Monday, 31 December 2012

Beat the Devil (1953)

In 1953, Humphrey Bogart was looking to make a film out of the novel Beat the Devil. His wished for his longtime collaborator John Huston to direct the film, but Huston was involved in post-production on his film Moulin Rouge, and was committed to making another film with Katherine Hepburn. Bogart was then forced to go with two-time collaborator Nicolas Ray. However, before the cameras could start rolling, Huston manged to fit the film into his schedule.

The shoot was eventful, shooting on the Amalfi coast in Italy. The script was constantly being rewritten, often the night before shooting, by Huston and Truman Capote. Bogart was involved in a nasty car accident, and his speech ability was made limited. In post-production in England, Huston hired a skilled mimic to dub some of Bogart's lines. His name was Peter Sellers. Beat the Devil would be the last film Huston and Bogart would make together, as Bogart died in 1957.

Billy Dannreuther and his wife Maria are in Italy, planning to take a steamer to Africa, with four conniving criminals. They plan to buy land in Africa rich with uranium to exploit, and get rich off of it. When Billy wakes up one day, he finds that a man who had helped them with the plan was mysteriously killed in London. Going downstairs, he meets future fellow passengers, the Chelms; Gwendolen and Harry. Harry seems to be a stuffy Englishman, but his smart, attractive, blond wife is taken with Billy, and he invites them to dinner.

They arrive at the restaurant a confused sort. Gwendolen is smitten with Billy, while Harry doesn't care much for him. On the other hand, Harry is smitten by Billy's seductive wife, Maria. Their steamer is delayed constantly, by a malfunctioning oil tank and a drunk captain. When Billy and one of his four acquaintances watch their car fall over a cliff, they are presumed dead, and one of the criminals lets Harry in on the secret, and Gwendolen confesses her love for Billy.

When Billy and his acquaintance arrive back, everyone is confused, and then they get the call to board the steamer. It only gets more confusing, so I'll save you the trouble.

When I finished Wise Blood, another Huston film, I was terribly perplexed. On one hand it was a very interesting film,  on the other it left me cold, and confused. I didn't know how to review it, properly at least. I promised myself that if I ever came across a similarly perplexing film, I would think for a while before I wrote a review. When I first heard of this film, I immediately thought I would come across a similar situation. I mean, come on, have you heard the plot! Critically, it is also divisive.

Roger Ebert placed it upon his Great Movies list, a list of the best films of all time, yet it has a 6.6 on IMDb. I was worried I would be overly confused by the plot and turned off by its craziness. What a surprise I found when I finished watching the film, and had  a review already planned in my head.

This film has been called a satire, but a satire of what? I cannot classify this as a satire, so what is it? The answer is very simple, it is an adventure film. I found myself laughing at many points, although it is not a comedy. It is certainly an odd film, yet it is entertaining to say the least and the tricky twists and turns of the plot are actually quite easy to follow.

It seems like the whole cast is having a ball, with Bogart turning in the kind of cynical performance he is the master of. Jennifer Jones is blonde, and loving it. I haven't seen many films with her, so I can't quite judge her quality as an actress, but she is excellent as the devious Gwendolen Chelm. The typical English exterior is betrayed, as she reveals herself to be a scheming little devil with a voracious appetite, for love out side of her marriage.

Peter Lorre, Robert Morely and Edward Underdown are all also excellent. The odd man, or should I say woman, out is Gina Lollobrigida. Her role as Bogart's young, sensuous Italian wife is certainly fine, but she seems to be in the wrong film. This may not be her fault, as it seems as if no one on this movie knew what they were going for. Her performance is a bit one note, which is never good, even in a adventurous romp like this film. To be fair she is never really given any stand out scenes.

The screenplay seems incredibly muddled, yet it works in a very strange way. It seems that even working nights wasn't enough to stop Truman Capote from putting his own spin on the proceedings, and the dialogue is one of the films strengths. Capote and Huston manage to keep the screenplay tight and lean, but some scenes could have been cut, and some are just unnecessary.

This film can be found in the Public Domain, so the transfer isn't of the best quality. The cinematography is fair, but nothing truly stands out. The same can be said of the score, it works, but you don't find yourself humming it later on. The locations are beautiful and they work well for this type of story.

Huston's direction reflects the tone of the story, relaxed, smooth and in control. It flows naturally, showing that Huston wasn't afraid to take it easy, while still remaining in command of his film.

Overall, is it amazing? No, not really. Is it entertaining enough to serve as an enjoyable experience for 90 minutes? Yes, of course. It isn't thought-provoking. It isn't deeply psychological. It is entertaining, fast paced and likeable. So yes, it's not bad.

 Beat the Devil,
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones and Robert Morely.
Directed by John Huston,
7.5/10 (B+)

1. The Dead
2. The Man Who Would Be King
3. Moby Dick
4. The Asphalt Jungle
5. The Misfits
6. Beat the Devil
7. Wise Blood
8. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
9. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
10. Prizzi's Honor


Sunday, 16 December 2012

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

In the mid 1950's, John Huston picked up a copy of Rudyard Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King. Huston felt the story would make a great film. He approached both Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable for the lead roles, and they accepted. Unfortunately, due to Bogart's death in 1957, the project stalled. Interest was regained during the making of The Misfits, when Clark Gable expressed his desire to do the film. Unfortunately, due to Gable's death in 1961, the film was once again shelved.

