the system in the process. The difference being that Preminger would typically concentrate on social ideas, where as Huston’s subversion of attitudes were more visceral and emotional. When The Man With a Golden Arm was released, it was probably shocking for many audience members, as they were forced to confront the social ill of drug abuse in a fairly realistic fashion. Conversely, with Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Bogart’s descent into greed fueled madness was also subversive at the time, but dealt with a general aspect of American culture (and human nature), rather than a specific hot button topic of the time."
"With a screenplay by Leonard Gardner, based on his novel, Fat City plays like a short story — it's not about plot, it's about observation. Stacy Keach stars as Tully, an aging low-rung boxing has-been with a tendency to drink too much, a failed marriage and a reliance on odd jobs, usually field work, to keep him from starving (or sobering up). His life changes, for good and ill, after encounters with two people: Ernie (a young Jeff Bridges), a promising young fighter, and Oma, a committed barfly (Oscar nominee Susan Tyrrell). He begins to mentor Ernie and to date Oma, an incredibly annoying creature that Tully tells his former manager Ruben (Nicholas Colasanto) will drive him out of his mind if she ever opens her mouth again. I can sympathize. Tyrrell's performance made me feel much the same way, but thankfully she's not on screen that much."
"It should come as a great surprise that the film was directed by none other than John Huston. However, this has all the earmarks of a paycheck cashing, a slummed phone-in, if you will. Although he was in the twilight of his career (and life, for that matter), that's no excuse, as he managed to create two of his best films during this period (Wiseblood and The Dead). While the script could’ve been the basis of a crass and mindless slasher-esque suspenser, Huston seems to treat it as a dialogue about the idea of confronting fears directly, and the relationship between psychiatrist and patient. Unfortunately, this "dialogue" is built upon this shitty thriller script foundation. Huston apparently didn’t notice that the plot was merely a gimmick for a crude whodunit, or just had no desire to try and muster up a thriller. In other words, the exposition scenes that a film like Schizoid tries to zip through, knowing that they are really just there to enable a psycho-thriller plot, and not to provide real insight into Freudian psychology (and most people watching the film wouldn't give a shit anyway), become the backbone of Phobia. This results in an interminable slog, as we wait around for the obvious "shock" ending, while the characters mostly stand around and discuss this lame "mystery" they find themselves embroiled in."
"I've spent a lot of time discussing the great script and performances that help make Prizzi's Honor such a special film, but since this is for a John Huston blog-a-thon, I feel I need to talk more about what he brought to this film. The pacing is great and there are many interesting shots and use of the camera, but nothing too showy. Huston was not one to show off, but when he did unusual takes, it was to serve the story. There were numerous great sequences, many aided by an original score by Alex North as well as the use of classical pieces by greats such as Rossini and Puccini. He especially used it well in the entire sequence involving the kidnapping of a bank executive, one of the most fluid sequences Huston ever filmed. He also mastered the deft blending of the comic moments with more suspenseful elements, right down to the film's climax."
Although this concludes the daily blogathon posts, the blogathon itself is not over yet. Sometime today or tomorrow I will have my piece on Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957), and I will try to find time this weekend to publish a post on my ten favorite Huston films.
Also, if you haven't submitted a piece to the blogathon yet, have no fear--THERE'S STILL TIME! Next week I will publish a tally-up post that will collect all of the pieces that have been submitted to the blogathon for the purpose of gathering them all up on one page for future readers to come across. I will still be accepting any late pieces at my email address.
For now, though, thank you to all who participated in the John Huston blogathon. I don't wish to speak for the man himself, but I believe he would have been proud.
"I admire Huston’s films for their gritty realism; the way they really broke away from set bound filmmaking. Key Largo is completely stagy, totally set bound (Its based on a play by Max Anderson and brother does it show). I admire Huston’s films for their virility; the way they charge ahead madly to adventure and doom. Key Largo is mostly just people waiting around. I admire Huston’s films for their dynamism. Key Largo is a master class of restraint.
"And yet for those who question Huston’s auteurism, I can offer no further proof of it. Despite carrying none of the calling cards I associate with Huston, Key Largo is unmistakably a Huston film, with its focus on masculinity and impotency. Its tight control of tone, its experiments in style, and its knowing precise takes on human nature."
"The similarities are clear enough. Both The Asphalt Jungle and The Killing feature elaborate heists, carefully planned and ultimately doomed by accident and bad luck. Both star Sterling Hayden, albeit in wildly differing parts. Both rely on long takes, penetrating close-ups, realistic locations, and detailed characterizations to create a texture, convey a mood, and ratchet up the tension. And while holding true to the principle that "crime doesn't pay" both films nonetheless put us entirely into cahoots with our criminal protagonists, so that we want them to succeed, or at the very least, to survive. Both movies are adaptations - The Asphalt Jungle rendered W.R Burnett's novel (while changing some important aspects, notably the nature of Dix's death) while The Killing took its story from Clean Break by Lionel White. Yet as is often the case with similar works, the two films represent wildly divergent worldviews."
"It is this clash of opposites, that provides some of the best moments of The African Queen. Huston has always been a master at characterization, and the way he fleshes out the characters of Rose and Charlie is brilliant. One brilliant scene occurs when, during a rain storm, Charlie sleeps on the upper deck, while Rose is sleeping under the cover in the stern. Charlie tries to come in and Rose takes it as an attempt to get fresh, once again taking pity on Charlie. Or the part where Charlie has his drink, while Rose sips daintily on her tea. Huston brings out the moments between the lead pair in a warm and endearing way, without wandering too much into Hallmark territory."
