Adventure in many forms is the theme of many of John Huston’s films. His characters are constantly searching for “the stuff that dreams are made of” (the famous closing-line of his debut film The Maltese Falcon). Huston glorified this chase despite its frequent disillusionment and false promise, since it represented a flight from the complacent virtues of ordinary life. Like Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad, Huston regarded civilization as a false surface which thinly veiled a hostile nature. Only those who lived at the edge, on the margins of society were regarded by Huston as fellow travellers. In films as diverse as The Treasure of Sierra Madre, The Asphalt Jungle and Under the Volcano, Huston celebrated men who circled the abyss; characters who are driven to plunge head first into the void.
The son of the great theatre and film actor Walter Huston (who would win an Oscar under his son’s direction for his role in The Treasure of Sierra Madre) and crime journalist Rhea Gore, John Huston enjoyed an itinerant youth; exposed to different walks of life while moving through a variety of careers. As a contract screenwriter for Warner Bros. he worked on films such as Jezebel, Juarez, Sergeant York and High Sierra. The latter film, directed by Raoul Walsh, was the first starring role for Humphrey Bogart who would become a regular collaborator, a close friend and the star of Huston’s directorial debut - The Maltese Falcon. This adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s classic novel is celebrated as an iconic film noir; sparking as many imitators as Citizen Kane, another debut film made the same year.
Huston’s success as a genre film-maker did not steer him away from his natural eclecticism and thirst for challenge. His most adventurous work in the 1940s is perhaps his war documentaries. Serving in theUnited States Army Signal Corps during the Second World War, Huston made groundbreaking films such as Report to the Aleutians and The Battle of San Pietro. Its technical innovation in cinematography and raw depiction of armed combat influenced many succeeding films about war, fiction and non-fiction alike. His most controversial documentary, Let There Be Light, was cited by Huston, in his autobiography, as a transformative experience. It marked a lifelong engagement with psychology; directly inspiring Freud, his 1962 biopic about the psychoanalyst’s early career. It’s setting in a psychiatric hospital which treated returning soldiers who suffered from shellshock was regarded by the Signal Corps to be demoralizing to the United States Army and the American public. As a result, the film was shelved and withdrawn from public exhibition until 1980.
The post-war career of Huston followed two alternating currents of studio projects and personal works, many of them adaptations of literary classics. Shot in Ireland, Moby Dick was a difficult but rewarding production; its innovative cinematography by Oswald Morris resulted in one of Huston’s most expressive uses of colour. His most consistent period extended from Fat City (1972)to Wise Blood (1979), tough intimate dramas of failure and defeat. This cycle ended with Under the Volcano, perhaps the darkest of Huston’s gazes into the abyss. The Dead, his final film, made on his deathbed with the help of his children and an oxygen tank, is a work of serene majesty and rousing beauty.