It would be brought up in conversation now and then, with names like Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas attached.  Nothing came of it, and the project was yet again shelved. Finally in 1973, during the making of The Mackintosh Man Huston approached Paul Newman about doing the film, with Robert Redford. Newman thought the film sounded excellent, but if the film was to be about British men, British actors should be cast. Newman mentioned Sean Connery and Michael Caine as possible leads.

Huston thought the idea excellent, and immediately contacted the two. Both agreed, and the shooting commenced in Morocco. It would be the last large scale epic Huston would ever tackle.

Rudyard Kipling is the author of a newspaper in Victorian era India, and one night as he types the next day's paper, a figure in rags approaches him. It comes with great shock to him when he realizes that this is a man he had befriended years prior. Indeed, it is Peachy Carnahan, whom Kipling had met when Peachy stole his watch. Carnahan begins to tell the story of his adventures, with fellow rogue Daniel Dravot.

Years earlier, they had the idea to walk to the mystical land of Kafiristan, where no man has been since Alexander. The idea was to make peace with the warring tribes, and set themselves up as kings. After many sidesteps, they reach their destination and kick their plan into action. After Dravot is hit with an arrow, blocked by an ammunition belt, the local populace think him a god. After a great coincidence, he becomes the ruler of the land, and people worship him.

Unfortunately, Dravot begins to think himself an actual god...

If ever the phrase "they don't make 'em like they used to" is applicable, this is a shining example. This kind of epic, big budget swashbuckling adventure is distinctly old Hollywood, but also incredibly entertaining. The film balances drama with comedy, adventure and greed, and does it flawlessly. This film hits all the right buttons, and then even more. Caine and Connery have tremendous camaraderie and their friendship is one of the most believable of all time.

Indeed, in their performances, they exude a remarkable charm and drama. Caine, as Peachy Carnahan is charming, dangerous and greedy, while the same can be said for Connery's Daniel Dravot. Those who know Connery only as James Bond will be in for a shock when they see this film. He proves that he can not only act, but act well. For those who know Caine as an old man, will be surprised to see that in his youth he was an excellent actor.

Christopher Plummer, in the role of Kipling is absolutely excellent. He is the lens through which you observe the story. The many years, and drafts of the screenplay, definitely show. All of that time in pre-production result in a perfectly realized script, and film. The score, by Maurice Jarre can be too much at points, but is still quite moving, especially in the last scene. The cinematography is beautiful, although it might feel slightly old school at points, so is the film.

Too many epics find that with a big budget, the film must be intense and brooding drama. As Huston realizes here, that is not the case at all. With a big budget, he manages to craft an excellent, drama that doesn't mind verging on the comic at points. This is but one of the many literary adaptations Huston would tackle throughout his long career. As is the case with almost all of those films, I have not read the source material. From my understanding Rudyard Kipling was an actual British writer, who at one point did live in India.

I am once again bring light on Huston's direction. He brings a masterful touch to the proceedings, crafting what could even be considered satirical by some. The film comes together through his direction, and indeed I cannot think of many directors whose range extends as far as Huston. If there was ever a running theme throughout his films, it is greed. This is no exception.

As I wrap up, I call attention to the last scene of the film. To those who have seen it, and those who haven't, I believe you might be able to sympathize with me when I call attention to the incredibly moving nature of the ending. The singing was an incredibly sad and fitting end to this, one of the greatest epics ever made.

I considered putting this film as my number one Huston, but I couldn't bring myself to remove The Dead from that position, so at least for now, this film will have to be content with second place.

The Man Who Would Be King,
Starring: Michael Caine, Sean Connery and Christopher Plummer,
Directed by John Huston,
10/10 (A+)

1. The Dead
2. The Man Who Would Be King
3. Moby Dick
4. The Asphalt Jungle
5. The Misfits
6. Wise Blood
7. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
8. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
9. Prizzi's Honor

Monday, 10 December 2012

Prizzi's Honor (1985)


John Huston is in his late 70s. He isn't what you'd normally call hot stuff. Richard Condon wrote a book about the mob, it was a comedy. Condon decided he would make his story into a film, so he approached Huston, despite Huston not having made a comedy in some time. Huston went through an impressive roll call of names for the various parts, but he made his mind up in the end with Jack Nicholson playing Brooklyn mobster Charley and Kathleen Turner playing the seductive Irene.

Huston even cast his daughter Anjelica in the juicy part of Maerose. The film was not expected to perform well, but it became such a massive sleeper hit that when it came out on VHS, it was still in theatres. Critics loved it, and  it nabbed Huston his last Oscar nomination for Best Director, at the young age of 78, a record that stands even today. So it would make sense for this film to be regarded as a classic these days, right?


Charley Partanna is born into the mafia, so when he becomes of age he becomes a contract killer for the Prizzi's, one of the most famous of the New York mafia families. At a family wedding, he notices the beautiful Irene Walker. He is immediately smitten, but he loses her and can't find her. Afterwards he gets a call from her, she's in California and she wants to meet him. The next day Charley flies out and they fall immediately in love, and so does she.

