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Huston, John (1906-1987)

Director, Writer, Actor

Main image of Huston, John (1906-1987)

John Huston was born in Nevada, Missouri, on 5 August 1906, the son of actor Walter Huston and journalist Rhea Gore. He enjoyed a colourful and peripatetic upbringing, shuttling between his divorced parents. After trying his hand at acting, journalism and riding with the Mexican cavalry, he joined his father in Hollywood and in 1931 began working as a screenwriter. After a few hiccups - and a brief period working for Gaumont-British in London - his career took off, and by 1941 he was successful enough as a writer to be allowed to direct his first film, The Maltese Falcon (US). Its immediate success launched him as a major director.

Huston was always a wildly uneven director, but enough of his films scored critical and commercial hits to sustain his reputation. After his wartime service, he enjoyed another triumph with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (US, 1948) and a solid success with the archetypal heist movie, The Asphalt Jungle (US, 1950). But, disgusted by the political climate of McCarthyite America and its repercussions in the film industry, he distanced himself from Hollywood, increasingly preferring to make movies elsewhere. The African Queen (1951), made for the UK-based Romulus company, was the first of these, an adventure romance set in WWI Africa that rapidly became a much-loved classic, not least for the sparky chemistry between Humphrey Bogart as a disreputable river-boat captain and Katharine Hepburn as a strait-laced missionary. Huston made two more films for Romulus: Moulin Rouge (1952), a lavishly-staged, flatly-scripted biopic of Toulouse-Lautrec; and the absurdist adventure-movie spoof Beat the Devil (1953), whose zany plot and private jokes baffled audiences at the time, though it has since become a minor cult classic.

Huston's valiant attempt at filming Melville's classic novel Moby Dick (1956) foundered on a patently phoney whale and a wooden performance from a miscast Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (US, 1957), set on a Pacific island during WWII, and starring Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, tried to recreate the vital chemistry of The African Queen but suffered by the comparison. In 1952 Huston had settled in Ireland, where he took up citizenship in 1964. In the '60s his British work consisted only of a segment of the woefully unfunny James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967); and Sinful Davey (1968), a Tom Jones-style period film, with John Hurt in his first lead role, as a Scottish highwayman.

Huston's strike rate improved in the 1970s, with such films as Fat City (US, 1972), The Man Who Would Be King (US, 1975) and Wise Blood (US, 1979). His only British film of the decade, though, was the glumly downbeat spy movie The Mackintosh Man (1973). Illness slowed him down in the 1980s, though he scored a notable success with Prizzi's Honor (US, 1985). In the final stages of emphysema he summoned up the energy to make his final film, The Dead (1987), a British-German-American co-production based on James Joyce's elegiac short story. Restrained, poignant, impeccably judged, it rounded off Huston's variable filmmaking career with a valediction of sheer mastery. He died in Newport, Rhode Island, on 28 August 1987.

Brill, Lesley, John Huston's Filmmaking (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1997) Grobel, Lawrence, The Hustons (New York: Scribner's, 1989)
Long, Robert Emmett (ed), John Huston Interviews (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2001)
McCarthy, John, The Films of John Huston (Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press 1987)
Pratley, Gerald, The Cinema of John Huston (South Brunswick, NY/London: Barnes/Tantivy 1977)

Philip Kemp, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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