"I’ll admit that for me the movie came as something of a disappointment after other Huston films I’ve seen – it all looks beautiful, but there is little depth to the characterization and the plot never really goes anywhere. The main interest is probably in seeing Newman playing such a non-glamorous role, slopping out his prison cell and being beaten up by thugs. As a Newman fan I enjoyed all this, but I suppose I was expecting more from a film directed by Huston, with a script by Walter Hill and starring James Mason as well as Newman."
"There is a clear elegiac undercurrent in Joyce’s metaphysics, but Huston’s filmic interpretation falls short of anything more profound than propping up the immortal words with the right mix of mood and setting. It is always far more preferable to watch a film adaptation of a given literary work after reading that work because of the importance of creating a mental picture of what the literary characters and places are like. It’s rare that one would often agree with a director’s interpretation, and that can surely be applied to Huston’s previous adaptations, including The Red Badge of Courage, Moby Dick, Wise Blood and Under the Volcano. Many of us raise questions of faithfulness to a particular text, and by refusing to leave the box with the big Michael Flory snow sequence John Huston left the psychology in the minds in the viewers. All things considered, I think Huston made the right decision by refusing to probe deeper into Joyce’s state of mind, and allowing the eloquence and descriptive beauty of the words to weave their own spell, albeit to disperate translations."
That's Day 7. Tomorrow's the last day of the blogathon in terms of daily posts, but if you submit a piece late, have no fear: next week I'll be uploading a tally-up post that will collect all of the submitted posts to the blogathon to be gathered together on one page--all late posts will be included.
"No one at Warner Brothers was expecting much from what was a low-budget production. They even wanted to call the film “The Gent From Frisco.” George Raft, it is well known, refused to work with an untried director, turned down the lead role opening up the position for Humphrey Bogart, and with that began the “beginning of a beautiful friendship” as Rick Blaine (Bogart) says to Captain Renault (Claude Rains) in another Warner classic a few years later, between the director John Huston and actor Humphrey Bogart. His performance here was a major step in the creation of the Bogie persona which achieved its completion in Michael Curtiz’s “Casablanca.” Huston and Bogart would make six films together. This being his first film Huston made drawings of all the camera setups so as not to appeared unprepared on the set came time to actually shoot."
"Huston later talks about how the Committee had to clear its own name, since obviously such a group could not be opposed to the HUAC without itself being suspected of Communism. Among others, Huston's group included Bogart and Bacall, as well as Edward G. Robinson, Burt Lancaster, Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. But eventually, the heat got too strong--particularly for the actors involved in the group. I highly doubt the public could have cared what the filmmakers thought of the HUAC hearings, but actors were another matter: audiences pay to see movies because of the actors. They usually care about what the actors think in real life. So, eventually, Bogart and Bacall were so stung by the criticism that they had to quit. They had to pack up their bags and go home. Huston was left to fight it alone, with his fellow filmmaking artists."
"When thinking about Adam's question and main theme for the blogathon – whether or not we can call John Huston an auteur – I knew that I wanted to consider this question while placing it within the context of Huston's late era; in this case two of the final three films he ever made. Prizzi's Honor – a dark comedy about the mobster genre – was unlike anything done at the time, and the film that preceded his penultimate project, Under the Volcano, perhaps the best movie about drinking ever made (containing one of the best performances of a drunk by Albert Finney). Each film's merits aside, were they proof that Huston was an auteur, and if they did prove that he was, what then is Huston's mark on the medium? The obvious answer is Huston's love for literature. Almost all of his films are adaptations of some sort, some from quite famous and important authors (Flannery O' Connor, Malcolm Lowry, and a little nobody with the last name Joyce, I think…), and even though his films aren't flashy or pretentious they may just be some of the most consistent pieces of work since the likes of Howard Hawks or John Ford. There's something warmly familiar about Huston's films, and there's something gratifying in the consistency at which he churns out quality picture after quality picture; in addition, there's always something postmodern or theological going on beneath the surface of his films; and the wrestling of those bigger topics is Huston's indelible thumbprint on film. To watch a John Huston film is somewhat of a con game; it's easy to find yourself thinking that what you're watching is simply quality filmmaking, but there's a lot more going on in the frame than a mere competence of filmmaking 101."
To wrap up Day 6, I just wanted to stop and tell everybody how much FUN this blogathon has been so far. I rarely ever get to read this much stuff on Huston, but everybody has finally come together to make it happen. I can't thank you guys enough for it.
Normally I try not to be too interested in the personal lives of filmmakers I admire. The recent debacles surrounding the affairs of Huston collaborator Roman Polanski have taught me those lessons, harshly. But Huston's courageous efforts during the McCarthy witch-hunts targeted at Hollywood in the late 1940's and early 1950's never cease to amaze me: here was a time when dozens of actors, actresses and filmmakers were "naming names" to avoid the blacklist, and yet the man who had already made four great works of American cinema (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle) was not afraid to risk losing his career for the sake of saving the others. Fortunately, Huston somehow dodged the blacklist, although that doesn't mean we shouldn't have regrets about the ones who could not.
True, the rest of Huston's personal life was hardly something to inspire envy: his mooching off his father's success; his accidentally striking and killing a woman on the road in 1933 and narrowly avoiding any charges, likely because he had good connections; the fact that he could barely hold a marriage and had no less than FIVE wives (which may inspire some males to think of him as a ladies' man or a player--although Lauren Bacall has, perhaps correctly, noted that Huston didn't have very much respect for women in general).