He flies back home bursting with happiness, and he gets an assignment. Someone stole money from the Prizzi's casino in Vegas, and they aren't happy. It was a husband and wife job, apparently and they are in California, so Charley flies back out. There he shoots the husband, and then waits for the wife to come home. The wife is Irene, and she gives him the money, only there is half of it missing. In doubt over weather to kill or kiss her, Charley flies back to New York (again), and consults his former fiancee, after they have sex on the carpet.

Charley decides to kiss her, and flies (seriously, they use the same airplane each time, it's really annoying) back to California and marries Irene. From there, the newlyweds go back to New York (guess the method of transportation) and begin to work on a new job. It turns out that Irene is a contract killer and she and Charley plan to kidnap a bank manager for ransom, only they are forced to shoot a cops wife, turns everyone against them, even each other.

 I really wanted to like this movie, but I think you can tell by my annoyance over the constant air travel (seriously, it's like an ad for United) that I didn't love this film. I didn't hate it though, because Nicholson is just so entertaining while trying to pull off a Brooklyn accent, though it almost works. It is a black comedy, but I did not laugh once or cringe. I sat there and saw the movie.

Above, I wrote that this film has mostly been forgotten, and that is true. it was apparently a big hit in the 80s and I can see why. But it has been partially forgotten. Maybe because 1985 was such a weak year for film, this was regarded as good enough. Nicholson looks a little old, but he and Turner had sufficient box office appeal to pull it off. I had been told that this film was amazing and really bad. Personally I did not enjoy it, but it was entertaining enough.

With the performances, Nicholson is so completely over the top that his Charley Partanna almost works, the accent is enough to make me smile, but unfortunately for a two hour long film, a smile is not enough. Kathleen Turner certainly has an abundance of sex appeal, but I found Irene to be incredibly similar to Turner's work in the outstanding Body Heat. She had me confused about whether she was a hero or villain, up until the last few minutes I did not know. Some would sat this helped the performance, but I personally just found it confusing.

Anjelica Huston won an Oscar for her work as Maerose Prizzi, but like I said above, it must have been a weak year. Huston was good, but again I couldn't figure out weather she was good or evil. It just ended up confusing me. The rest of the cast does good work, but nothing jumps out. The cinematography can feel rather old school at some parts, but I guess that's just the way Huston interpreted the story. Alex North's score can feel clawing at some points, but the covers of popular Italian music can be entertaining.

I felt as if the film was Huston taking a break. It certainly didn't feature any amazing shots or scenes, I cannot comprehend the film's multiple Oscar nominations, it seems to me like a really average film. That is not to say that it wasn't entertaining, Nicholson was enough to save the film from mediocrity. The end result is not the boring film it might have been without Nicholson's presence and Anjelica certainly injects life into her scenes, but in the end, despite the wicked satire of the plot the film never really goes anywhere you want it to and you are left feeling empty.

But I guess that's better than nothing.

Prizzi's Honor,
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Kathleen Turner and Anjelica Huston.
Directed by John Huston,
6/10 (C-)

1. The Dead
2. Moby Dick
3. The Asphalt Jungle
4. The Misfits
5. Wise Blood
6. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
7. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
8. Prizzi's Honor

Monday, 3 December 2012

Moby Dick (1956)

One day, famed science fiction writer Ray Bradbury got a call out of the blue from John Huston. Huston asked Bradbury to help him write a film adaptation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Bradbury confessed that he had never managed to finish reading the book, but Huston handed him a copy and told him to read what he could. Then Bradbury headed over to Ireland with his wife to write. Even after the screenplay was completed, it took Huston two years before financing could be arranged.

Indeed the film lacked a female star, and was about a bunch of men hunting whales. As part of the film's financing arrangement, Huston was forced to cast a big name in the part of Captain Ahab. He chose Gregory Peck, who no one thought would work in the role, including Peck. The shoot was plagued by production issues and multiple "Moby Dick's" were lost. Indeed Peck almost drowned during a scene. On release the film made next to nothing, and critics were generally indifferent to the film. It has yet to make it's budget back.

Any English major could tell you the plot, Ishmael is a stranger who takes a need for the sea. He heads to the town of New Bedford, where he rooms for a night with a mysterious stranger with whom he later befriends, named Queequeg. Together they strike out on a whale-hunting voyage on the Pequod. The Pequod's captain, is the mysterious Captain Ahab whose leg was taken by the infamous white whale Moby Dick, and whose is rumored to have half a heart.

It is Ahab who clarifies the Pequod's  true mission. They are not to hunt whales, they are to hunt Moby Dick.

I have not read Moby Dick, although I have tried. The story was not as familiar to me as it is to many, so I will just clarify something. This is the definitive screen adaptation of Moby Dick. Huston gets everything right. Peck, who has been criticized as wooden in many things, is magnificent in this. His Ahab is an intensely foreboding portrait of evil. Richard Basehart may have been a little old, and his performance may be average, but he allows you to reflect your own feelings and opinion through the character of Ishmael.

I hope I do not alienate literary fans who dismiss this as an inadequate adaptation when I say that the film does a great job of condensing the story into an enjoyable film experience. Ahab has been corrupted by the whale, and he has lost more than his leg. He has lost his soul. This is brilliantly conveyed in the performance by Peck, his foreboding glance and scars make him visually scary, but I never found myself to be afraid of him. He most certainly is not 'wooden', the dialogue is old fashioned, and I am sure that part of it must have come from the novel.

