Why this might not seem so easy
John Huston was a towering figure during the golden age of Hollywood. He came to the cinema following one of those itinerant old-time careers that took in an improbably long and exciting-sounding list of professional pursuits, including cavalry riding, amateur boxing, painting, writing and journalism.
His artistry was rooted in manly experience, and he became a robust, man’s-man director, the kind of gent who called Ernest Hemingway friend, and who’d insist on perilous location shooting in east Africa chiefly to get in some big-game hunting in his downtime. So the Hollywood legend goes.
Along with John Ford, Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh, he was one of the most significant American-born directors working in the studio system, turning out 37 feature films as director between the early 1940s and the late 80s.
These start with one of the most celebrated debut films ever made, detective noir The Maltese Falcon (1941), and culminate with one of the archetypal last films – his elegiac 1987 adaptation of James Joyce’s short story ‘The Dead’. This warm reverie of old Dublin, and the Irish heritage Huston treasured, was directed from his wheelchair, with the 80-year-old veteran plugged into an oxygen supply.
In between, his output could be erratic. Not every John Huston movie is a keeper. But he also made an impressive number of A-grade classics, proving unusually adept at tackling movie versions of canonical literature. In contrast with Hawks, a contemporary in the hardboiled mould who had little truck with the notional respectability of bookish adaptation, Huston made dynamic, respectful and often definitive film versions of books by greats including Herman Melville, Stephen Crane, Flannery O’Connor, Rudyard Kipling, Malcolm Lowry and Tennessee Williams.
The best place to start – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
Greed and human folly are the themes that bind together much of Huston’s work, and 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre offers saddle-bags full of the stuff. The director’s first feature after his return from the Second World War (when he made the remarkable 1946 documentary Let There Be Light), it’s a feverish tale of gold prospecting, bandits and the avarice that undoes three American treasure-hunters during their adventure south of the border.
Any of Huston’s most famous films provides an accessible entry point, but this is the one that won him two Oscars – for best director and best screenplay.
It also brings together several key Huston trends: it’s a family affair, winning his dad Walter Huston the Oscar for best supporting actor (later, John’s daughter Anjelica similarly won best supporting actress in his 1985 gangster comedy Prizzi’s Honor); it’s the first taste of Huston’s obsession with the heat and dust of Mexico, continued in The Night of the Iguana (1964) and Under the Volcano (1984); and it’s perhaps the best of his numerous team-ups with Humphrey Bogart, the like-minded actor, friend and drinking partner who won the best actor Oscar a few years later in Huston’s riverboat yarn The African Queen (1951).
As this might suggest, actors really thrived under Huston’s direction, garnering a total of 13 Oscar nominations across his films.
What to watch next
Love of money is also the root of all evil in The Asphalt Jungle, which Huston quickly adapted in 1950 from a just-published W.R. Burnett novel. Here, before Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), before Rififi (1955), is arguably the birth of the heist film as a subgenre – with Huston lavishing great, suspenseful detail on the build-up, break-in and fall-out from the robbery of a jewellery store by a motley crew of ne’er-do-wells. Watch out for a young Marilyn Monroe as a gangster’s moll (a decade later, Huston directed her again in her final film, The Misfits).
A bit like with The Asphalt Jungle and the heist movie, if you follow film noir back to its source, you get to Huston’s debut The Maltese Falcon. Believe it or not, this was Warner Bros’ third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s private-eye novel in a decade. But everything just clicked under Huston, who had offered to step into the director’s chair for a pittance, having built his reputation as a screenwriter working with Walsh (High Sierra) and Hawks (Sergeant York).
This time all eyes are on the prize of a priceless falcon statuette, with Bogart’s private eye Sam Spade rubbing shoulders with such immortally nefarious types as Sydney Greenstreet’s oily Kaspar Guttman and Mary Astor’s treacherous early femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy.
The African Queen, tossing together a hard-drinking Bogart and a prim Katharine Hepburn on a river steamer in the Belgian Congo, is the other big Huston joint of the early period, though newcomers to Huston may benefit from skipping straight to one of the director’s more surprising late masterpieces.
Surviving into the era of The Godfather (1972) and Taxi Driver (1976) – and, indeed, appearing unforgettably as the evil Noah Cross in Chinatown (1974) – Huston embraced the stylistic shifts of the New Hollywood period, surprising everyone by making two of the most vital films of his career. Steeped in local atmosphere and lived-in character, the low-key boxing drama Fat City (1972) and delirious southern gothic Wise Blood (1979) are the equal of anything the new guard was coming up with.
Deeper exploration of Huston’s work means getting to grips with some fascinating outliers. 1969’s A Walk with Love and Death finds him returning to 14th-century France to echo the student unrest of the late 60s. The gimmicky 1963 mystery The List of Adrian Messenger saw fit to cast Tony Curtis, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra, but keeps them in heavy disguise throughout. Meanwhile, Huston fell off a cliff, drink in hand, while making the similarly star-studded adventure Beat the Devil (1953), a sunny caper clearly made for the lark of it.
It’s a fact of life, however, that kids and British telly addicts may come to Huston first via – respectively – Annie (1982) or Escape to Victory (1981). This cutesy musical and Ipswich Town FC-starring prisoner-of-war movie have a popular cut-through that more serious-minded projects (like his Freud biopic) could never claim.
Where not to start
The Red Badge of Courage, based on Stephen Crane’s classic of the American civil war, he could do. Moby-Dick he made a good fist of. He nailed at least the mood of Malcolm Lowry’s mezcal-marinated masterpiece Under the Volcano. But the Book of Genesis? Huston, we have a problem.
The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966) is a late entry in Hollywood’s cycle of biblical blockbusters, starring the director himself as Noah, Richard Harris as Cain and Peter O’Toole as three angels. The Garden of Eden, the flood, the Tower of Babel, Sodom and Gomorrah – it’s all in here, and often very impressively mounted. But the stentorian tone and pious religiosity grow very tiring over three hours.
Patchy Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967) would make a strange first Huston pick too; not least because he was one of five directors in charge.
The Maltese Falcon is back in cinemas nationwide for its 80th anniversary from 17 September 2021. An accompanying season of detective films runs in the Big Screen Classics strand at BFI Southbank from September to November.