Politically, however, I think I'm in the same boat as Huston was. He writes in his biography about getting to attend Marxist meetings with friends of his out of curiosity, and finding the meetings to be more "childish" than revolting, as they were to American conservatives during that era. This blogathon isn't about politics, so if you disagree with the things I say here you have every right to stop reading, but I think I share Huston's viewpoint on Communism: it definitely sounds like a nice idea, but once enacted it could hardly make for a strong form of government. Huston writes in his book that "I marveled at the innocence of these good but simple people who actually believed that this was a way of improving the social condition of mankind."
In Hollywood, for every filmmaker who was supporting the blacklisting movement (McCarey and DeMille, for example), there was a filmmaker against it (Ford and Welles). Filmmakers were either telling on each other, or they weren't. Chaplin, of whom Huston was forced to tell agents what he thought of (to which he refused to say anything negative about him), was blacklisted. Sam Fuller, like Huston, was harassed by the HUAC and very nearly blacklisted. And we all know about the stance which Elia Kazan eventually took.
The most surprising incident of a filmmaker damaging another filmmaker's career, as revealed by Huston in his book, was an incident in which Sam Wood (A Night at the Opera, The Pride of the Yankees), tried to report Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front, The Front Page, Of Mice and Men) as a suspected Communist. Huston talks about this in detail:
A friend of mine, Phillip Dunne, a very good writer at 20th Century Fox, was having lunch with Willy Wyler and me one day. We agreed the handwriting was on the wall. Just before this, Lewis "Milly" Milestone... had been accused by Sam Wood of being a Communist. Sam Wood was a director of considerable reputation himself, but a rabid anti-Communist. One can best describe his attitude by recalling that on his deathbed he made a will stating that his daughter was to receive most of his estate--providing that she didn't prove to be a Communist. I suspect Sam was slightly deranged.
That last line makes me grin. But Huston continues:
I was vice president of the Screen Directors Guild then, and at a board meeting I made a motion that we send a telegram to the House Un-American Activities Committee setting forth our disagreement with Wood's opinion. George Stevens was the president of the Guild, and he took a strong position on the subject, too.
Huston later talks about how his Committee had to clear its own name, since obviously such a group could not be opposed to the HUAC without itself being suspected of Communism. Among others, Huston's group included Bogart and Bacall, as well as Edward G. Robinson, Burt Lancaster, Gene Kelly and Judy Garland. But eventually, the heat got too strong--particularly for the actors involved in the group. I highly doubt the public could have cared what the filmmakers thought of the HUAC hearings, but actors were another matter: audiences pay to see movies because of the actors. They usually care about what the actors think in real life. So, eventually, Bogart and Bacall were so stung by the criticism that they had to quit. They had to pack up their bags and go home. Huston was left to fight it alone, with his fellow filmmaking artists.
Among those filmmaking artists was Billy Wilder. My favorite of the stories Huston tells during this chapter of his book is the story of him and Wilder banding together and standing up for their beliefs, when nobody else would:
People were required to take oaths of allegiance in order to keep their jobs. This seemed to me both childish and insulting as well as an extremely dangerous precedent. Obviously, any Communist would take the oath immediately. At a general meeting of the Screen Directors Guild a Machiavellian character named Leo McCarey--an Irish director of sophisticated comedy--proposed that the question of whether to take the oath or not be decided by a show of hands, rather than by secret ballot, so that no one would dare oppose it. I looked on in amazement as everyone in the room except Billy Wilder and me raised their hands in an affirmative vote. Even Willy Wyler, who was sitting out of my sight, went along. Billy was sitting next to me, and he took his cue from my action. When the negative vote was called for, I raised my hand, and Billy hesitantly followed suit. I doubt if he knew why, but he could tell he was in deep trouble from the muted roar that followed. I am sure it was one of the bravest things that Billy, as a naturalized German, had ever done. There were 150 to 200 directors at this meeting, and here Billy and I sat alone with our hands raised in protest against the loyalty oath. I felt like turning over the table over on that bunch of assholes! It was a long time before I attended another Guild meeting, and when I did, it was a different story.
I would like to think that had I been working at the time, I would have done all of the things that Huston did... but I don't know for sure. Of Kazan, I don't so much blame him for naming names as much as I take issue with him refusing to apologize for it (Kazan writes in his own autobiography that he's not sorry for what he did and he then promptly tells his critics to go fuck themselves). It is likely that Huston was able to avoid the blacklist because of his powerful connections. Other actors and directors had no choice but to cave in, in order to save themselves. Huston talks movingly about how Sterling Hayden once named a personal friend of his, and then broke down over it years later when he learned that his friend ended up dying in jail.
I'm going to take a huge gamble here, though, and say something risky: many of Huston's films seem to flirt with Marxism. I know, it sounds stupid, but aren't many of his movies about de-establishment and venturing out to other habitats to find one's self? Though, I suppose some would instead deduce that Huston's "escapist" thematics are more in line with somebody like Thoreau: it's that urge to just break away from order and imperialism, and experience nature--or, if not nature, a Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest environment. We could even perhaps argue that Huston was one of the first independent filmmakers. He often got his way with the studios, and when he didn't, he simply left.