Baseheart does good work, but we never really focus on his character. His character is the lens through which we observe the tragic story of Ahab. The film can feel like an ensemble in parts, and we get time to explore some of Ishmael's shipmates. However, in one of the best scenes in the film, Orson Welles delivers an absolutely sterling monologue containing a parable. Welles dominates in that one scene, although apparently he was so nervous before delivering the monologue, that Huston had to hide a bottle of Brandy on set for Welles to sip from during nervous spells.

The screenplay is terrific, melancholy and dark, while containing a mysterious edge that Bradbury and Huston exploit terrifically. Credit must go to Melville's novel, for giving us a beautiful story. However it is the screenplay that condenses the novel without losing it's edge. For some reason I found the film to be slightly satirical, although it is certainly very darkly satiric if this is the case.

The cinematography is incredibly interesting. It looks and feels like no other Technicolor film. The colours are not garish as is the case with many films of that era. In fact, even the scenes at sea look like they are actually taking place at sea, and not in a tank or against some kind of backdrop. The film invokes a somber melancholy tone, through the muted pallet of colours. I have heard that the day for night (shooting in day, and darkening the image to make it look as if it takes place at night) technique was used, and it certainly makes sense.

Finally to the direction. Huston once again delivers a great film. While the direction may not be as energetic as Wise Blood, or relaxed like The Dead. His direction is key to the success of the film. It's a good thing he does well, admirably. The tone is slow, though not nearly as slow as the novel. It certainly feels that by the end someone is winking at you. that someone may very well be John Huston.

Moby Dick,
Starring: Gregory Peck, Richard Baseheart and Leo Genn
Directed by John Huston,
9.5/10 (A+)

1. The Dead
2. Moby Dick
3. The Asphalt Jungle
4. The Misfits
5. Wise Blood
6. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
7. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

Monday, 26 November 2012

Wise Blood (1979)

In the late 70's John Huston was approached by Michael Fitzgerald to find out if Huston was willing to direct an adaptation of Flannery O'Conner's Wise Blood. Huston agreed if Fitzgerald could get the money together. He did, and they shot it quickly, using no big name stars on a minimal budget. To play the lead role of disillusioned would be preacher Hazel Motes, Huston cast Brad Dourif, who had come off a major success playing Billy in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest in 1975.

The rest of the cast was rounded out by multiple low-profile relatively unknown actors, with Harry Dean Stanton and Ned Beatty playing two of such parts.

Young poor, ambitious and uneducated Hazel Motes returns to his southern town to look for his family. They have gone, and the house of his youth stands unoccupied and rotting. He then buys himself a suit, and heads for the city. There he meats Enoch, a clinger who takes a strange liking to the stoic and anti-social Motes. Motes also encounters Asa Hawkes, a "blind" preacher who goes around on the streets and begs for money with his promiscuous daughter Sabbath.

Hawkes's preaching of Jesus and god sets Motes off on an anti Jesus tirade, and it is then that Motes decides to create a church, but one without Jesus. He buys a banged up car and goes around preaching on the streets.

 This may be one of the strangest films I've ever seen. Each scene adds a layer of disbelief upon the last, and Dourif's performance just gets more and more strange and interesting. Hazel Motes is a man so confused by life that he can only see one thing, God. But God is the thing that blocks him from doing anything. Due to childhood trauma at the hands of his preacher grandfather, Hazel Motes doesn't know anything about life, except that he is afraid of God.

When he hears someone preaching Jesus, this childhood trauma manifests itself in the form of anger, and he decides to preach, but not Jesus, but rather a form of anti-Jesus. In this form Brad Dourif manages to suspend your disbelief as you wonder exactly what this man is all about, his motives and ambitions. As Huston said himself, Hazel is a one note guy, and that one note is god. Weather it be the fear of God, or the fear of the possibility of God, religion is Hazel's life.

The film has been called many things, but cult film pretty much wraps it up. On release, there was little to no impact made, but over the years the film has garnered a sort of reputation. It is an odd little curio, and a strange film stylistically. It feels like the work of a young beginner, than the work of an old master. The film feels uniquely fresh, and is quite entertaining as a result. However I cannot give it a great mark because it is not a great film.

It is certainly entertaining, but there are too many flaws with the film for me to call it a masterpiece it is an incredible piece of off-kilter entertainment. The performances are quite good, and the direction is stupendous. However I have a major quibble. The ending. I am still trying to process it (SPOILERS follow).

Hazel's car is stopped by a policeman who pushes it into a river. Hazel blinds himself, and then keeps inflicting various forms of physical punishment to himself (barbed wire on the torso, rocks in the shoes). Huston explains the ending by saying that the whole film is Hazel's fight with Jesus, and in the end Jesus wins. The ending is certainly very effective in this message, but it was intensely hard to predict. But then again, Hazel Motes is a very unpredictable young man.