Who else but Huston would rebel against Warner Bros., with its banal studio backlots, and make The Treasure of the Sierra Madre way out in South America? Who else but Huston would make a movie like The African Queen because of the personal urge to get away from the imposing order of post-war America and plunge into the hostile basins of Africa, where he could be free to torture his actors all he wanted? Or make The Man Who Would Be King out in Morocco and (gulp) Afghanistan? That, too, was a story about rebels: Peachy and Danny don't want to rule a country so much as loot it (although Danny soon changes his mind, and decides he wants to be a democratic leader after all--maybe this is why he perishes, and Peachy is spared). And then there's The Misfits, Fat City and Wise Blood, in which Huston closes the door, and forces his Marxian rebels to deal with society as it really is. If I've veered off the tracks a little, please tell me... but I think I'm getting somewhere with all of this! ;)
In other chapters of his book, Huston switches gears and talks about other filmmakers he admires, including some of the foreign filmmakers who were working during his later years (Bergman, Fellini and Bunuel). So, there's another thing I share in common with Huston: a similar taste in cinema. Somehow, though, his politics stick more with me. There's a hilarious bit during the HUAC chapter in which Huston reveals how L.B. Mayer, somehow enamored with the witch-hunts and mistakenly thinking of McCarthy as an American savior, once told Huston that he believed McCarthy was one of the greatest men of their generation. Knowing Huston's track-record with impressive documentaries, he then asked Huston if he would like to head a doc that would be a tribute to McCarthy's efforts.
"'L.B., you're out of your God-damned mind'!" Huston responded. "I just laughed and walked away."
And THAT, ladies and gentleman, is Huston for you.
"John Huston was told by the studio to tone Bette down. Huston refused. He was fascinated by Bette's performance and knew she had it under control. At the same time, Huston balanced Bette by focusing on the meeker sister in closeups and making sure to include at least 2 actors in every shot. There is very little back and forth editing from face to face during discussions, and Bette's performance really does work well in the context of a typical Huston ensemble piece. But Bette wasn't happy with the movie. She had been sick during the filming, catching the same virus that made her husband violently ill and exacerbating it with overwork and long hours. She didn't like ensemble pieces and several at WB claimed she was livid because de Havilland got all the closeups, although Bette liked and respected de Havilland, so her jealousy may be more anecdotal than anything."
"Let me comment on the intriguing relationship between man and nature in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This is one of Huston’s great obsessions; he was, after all, an avid outdoorsman. After Dobbs thinks he’s killed Curtin, we get this great moment where he’s searching for Curtin’s body, and it’s not there. He concludes that a tiger must’ve dragged it away, and then remarks with awe, 'Done as if by order!' In this film, it’s always uncertain whether nature is working in tandem with the men, against them, or just randomly. The dust storm that consumes the gold would imply an antagonistic relationship, but it also recalls the conversation when the men are leaving the Sierra Madre itself. 'You talk about that mountain as if she was a real woman,' says Curtin, and Howard replies, 'She’s been a lot better to me than any woman I ever knew.'"
That's it for Day 5's post.
So much great stuff has been contributed to the blogathon so far. And I know for a fact that there's even more excellent submissions ahead: Kevin J. Olson is considering writing up on either Under the Volcano or Prizzi's Honor; Sam Juliano is planning a write-up of The Dead; Chris Z. of Greece is in the process of posting an English translation of The Maltese Falcon up on his website; Alexander Coleman expressed interest back in June on writing something on The Kremlin Letter; and my good friend Ryan Kelly has decided to write a piece on The Man Who Would Be King.
In case any of you are struggling with choosing a topic for the blogathon, it might be helpful to inform you of what hasn't been written about yet: still nobody has submitted anything on Key Largo, The African Queen, Reflections in A Golden Eye, The Night of the Iguana, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, or Fat City. As for myself, I'm currently in the process of writing a piece on my new favorite Huston film: Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957). In my opinion, it is one of his lesser-known masterworks, so I will try my very hardest to do some justice to it.
"Oh, yes, something is more than wrong here. But he gives his lines a bit of juice, and every time he goes off screen, the film flatlines even more. While better known for roles in Chinatown, Winter Kills, The Wind and the Lion and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, I think Huston's performance in Myra Breckinridge needs more attention. And, let's face it, he never had a better character name than Buck Loner."
"I haven't seen Annie since my middle school years, so I'm not about to attempt a review of the movie here--I just want to see some discussion on the movie itself. What do you think of it? Even though I still have yet to devour his entire filmography, I'm just about ready to say that it may very well have been the worst movie of his career. The Unforgiven (1960) seems to be the only other potentially serious candidate for that title; it was the film from Huston's career that he openly confessed he disliked. We'll probably never know what he thought of Annie (his autobiography was written two years before the movie was made), but I can't imagine him wanting to make it for any other reason except to reclaim his audience after the box office failures of Wise Blood and Victory."
There's Day 4. Keep those emails coming, folks! Too much great stuff has been submitted for us to quit now!
Back in June, I got in an argument with people on the Internet Movie Database when I charged that Annie (1982) was "the favorite John Huston movie of everybody who doesn't know who John Huston is", and then I went one step further by suggesting that it was "the most expensive piece of cinematic waste of the 1980's", stating that even Cimino's Heaven's Gate was a more interesting film by comparison. Obviously I was being pretty full of myself, and I was taking advantage of the lack of cinematic knowledge of these people; but it was mostly out of frustration that Annie remains the most popular Huston movie of today's generation.
Of course, perhaps Huston was lucky to have even made a movie that today's generation would be familiar with at all (the average joe wouldn't be familiar with a single title by Ford, Hawks, Wilder or most of the other classic Hollywood filmmakers from Huston's era, barring Capra of course), but still... when people think of Annie, they don't think of Huston. That's what bothers me, I think. The one truly good thing that I think came out of Annie was Albert Finney's getting the chance to collaborate with Huston, as it resulted in their recollaborating on Under the Volcano--a far, FAR superior work.