I will spend my last paragraph speaking of an odd side story that occurs. Enoch becomes obsessed with a man in a monkey costume, and with shaking his hand. He then takes the suit (it is unclear what he does with the man), and walks around shaking people's hands. He is pathetic, but he comes off as scary. The same  way Hazel comes off. Like a boy who doesn't know what do do when he grows up, drifting aimlessly from place to place just looking for something to latch on to. Enoch latches onto Hazel, and Hazel latches onto religion.

Wise Blood,
Starring: Brad Dourif, Harry Dean Stanton and Ned Beatty,
Directed by Jhon Huston,
7.5/10 (B+)

1. The Dead
2. The Asphalt Jungle
3. The Misfits
4. Wise Blood
5. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
6. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Dead (1987)

The Dead was John Huston's last film. He was very sick at the time, and probably knew that his next film would be his last. So when choosing his project, he had to choose wisely. He chose The Dead, an adaptation of the James Joyce short story. It was very much a family affair, with his son Tony writing the screenplay and daughter Angelica playing the female lead. It was during the making of the film that his health deteriorated.

He died four months before it was released, and during the film making he suffered innumerable challenges. He relied on an oxygen tank to breath, and he couldn't go 20 minutes without it. Sometimes Huston would get stuck in his car, and be unable to get to the stage, and he would have to relay direction through his assistants. Despite these challenges, Huston made the film, based off a supposedly  "un-filmable" story. It was only after multiple revisions that Huston found the right approach, and with it, one of his finest films.

Greta and Gabriel Conroy are married, and they like each other, in turn of the century Ireland. They go to a party being held by three spinsters on January the 6th. After the party, they return to their hotel. That is the plot, seriously, that's it. To go into more detail would be frivolous without critical commentary, so that brings me to it.

The Dead is without a doubt the finest last film of any director with a sizable body of work, that I have seen. What Huston accomplishes in 72 minutes is what most filmmakers try their whole careers to accomplish. The film is so simple, yet its simplicity is its finest asset. Huston here manages to try something new, and for a man in his 80s, who is dying, that is quite a risk. And he pulls it off, of course. Some directors, like Hitchcock and Wilder have tried this approach, and the results aren't generally amazing.

If you read the plot, you'll see that the film's plot is quite thin, I could sum it up in five seconds, so Huston relies on characters and mood to set it up. In order to do that you need two things: good actors and a good script. And he has both. Some might say that The Dead was an act of nepotism, and yes, Huston draws on his family. John cast Anjelica in three of his films, and under his direction she won an Oscar. Here she gives a performance that doesn't seem to amount to much, for the first hour.

Then, near the end, she is walking down the stairs when a tenor from the second floor begins to belt out a tune. I can't name it, but she stops and closes her eyes, swaying gently to the sound of his singing, almost in a trance. Then she goes home and tells her husband of a past lover, who came to her one night, having suffered a terrible sickness. He died, and she believes that she caused him to die, wandering in the rain. But I'm, getting ahead of myself.

The performances, Huston (Anjelica, that is) is absolutely terrific. She puts up a facade for the first hour, but then she slowly lets it slip, and you glimpse her. Donal McCann is absolutely terrific in the role of Gabriel, her husband. I hadn't heard of him before this film, and its a shame, his ending monologue is close to perfection. The supporting cast is flawless, consisting mainly of people that I hadn't heard of before, which helps you to believe that they are their respective characters.

The screenplay does the wonder of turning what has been called the greatest short story of all time into a motion picture. Tony Huston is more than up to the challenge. It has been said that John Huston had been trying to get the film made for some time, but he couldn't find the right approach, and one day it came to him. The story doesn't need to be jazzed up with flashbacks and unnecessary additions. The best way to adapt the short story is to just tell the story.

No embellishes, nothing. Tell it straight. It works. I haven't read the source material, but I want to now, based on the final scene alone. The score perfectly complements the film, striking a melancholy but optimistic chord. Indeed some of the lengthy dialogue scenes can be frustrating, especially when they harp on singing and turn of the century Irish-British relations, but for some reason you are still compelled. I feel that what really makes the film work are the characters.

They feel real. They feel like people you know, from Freddie the pathetic drunk, to Greta, the "perfect" woman. They don't beg any stretch of the imagination. The whole party reminds you of past experiences and perhaps with a hint of nostalgia. Then I bring you to the direction. In his last film, John Huston managed to create a truly awesome film experience. It doesn't have any explosions, or detectives, greedy prospectors or riverboat captains. It has real people.

Huston manages to weave his camera through a scene so well, that it makes you feel that you are almost eavesdropping on someone else's party. By the end, you almost feel as if you know these people, and in a way you do. As the crisp snow falls on a forgotten Irish graveyard, we are reminded that we are all alive, but then we die, and time will pass us by. That brings me to my final comment: the title. It is perfect. It sounds as if the film is a horror film, but it is truly about the passage of time, how the dead can haunt the living from beyond the grave, but not in a scary way.

The dead hold a power over the living no matter how old and wise you are. They still cast a shadow over our lives, and we remember them until, perhaps, we join them. I debated giving this film a 9.5, but my sentimental side won over my few small problems. I'll end this review by quoting from the last narration, a fitting end to a terrific film.

"Like everything around me, this solid world itself which they reared and lived in, is dwindling and dissolving. Snow is falling. Falling in that lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lies buried. Falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living, and the dead."

The Dead,
Starring: Anjelica Huston, Donal McCann and Donal Donelly
Directed by John Huston,
10/10 (A+)

1. The Dead
2. The Asphalt Jungle
3. The Misfits
4. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
5. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

In 1957, Robert Mitchum is in Tobago, filming Fire Down Below. He arrives back in the United States, and he finds out that he has another gig. A marine and a nun stuck on an island. The island: Tobago.The film is called, Heaven Knows, Mister Allison. The plot alone draws comparisons to The African Queen. And there is Deborah Kerr, playing a nun. Again.

Corporal Allison was boarding a raft on a scouting mission, off of a submarine in 1944's Pacific. The Japanese bombed him, and he was left alone in the raft. When he came to, he was alone in the raft, in the middle of the Pacific. After a while, he drifted to an island. After checking out some abandoned shacks, he found Sister Angela, a nun, in the church. He falls asleep, and when he wakes up, Sister Angela is praying.

After initially meeting awkwardly, the two soon become comfortable together, and come close to being friends. It is when the Japanese land on the island, that the strange relationship is put to the test. 

Just to make myself clear, I thought that this film was a pale imitation of The African Queen.  It's not a bad film, just not as good as that film. That said, it does have it's entertaining moments. I feel that it lacks that magic that was captured with The African Queen. Kerr and Mitchum have absolutely terrific chemistry, so the blame rests rather on the screen play. The film has a terrific setup, and then after a while, there is only so much you can do with a Marine and a Nun, without delving into some nasty business.

Unfortunately, because of the production code, you can only go so far. So then we are fed multiple moments of Mitchum acting macho while Deborah Kerr gets to sit on the sidelines and pray. There are only two characters for the whole film, and if they begin to get tiresome, you have a serious problem. Don't get me wrong, Deborah Kerr can act the part, and Mitchum is certainly very macho, but again, only to a point until it becomes tedious. Then the Japanese decide to make the island a base, and Mitchum falls for the nun. She of course, is engaged to Jesus.

The film is beautifully shot, in Colour and Cinemascope (widescreen). The lush island of Tobago never looked better. I spoke of the performances above, but to recap, Mitchum and Kerr were good, not great. The screenplay was awkward, and it felt forced at points, but the problem was the limitations of the production code.

Huston's direction was good (notice good, not great). I couldn't help but imagined how he felt whilst directing it. It feels rushed, the shots get the story told, but he doesn't add much visually. Overall I feel that it felt kind of like he was doing it for the money, and he was frustrated about it. You can tell that he was limited, and it made him frustrated.

It was not bad, but not great. Overall, the word I would use to describe the film is limited. Limited in plot options, performances, direction and screenplay.

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison,
Starring: Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr
Directed by John Huston
6.5/10 (B-)

1. The Asphalt Jungle
2. The Misfits
3. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
4. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison


Monday, 5 November 2012

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

1950. John Huston isn't exactly "hot stuff". His new project has no big name actors, and a plot that could have depressed anyone. It is about a bank robbery, and it's after effects. Not exactly box-office gold. Another problem. Star Sterling Hayden was a communist, and both him and Huston are on The Committee for the First Amendment. It seemed as if the studio just wanted to see what would happen. Good think Huston pulled it off.

"Doc" Riedenschnieder has just been released from prison. He is considered one of the foremost criminal masterminds of the time.Immediately after his release he is itching to pull of another heist, his last. Then he plans to retire to Mexico, he recruits heavy Dix. It's a Jewellery store robbery, and he knows he can do it, he just needs someone who will be able to sell the Jewels after the Robbery. He turns to Emmerich, a rich family man, who runs little things on the side, like having an affair with a beautiful blonde.

Unfortunately for Doc, Emmerich plans to double-cross him after the heist, and Doc knows it, but he goes on anyways. He recruits some other men, and at the same time Dix finds himself in a relationship with a woman whom he doesn't love, but who is devoted to him. SPOILERS. The heist doesn't come off the way Doc planned and he is faced with multiple double crosses and the cops on his trail. In other words, it's a typical Noir.

 John Huston was born for Noir. He defined the genre with The Maltese Falcon, and his sharp wit and attention to detail was a perfect match to that film's sharp and direct dialogue. Here he works in the genre, but not in the tradition of films like The Big Sleep or Falcon, where there is some happiness. No, here no one is happy. They are greedy and selfish, and perhaps only Jean Hagen is the only non-cynical character, yet even she has an unhealthy selfish desire to nurture, to love Dix.

There is no hope in The Asphalt Jungle, it is one of the most depressing things I've ever seen. It is also one of the most realistic films ever to come out of Hollywood. The gritty, hopeless city presented here could be any major city in the US. New York, Los Angeles, Miami, it could be set in any of those. These characters have been rotting from the inside out, and their insatiable greed and lust can only lead to their destruction.

Yet you feel sorrow, you want them to have some kind of happy ending, and that is one thing that these people will never have. That brings me to the performances, uniformly excellent. Huston had a great knack for getting great performances out of actors, and this is no exception. Hayden has always been a unique actor. On his face is etched the pain and suffering of thirty odd years in the crime racket. You get the sense that he is running on fumes.