Can you imagine being Huston and having to direct the sequence seen in the above picture, where Annie and Daddy Warbucks are singing at the White House with a (mysteriously healthy and robust) FDR? I probably would have wanted to kill myself first! If you ever get a chance to look at the Wise Blood Criterion DVD, go ahead and look at Huston's PBS interview with Bill Moyer: there's footage of Huston directing Annie. Somehow, for a sickly man in his late 70's, he looks perfectly sane directing this sequence, even though it looks like a real pain in the neck. Who wants to direct a scene where a little girl and three professional adults are singing "Tomorrow! Tomorrow!" over and over again? The actor playing FDR (Edward Hermann) has a smile so fake that it literally screams, "GET ME THE FLYING FUCK OUT OF HERE!!!!!!"
I haven't seen Annie since my middle school years, so I'm not about to attempt a review of the movie here--I just want to see some discussion on the movie itself. What do you think of it? Even though I still have yet to devour Huston's entire filmography, I'm just about ready to say that it may very well have been the worst movie of his career. The Unforgiven (1960) seems to be the only other potentially serious canidate for that title; it was the film from Huston's career that he openly confessed he disliked. I can't imagine him wanting to make it for any other reason except to reclaim his audience after the box office failures of Wise Blood and Victory.
Let's consider the time period Annie reflects upon: the Great Depression. You have to remember that Huston lived through this time, and suffered some pretty bad hardships--most notably an incident in 1933 in which he accidentally struck and killed a woman when he was driving on the road. It was not a good time for him, particularly when his screenwriting career was on the rocks and he and his father Walter would quarrel endlessly over money and unpaid loans.
Now look at the way Annie portrays the Great Depression: even though the movie has heroes and villains, the orphanage that Annie grows up in isn't really all that bad; it's not paradise, of course, but when you can sing along with the girls and drive the landlady crazy, what's so terrible about it? And then there's the rest of the movie, which is mainly about Daddy Warbucks and how Annie gets to live in the world of the privileged bourgeoisie. Isn't this capitalizing on the Depression a little bit? What did Huston think of the material?
As Ebert wrote of the film in 1982, "Annie is not about anything. It contains lots of subjects (such as cruel orphanages, the Great Depression, scheming conmen, heartless billionaires, and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt) but it isn't about them. It's not even really about whether Annie will survive her encounters with them, since the book of this musical is so rigorously machine-made, so relentlessly formula, it's one of those movies where you can amaze your friends by leaving the auditorium, standing blindfolded in the lobby and correctly predicting the outcome."
My high school friend Sarah, a fan of the original Broadway play, has a different opinion. She admires the movie for Carol Burnett's performance as Miss Hannigan, the attempts to adapt some of the elements from the comic strip such as the character of Punjab, and the added backstory of what happened to Annie's parents. Of the film's flaws, Luedloff finds fault in the overzealous villainy of Tim Curry's Rooster, Aileen Quinn's overly-saccharine portrayal of Annie, the pointlessness of the musical numbers, and even the absence of the politics that were in the original play. She actually prefers both the play and even Rob Marshall's 1999 remake (which I doubt I would like much better, since I dislike Marshall).
But what about the rest of you? I'd like to think of this movie in a better light, since, after all, Huston is my favorite American filmmaker. Anything special about it that I've overlooked? My antagonism towards the movie largely has to do with me having to explain to the people who don't know who Huston was that "he was the director of Annie"; that usually clicks off some familiarity for them, but totally the wrong kind. In a perfect world, of course, people would recognize titles like The Maltese Falcon, but I guess little orphan girls living in rich mansions is more appealing nowadays.
Just for the record: don't let some of the harsh things I've said here discourage any of you from contributing pieces on Annie to the blogathon, in case you're planning on doing so!
"Huston originally wanted to screen-test the then-unknown Marilyn Monroe for the lead role of Cuban revolutionary China Valdez, but was stopped by producer Sam Spiegel, although she did appear in Huston’s next film, The Asphalt Jungle. It’s fascinating to wonder how she would have played this fiery dramatic role and whether it would have changed the course of her career – but it is a pity if speculation about that is allowed to get in the way of appreciating the performance given by Jennifer Jones, who I think is excellent as China, showing a wide emotional range."
"In the end, Freud has created his Oedipus complex, but is shouted down by his peers during a reading of this paper. Worse yet, he is turned down by Breuer, who respects his diligence and compassion, but cannot agree on the notion of childhood sexuality. Another of Huston's characters has found his meaning in a pursuit; while others mock him, he does not fail. He knows that his work has only begun. This makes him a man who is firmly rooted in John Huston's world. He may be looking more at the end results than the means, as did the gold seekers in Sierra Madre, but the goal, the journey, the pursuit, is what defines his existence."
"Huston doesn’t even try to make it coherent. He wades hip-deep into material that would make less stout hearted directors faint. You remember the scene in Dead Man were Crispin Glover tells Johnny Depp he’s going to die and then stares unnervingly at him for about five minutes? Imagine that scene blown up to feature length and you’ll begin to understand what Wise Blood is like. Who else but Huston would keep the scene from the book in which a minor character steals a Gorilla suit and runs around attempting to shake hands with people? And not only keep it, but shoot it without once winking? Wise Blood may not work as a film on its own. But as an artifact, or concordance with the novel, it’s fascinating."