Hagen is, as I mentioned above terrific, she is one-minded in her obsession with Dix. Louis Calhern is slimy and, despite his good-guy act, he is rotting from the inside. His affair with Marilyn Monroe is just a way for him to embrace his true slimy nature. When he is questioned by the police, you can see him desperately trying to get himself out of the situation, lying until he can lie no more.

Also good is Sam Jaffe as Doc and James Whitmore. The film barely has a score, which may be due to artistic intent or laziness, but the lack of score reinforces the gritty reality of the film. The cinematography is amazing, delving in the shadows and murky depths that define Noir.

And finally the direction. As I mentioned above, Huston keeps it realistic, with little to no artistic flourishes, and it works completely. Huston was the perfect match for the material, and it certainly pays off.

The Asphalt Jungle,
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Jean Hagen and Louis Calhern
Directed by John Huston
9/10 (A)

1. The Asphalt Jungle
2. The Misfits
3. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

1948. John Huston hasn't made a movie since the ill-fated 1946 documentary "Let There Be Light". The last narrative film he made was 1942's Across The Pacific. So when Huston chose B. Traven's bleak novel to be his next project, studio heads were noticeably worried. Adding to the worry was the fact that Huston refused to shoot his film in the studio. He wanted to shoot it entirely on location, and he refused to budge. Add into the mix a balding Bogart and a faded star in Walter Huston, and it seems almost incredible that the film was made at all.

But it was.

Fred Dobbs, a down on his luck American drifter in Mexico, gets by by begging passerby's for money. He sleeps on the streets, and in a homeless shelter when he can. It is there that he meets Curtain, a fellow down on his luck drifter. Together they hear of old prospector Howard's tales of gold and fortune out in the desert. Hatching a plan with Howard, the three set out for the Sierra Madre, hoping to strike it rich.

Dobbs and Curtain learn the tricks of the trade from Howard. It isn't long before local outlaws begin to cause trouble, and at the same time they manage to find a vein of gold, but nearby prospector's come into balance. The weather plays a part in setting them further and further away from their goal. Then of course there is greed.

I'll be honest, this film is overrated. I don't like as much as a probably should, but it is a very intriguing film. Bogart is excellent, and I did feel that he became kind of hammy at the end, but that was typical of the time. His performance strikes a great balance of being innocent, yet smarmy at the same time. That is until, he completely throws out the balance and beats it to a bloody pulp. That is not a criticism, but it can't surprise you that much, thanks to the layers to Bogart's performance.

Tim Holt, as Curtain isn't amazing. He provides the calm in between necessary, but he doesn't have much of a commanding presence, which doesn't help him, but it does suit the character.  However, the main acting achievement on display is that of Walter Huston. Huston owns every scene he's in, and he totally dominates the film. His son John's decision to cast him isn't nepotism, he is a great actor, and he proves it. In every scene.

The visuals are bleak and as desolate as can be. The scenes in the desert have a certain rugged beauty to them, and this makes the setting perfect for the scenes of greed and corruption that follow. Speaking of greed, that could have been the film's title. Greed is what drives the plot, and is what dooms the characters from the start. In the beginning, Bogart keeps asking the same white suited American (played by John Huston, of course) for money. He doesn't stop this, and eventually the man in the white suit confronts him.

If you watch Bogart's eyes, you see him not paying attention to what the man is saying, but the coin he is holding in his hand. Greed drives Dobbs to the treasure, and also to his end. Huston's direction is terrific, he lets his observe the scenes passively, yet never being showy. However, as I stated above, the film is overrated. It is very interesting, but easily boring at the same time. It is great for discussion, but hard for enjoyment.

I will say one thing for the film, it has a terrific ending. From all the Huston's I've seen so far, I've noticed that they all have great endings. From The Maltese Falcon to The Misfits, with The Night Of The Iguana being perhaps the only exception, so far, the endings have been standouts. I won't ruin it, but it is a great ending to a good film.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston and Tim Holt
Directed by John Huston
7/10 (B)

1. The Misfits
2. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Misfits (1961)

Made in 1960-1961, The Misfits is a very unique production. It was both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe's last completed film. It was written especially for Monroe, by her last husband Arthur Miller, at the end of their marriage. It also starred Montgomery Clift, who was notoriously unstable following his car accident, and relatively unknown character actor Eli Wallach. Perhaps the only stable part was Thelma Ritter, a well-known, reliable character actor. Even the director, John Huston, was a wild card. The production seemed doomed.

The Misfits opens in Reno, Nevada, where young divorcee Roslyn is staying, while waiting for her divorce to come through. She is with her friend, Isabelle, and they stop in a cafe. There, they meet Gay Langland, a cowboy who has seen better times. Roslyn decides, in the spur of the moment, to accompany Gay to his ranch, in the desert.

To avoid giving away too much, I'll describe the rest of the plot in much broader strokes. They spend the rest of the film mainly in the desert, where we also meet Guido, a younger ranch hand, with an instant infatuation to Roslyn. The film also includes Pierce, a Rodeo man, who's gone way past his prime, but continues despite this.

I`ll begin with the actors. Marilyn Monroe was not a great actress, but she fit certain roles. This was not a `typical` Monroe role, but she does well. I can`t help but feel that her performance was desperate, and it works well at times, while failing at others. It is an average performance, but it certainly ranks among her greatest. However the main acting achievement on display here, was that of Clark Gable, in his last performance.

Gable was always cast as a matinee idol, and he indeed has great looks and a wonderful screen personality. Unfortunately, he always played the same character, almost. Even Gone With the Wind dosen`t fully break the mold. Here, from the start, it`s something different. The charm and wit are still there, but buried underneath are layers of sadness. You get a sense that his time is passed, and he can`t cope. The scene that shows this best, is when Gable, elated at seeing his kids, comes back to bring Roslyn to see them.

They`ve already left, and he breaks down in drunken agony. It`s his best performance. Also we have Thelma Ritter, bringing her usual amount of wit and pathos to the film. Eli Wallach is very slimy and completely one-minded in his obsession for Roslyn. Montgomery Clift is unstable and shaky, playing an unstable and shaky rodeo clown. It`s his last great performance.

Now to the writing. It is not Arthur Miller`s best, he wrote it with the purpose to provide his wife with a good role. The plot is interesting however, and the film itself is well done, so this is not a major problem. The cinematography is equally as desolate, and captures the feeling of time lost, and a world that has moved on, and left you behind. Now, for my last criticism, I turn to the direction.

Here, Huston tones it down slightly, and gives us a more subdued film, which is perfect for the subject. He was really a man who knew when to make his film experimental, and when to make it conventional. Here he goes the safe route, while still retaining the beauty of a film about loss. It works. In Huston`s career, this may rank as a minor achievement, but the talent on display is undeniable. It is a beautiful film, that ends with one of the most moving moments in Huston`s entire catalog. I`m going to describe that moment now, so I put up a big SPOILER alert.

Gable and Monroe are driving home, they have found love in a strange way, but Monroe wants to know if they`re going in the right direction. (I copy of IMDb`s quote section).
[Last lines]
Roslyn: Which way is home?
Gay: God bless you girl.
Roslyn: How do you find your way back in the dark?
Gay: Just head for that big star straight on. The highway's under it. It'll take us right home.

That`s pretty much all I have to say.

The Misfits,
Starring: Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift.
Directed by: John Huston
8.5 out of 10 (A-)

1. The Misfits

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

John Huston: The Man Himself

I realized yesterday that I had forgotten to talk about John Huston, as a man. To begin, he was born in Missouri, his father was character actor Walter Huston. The Huston's traveled quite a bit, and John was a very sickly child. He was committed to a sanitarium at one point, but after a miraculous recovery, he sought out his passion, boxing.

He traveled from job to job,  until he settled in movies. He gained street credit for helping with some scripts. This helped him to make his first film, The Maltese Falcon, which catapulted Humphrey Bogart to stardom. His career would be completely erratic, ranging from typical war films like Across the Pacific to musicals, like Annie. He began to act in the 60s, and his performance choices were almost as strange as his directorial ones.

He remains today an enigmatic figure, and his films live on, the great ones are always there, but that is not the point of this site. The point is, I want to use his films as a way of trying to understand the man, to come find some forgotten gems, and some overrated ones as well.

Monday, 8 October 2012


Prologue to a Project

I think it only normal to explain my intentions. I was online yesterday, and I was looking through a list of the greatest directors of all time on IMDb. I noticed someone was missing, but I couldn't quite place who. Five minutes later it occurred to me that that person was John Huston. It naturally searched up Huston on IMDb, and found his projects to be interestingly varied. I am not quite sure where the idea for a blog came from, but here I am.

My first step is to lay a couple ground rules:

1. Only watch and review movies that John Huston Directed, not Starred.

2. Only watch and review movies that John Huston was credited as directing.

3. Only watch and review his full length feature films.

My intent with this blog is to watch and review every John Huston movie, and rank them from best to worst. Now that I have explained my intentions, here is a list of all John Huston films that fit my criteria.

The Maltese Falcon, 1941.
Is This Our Life, 1942
Across the Pacific, 1942
Report From The Aleutions, 1943*
The Battle of San Pietro, 1945*
Let There Be Light, 1946*
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, 1948
Key Largo, 1948
We Were Strangers, 1949
The Asphalt Jungle, 1950
The Red Badge of Courage, 1951
The African Queen, 1951
Moulin Rouge, 1952
Beat the Devil, 1953
Moby Dick, 1956
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, 1957
The Barbarian and the Geisha, 1958
The Roots of Heaven, 1958
The Unforgiven, 1960
The Misfits, 1961
Freud, 1962
The List of Adrian Messenger, 1963
The Night of the Iguana, 1964
The Bible: In The Beginning..., 1966
Reflections in a Golden Eye, 1967
Sinful Davey, 1969
A Walk With Love and Death, 1969
The Kremlin Letter, 1970
Fat City, 1972
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, 1972
The MacKintosh Man, 1973
The Man Who Would Be King, 1975
Wise Blood, 1979
Phobia: A Descent into Terror, 1980
Victory, 1981
Annie, 1982
Under the Volcano, 1984
Prizzi's Honor, 1985
The Dead, 1987

It's a lot of films, and it will take a lot of time, but I'll make it.

*Huston directed three movies for the war effort. They are all under an hour, but considering their impact on his career, I've decided to include them in this project anyways.