"I’ve seen Honor several more times since my original trip to the theater, and to me it’s a movie that becomes more and more brilliant with each successive viewing. At the time of Honor’s release, Jack Nicholson was riding high after coming off a Best Supporting Actor Oscar win two years previous for his turn as the laconically lascivious astronaut Garrett Breedlove in the four-hankie weeper Terms of Endearment (1983). His interpretation of the dull-witted Partanna is, in my opinion, one of his all-time best film roles—a masterful comic performance in which his portrayal of a stereotypical dese-dem-and-dose mobster (similar to the kind played by actors like Nat Pendleton, Warren Hymer or Guinn “Big Boy” Williams in the films of the 1930s) masks a very dangerous individual to be around (the police only half-jokingly refer to Charley as “the All-American hood”). Film historian Danny Peary once posited in his wonderful book Alternative Oscars that Nicholson—nominated for his performance as Best Actor—should have taken home the trophy for his first-rate turn…and I’m not entirely unconvinced that Peary isn’t right."
"In a way, both Huston and Bogie had developed a not-too-favorable reputation in the industry; the former was considered an egomaniac, and Bogie was arrogant and notorious for rubbing people up the wrong side. Add to the fact that both were heavy smokers and boozers, too. Playing the gangster repeatedly made Bogie develop his own style--the cynical, bitter, deprecatory loner who has his own code of honor. In an industry filled with handsome lookers like Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Errol Flynn, Bogie was the odd man out, with his not too conventional looks."
"The nature of 'home' is also the subject of scrutiny in Huston’s work. In The Misfits, Pilot (Eli Wallach) has an unfinished house, abandoned after his wife’s death, which Roslyn and Gay appropriate as the site of their own domestic fantasies. But these efforts are doomed from the beginning, and the contrast between their reality and the “American dream” ideal proves the film’s bitter truths. In Fat City, washed-up boxer Billy (Stacy Keach) and barfly Oma (Susan Tyrrell) initially live together in a shrill burlesque of marriage. But inevitably they go their separate ways, and it’s because the American dream of marital bliss was not designed for a pair of alcoholics in desolate small-town California. Huston was intent on demolishing these myths on which much of American life was based, revealing the sickness and falsehoods underneath. And so, to come temporarily full circle, isn’t that what Huston was accomplishing by starring in Chinatown? He was at once Noah Cross, titan of industry, but also Noah Cross, the dirtiest of old men."
That's Day 3, folks. Sorry I'm so late! Mornings shifts are not fun, but I wouldn't think of missing a day of the blogathon.
"In early 1942, just as John Huston was wrapping up principal photography of Across the Pacific, he was given a commission as a Lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps and assigned to a meaningless job in Washington. After a short while, he managed to get himself transferred to the Aleutian Islands and once there, made the first of three documentaries for the Army. Seen together, they represent very different views of the war and the effects combat had on the soldiers. They are fascinating chapters in the director's register."
"Huston read the novel in 1936 and was interested in filming it; Warner Brothers owned the film rights. It took ten years to get off the ground. After Huston returned from his World War II duty the green light was finally given. Huston had two major obstacles to overcome in adapting the screenplay. First was B. Traven’s beautifully unique though unrealistic, for the screen, writing style. Second was the book’s strong anti-capitalist sentiment and its blatant attack on materialism both of which had to be toned down. The novel also has a downbeat ending and the film’s star is not portraying a likable person, still the post war cynicism that gave rise to the popularity of film noir, also fit in here with the dark mood of this story."
"In his invaluable movie reference tome Guide For the Film Fanatic, film historian Danny Peary observes that the reputation of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) “has diminished somewhat. Because Huston strove for realism, he deglamorized the characters involved in the crime: the result is that we find the characters and their story interesting but don’t feel any empathy for them.”
While Peary’s taste in films and my own movie preferences are often in perfect harmony as a general rule, I disagree with his assessment; I had an opportunity to revisit Jungle not too long ago and remain convinced that it’s still an important and seminal film noir — providing the essential blueprint for the “caper” film by showing how professional crooks get the job done…and how on occasion a guy named Murphy (he has a law named after him) will get involved to the point where he gums up the works."
"If lead actor Gregory Peck’s performance as Captain Ahab was a bit less studied, I’d put it ahead of Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) as my personal choice for Huston’s masterpiece. Stylistically, it explored new territory in attempting to fuse the traditional effects of classic Hollywood filmmaking with a fresh hue of realism and metaphysical grandeur. Huston sat himself at the crossroads between cinema and literature, and in his greatest works, negotiated a rare alchemy. His simultaneous respect for the source text and the expressiveness of his camera are in fine balance throughout most of Moby Dick, and it’s a film that seems both authentically historical and ahead of its time."
"Later in the film, director John Huston shows us some magnificent scenes of the wide open canyon, wild horses running freely. But the men plan to capture and sell the horses in exchange for several hundred dollars. Still in love with Gable, Monroe decides to come along with the group during their round up.
Gable, Clift, and Wallach first chase a group of mares, then they go after the stallion. This sequence can be unpleasant to watch: we see how they all get lassoed, then their legs tied to a tire, anchoring them to the canyon floor where they are to stay through night until they're picked up by the dealer in the morning."
"Time has not been kind to the film. It's hard to watch Sinful Davey today without immediately noticing that the production was a rather lame attempt to cash in on the success of Tom Jones (1963). Whether or not Huston himself ever borrowed anything from Tony Richardson's Academy Award-winning film is of course up for debate, but nevertheless the film--allegedly based on a true story--is practically the same movie all over again: 18th-century European has a series of misadventures, 18th-century European becomes a ladies' man, and 18th-century European is nearly hanged at the end of the film before somehow living happily ever after. Not to mention he gets the girl at the end, too."
"Huston, however, hints that this may be the start of the new religion, with one person, the one person who loved him, no less, taking up the charge for Hazel's Church Without Christ and using him as the martyr necessary to win converts. Naturally, she will speak glowingly of her idealized vision of Hazel, and if word can take root, Hazel may morph through the generations into a vision of purity to guide humanity. Ergo, Huston darkly and ingeniously postulates that this is the story of Jesus himself. No other figure suffered so terribly to fulfill the strict wishes of his patriarch, and who's to say that Christ wasn't a madman who gripped passers-by and screamed against the current state of spiritual being, heeded by only a small group before his death. It took centuries for word-of-mouth to make Christianity such a force that persecution could not hold them back, and the ending of Huston's Wise Blood turns the entire story on its head: what if Hazel didn't refashion himself into a Christ figure so much as Jesus once grew out of a man like Hazel? Auteur or no, find me another man in his seventies who would make such a film for his 33rd feature."
At this time I would like to acknowledge Jake Cole's above review of Wise Blood, which marks the first attempt in the blogathon to search for any signs of auterism in Huston's work--hence the blogathon's mission. Way to go, Jake!
I now must apologize for what is going to be a short delay in the blogathon: tomorrow's post won't be uploaded until much later in the afternoon. I'm afraid my work schedule will be interefering with my activities, so I will not be available for the entirety of the morning--consequently, as said before, tomorrow's post won't be uploaded until around four or five PM.
Don't worry, though! The blogathon is not going anywhere. You can always use the extra time while I'm away to look over any of these wonderful posts you haven't yet read (or those you already have!), and also, feel free to submit more contributions!
Man, Day 2 was an even bigger hit than yesterday. I like where this is going!
"When fame comes to a man at so early an age," writes Davey Haggart, "it can only be deserved. As we will see later in these memoirs, I was much too enterprising a fellow to be wasted in the army. The trouble with the King's service... is the service you have to give him."
So begins Sinful Davey (1969), John Huston's 95-minute odyssey of a young rebel who deserts the British Army, is chased by the government, arouses the excitement of female fans near and far, and seeks to make a name for himself by becoming the first man ever to successfully con the Scottish nobility. But where he excels as a ladies' man he falters as a stuntman: he cannot steal a coach without falling off of it backwards, and although he is able to lead pursuing troops into the middle of a grassy bog of quicksand, he is finally caught when he fails to avoid getting hit in the head by an incoming golf ball. This is a relentless soul who will stop at nothing to be Scotland's most famed rebel--the kind of man who takes offense when only five guineas are placed on his head.
But time has not been kind to the film. It's hard to watch Sinful Davey today without immediately noticing that the production was a rather lame attempt to cash in on the success of Tom Jones (1963). Whether or not Huston himself ever borrowed anything from Tony Richardson's Academy Award-winning film is of course up for debate, but nevertheless the film--allegedly based on a true story--is practically the same movie all over again: 18th-century European has a series of misadventures; 18th-century European becomes a Casanova type; and 18th-century European is nearly hanged at the end of the film before somehow living happily ever after. Not to mention he gets the girl, too.
That isn't to say Sinful Davey isn't worth seeing; it most certainly is, just as every Huston film is worth seeing. John Hurt's performance in the title role is an absolute pleasure, and he captures every inch of that roguish charisma that Albert Finney had in the Richardson film. When Davey tells his new friend, the pickpocket MacNab (Ronald Fraser), about his plans for the future, we look forward to them with anticipation. Davey's father, we learn, was the infamous Willie Haggart, who tried and failed to pull a con on the Scottish nobility, and has now been all but forgotten; he is remembered only by envious criminals of the present day, and nobody even knows where he is buried. Davey hopes to correct his father's mistake and somewhat restore dignity to his family name. "My father, if you recall, had bad luck robbing the Duke," he reminds MacNab, "while I intend to finish off what he started."
No doubt this is "an amusing notion", as Huston himself agrees in his autobiography, and Huston even goes on to say that the finished product was "a light-hearted romp... an altogether delightful affair." But is Sinful Davey a successful film? I don't know. To begin with, let's talk about the problems with that beginning scene, in which Davey is writing his memoirs and Hurt's voiceover is heard over the soundtrack. It is followed then by a title song, sung over the opening credits by Esther Ofarim. It seems a jolly enough way to open the picture, even if it does reek of conventionalism. But as Huston later writes in his book, this is not how Sinful Davey was ever supposed to begin in the first place.
"Like The Barbarian and the Geisha," Huston writes, no doubt remembering the way that John Wayne had tampered with Huston's original vision on the aforementioned film, "it [Sinful Davey] was ruined after I delivered my final cut. I turned it in and then that was that until I next saw it upon release. I was aghast! Walter Mirisch, the producer, had given full sway to his creative impulses. He had taken a scene from the end and put it at the beginning, so that the whole story became a flashback. And he had added a dreadful narration! Under the circumstances, Otto Preminger [perhaps Huston's recollection of the way Preminger bullied Tom Tryon on the set of 1963's The Cardinal] would have brought suit. I sometimes wish I were Otto Preminger!"
Now, does that mean that we should look at the film differently simply because Huston's picture had been taken away from him? Again, I am at a loss to really say. All the same, I am not sure Sinful Davey would be any more or less of a better film than it already is, and I have a sneaky feeling it would still look like what I've accused it of being: a pale Tom Jones imitation. There is no question that Huston's intent with the film is supposed to be comical and tongue-in-cheek, but the screenplay by James R. Webb (adapted from the real David Haggart's book) has very little of that bizarre imagination that compelled, say, Truman Capote to write his own screenplay for one of Huston's most celebrated films, the infinitely superior Beat the Devil (1954). Students of cinema, of course, recognize Beat the Devil as the first great cult classic of American cinema, and rightfully so: that film offered an hour and a half of Bogart and Jennifer Jones in a race against a team of scheming, sniveling bad guys (including Peter Lorre!) that veered around Italy and across the seas to the Middle East. The plot concerned a quest to find a dangerous supply of uranium, but that was of second importance.
In fact, it was an incomprehensible movie without really any plot at all, and that was the point. Sinful Davey, to be sure, offers some funny gags here and there--as when Davey and MacNab try to burgle the coffin of the recently deceased "Tom Pepper", but are are foiled when night watchmen burst the coffin open and it releases cabbages that roll down the street. Or when a dwarf named Billy the Goat (Mickser Reid) beats the living Christ out of Davey in jail (shades of the Nazi Mexican dwarf that menaces Finney's Geoffrey Firmin in Under the Volcano), and, later, because of his small size, is risen up in the air to burst through the roof of the jail cell, allowing Davey and his fellow cellmates to join the sultry ladies upstairs. And, in the scene where Davey is hit by a golf ball and knocked unconscious, Huston plays a sort of Chuck Jones-inspired "birds chirping" queue on the soundtrack. All fine gags, but unfortunately none of them overcome the limits of the film's ordinary narrative.
One thing I like about the opening scenes of the film is Davey's escape from the British Army. Bored with having to beat an instrumental drum over and over again while marching in line, Davey, ignoring the commands of his peers, jumps off a bridge and, despite being unable to swim, survives the fall by using his drum as... a boat. This helps validate one of the theories that Huston's scholar, Professor Lesley Brill, uses in his 1997 book John Huston's Filmmaking: that water, in Huston's films, is a device that spares the characters of the story more than it does pose as a threat. Consider how Bogart and Hepburn always survive the death-defying rapids of The African Queen (1951), and are magically carried away by peaceful waters in the closing scene of that film; or how Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) begins with the ocean peacefully washing Robert Mitchum, lying unconscious in a raft, up onto the shores of the seemingly deserted island. Even in a perilously submerged film like Moby Dick (1956), the whale is far more menacing than the waters it swims in, and although Captain Ahab eventually dies by drowning, it is only after being tied to the side of the whale by ropes. In Sinful Davey, the river helps Davey escape from the British Army, and although it transports him to a rather disconcerting destination (a water wheel), Davey survives this obstacle as well.
Professor Brill goes to even greater pains looking for Hustonian elements in Sinful Davey by analyzing the end of the film, in which Davey is sentenced to death by hanging; Brill eloquently compares this scene to the ending of The African Queen. "Like Charlie, he [Davey] manages to be remarkably calm in the face of death, devoting his 'final words' to a plug for his memoirs, soon 'to be sold to the public at a most reasonable price'," Brill writes in his book. "Rescued just after what appears to be the nick of time, his story ends, like that of Charlie and Rose, with the prospect of life as a married, presumably reformed man, saved by the love of a good woman."
That "good woman" is Annie (Pamela Franklin), a quoter of the Good Book who is a childhood friend of Davey's, and who carefully follows his trail throughout the film to make sure that he doesn't get into trouble. Franklin's work here is one of the best female performances in Huston's films, right up there with Jennifer Jones in We Were Strangers (1949), Hepburn in The African Queen and Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits (1961). She obviously loves Davey more than he loves her, and at one point cannot hold back her jealousy. "Davey, you've kissed every female within reach," she complains, "but have you ever given a thought to kissing me?" She is a strong woman who seems to be out of Davey's league, and in some ways he doesn't deserve her--but it is finally because of her courageous efforts, and not the sympathies of the kind but powerless Duke (Huston regular Robert Morley), that Davey eludes his capital punishment. The film ends with Davey and Annie rejoicing in bed together, and Davey, still rather egotistical, keeps up with his roguish attempts to impress Annie (or keep her in a state of jealousy). "Have you no questions to ask at all?" he asks, dumbfounded. "Questions?" she responds. "No!" They kiss and make up. Davey may have gotten the girl in the end, but it is Annie who has the last laugh in the relationship.
The Internet Movie Database claims that a young Brenda Fricker makes an appearance in the film, as well as a young Angelica Huston, but I certainly don't remember seeing their faces. I would have to watch the film again and search for them, though I confess that I'm not in much of a hurry to do so. I wouldn't say Sinful Davey is one of the rotten apples at the bottom of the Huston barrel, exactly (I would try to make a case that The Unforgiven and Annie are even lesser works, for example), but I wouldn't say that the film leaves much of an impression on me, either. The purpose of a film like Sinful Davey is to entertain, and it does it well. But I keep thinking back to what Arthur Miller once said about Huston's work: that for every artistic triumph born out of quiet meditation and thought, there were films made for more banal, more commercial reasons--or maybe for the sheer fun of it.
Perhaps Huston made the film because, at the time, he was living at the enchanting estate of St. Clerans, and wanted to capture on film the green European countrysides that he had gazed upon so often during his legendary foxhunts. Aesthetically, what lingers about the picture, for me, is the cinematography by Edward Scaife and Freddie Young, which, although normal, captures the pure essence of the Scottish lands. In effect, Sinful Davey was perhaps the most successful film (until The Dead, at least) to fully illustrate Huston's embracement of Ireland, Scotland and everything in between--and then put it all on celluloid for audiences everywhere to see.