Study Guide

John Huston

John Huston Essay - Critical Essays

Huston, John

Introduction

John Huston 1906–

American director, screenwriter, author, and actor.

Huston's films are notable for their symbolism and strong plots. His heroes are often loners who struggle to achieve an unobtainable goal. Huston has worked on many different types of films, including westerns, mysteries, and documentaries. Some of his films have been poorly received, but most have been both popularly and critically successful.

Huston's early life was marked by a series of career changes. His education was sporadic because his father, actor Walter Huston, travelled extensively. The younger Huston left school to become a professional boxer, and in succeeding years acted in New York, joined the Mexican cavalry, worked as a reporter, then as a scriptwriter, studied art in Paris, and became editor of Mid-Week Pictorial. Huston's early screenplays, written for Gaumont-British in 1932, include A House Divided and Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Huston was hired by Warner Brothers as a screenwriter in 1938. After the success of his screenplay The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse, Huston was promoted to director. His first directorial effort, an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel The Maltese Falcon, was very successful, and established him as a gifted and important director. Huston's next films continued somewhat in the thriller style of his first film. During World War II, however, Huston made three documentaries for the army. The Battle of San Pietro and Let There Be Light are considered to be effective in depicting the physical and psychological traumas of World War II; in fact, Let There Be Light is so explicit that it was banned by the War Department and was not widely screened until late 1980.

Huston's most successful film, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, was the first film he made after the war. The theme of struggle in the face of failure is portrayed with bitterness, and critics agree that Huston's characters and plot are among the most significant creations in film. The Red Badge of Courage, The African Queen, and Moulin Rouge, all made during the early 1950s, were also highly successful.

Huston fell into disfavor with critics later in the decade. Many critics feel that Huston's Moby Dick proves that Herman Melville's novel could not possibly be effective on film. Other films in the 1950s and early 1960s are considered slight and unworthy of his reputation. Freud, Night of the Iguana, and The Bible are memorable for his attempts at extending his filmic technique, but critical evaluation is lukewarm. The Bible is remembered particularly for Huston's portrayal of Noah. This was his first important acting role, and in the late 1960s and 1970s Huston's acting overshadowed many of his directorial efforts.

Huston's recent work has been marked by a calmer, more compromising outlook. Fat City and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean reveal Huston's cynicism at its peak, but the films are more philosophical than much of his earlier work. Similarly, Wise Blood shows Huston more as a man of thought than a man of action. Huston's directorial style in Wise Blood is reminiscent of his early work, and critics see the film as one of his most impressive creations.

Huston's films are not necessarily innovative. Many critics agree that Huston's most important asset is his ability to present his beliefs economically and clearly. Huston's recent films are technically very similar to his earliest work. They uphold Huston's filmic philosophy: "Everything must serve the idea…. The means used to convey the idea should be the simplest and the most direct and clear…. [It] seems to me that this is a universal principle of art. To say as much as possible with a minimum of means. And to be always clear about what you are trying to say." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

Bosley Crowther

["The Maltese Falcon"] turns out to be the best mystery thriller of the year, and young Mr. Huston gives promise of becoming one of the smartest directors in the field….

[With "The Maltese Falcon," Mr. Huston gives] us again something of the old thrill we got from Alfred Hitchcock's brilliant melodramas or from "The Thin Man" before he died of hunger.

This is not to imply, however, that Mr. Huston has imitated any one. He has worked out his own style, which is brisk and supremely hardboiled. We didn't see the first "Falcon"…. But we'll wager it wasn't half as tough nor half as flavored with idioms as is this present version…. For the trick which Mr. Huston has pulled is a combination of American ruggedness with the suavity of the English crime school—a blend of mind and muscle—plus a slight touch of pathos….

It's the slickest exercise in celebration that has hit the screen in many months, and it is also one of the most compelling nervous-laughter provokers yet.

Bosley Crowther, "'The Maltese Falcon'," in The New York Times (© 1941 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 4, 1941 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1939–1948, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1970, p. 1813).

Bosley Crowther

"In This Our Life" is neither a pleasant nor edifying film: It is, again, one of those Snow-White-and-Rose-Red sister yarns, in which the evil and mischievous sister … deserts her loving fiance and runs off with her good sister's spouse. Then, when she has driven the latter to suicide by her selfish and frivolous ways, she returns home and tries to lure her old flame away from her sister, with whom he has taken up. And finally she reaches rock bottom when she tries to escape a hit-run killing charge by brazenly alleging that the deed was done by a local Negro boy.

This last, as a matter of fact, is the one exceptional component of the film—this brief but frank allusion to racial discrimination. And it is presented in a realistic manner, uncommon to Hollywood, by the definition of the Negro as an educated and comprehending character. Otherwise the story is pretty much of a downhill run, with [the evil sister] going from bad to worse in her selfish pursuit of "happiness" and the good people growing better and more beatified in marked contrast.

The effectiveness of such a picture, in which a problem of personality forms the core, depends both upon the central character and upon the establishment of an atmosphere. Director John Huston, unfortunately, has not given this story sufficient distinction—such, for instance, as was given by William Wyler to "The Little Foxes." The telling of it is commonplace, the movement uncomfortably stiff.

Bosley Crowther, "'In This Our Life'," in The New York Times (© 1942 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 9, 1942 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1939–1948, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1970, p. 1864).

Bosley Crowther

["San Pietro"] is a grim pulse-pounding illustration of the cold, relentless violence of war….

[It] is a fine piece of camera reporting and an eloquent document of the face of war….

But it is also a splendid little drama of the human side of the Italian campaign, for it closes with some heart-stirring pictures of the people of the liberated town. And it relates these baffled, battered people to the soldiers who set their town free in tender and juxtaposed glimpses of their faces and the moves toward their new life…. In "San Pietro" there is war's harsh reality and there is the soothing aftermath of hope.

Bosley Crowther, "'San Pietro'," in The New York Times (© 1945 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 12, 1945 (and reprinted in The New York Times Film Reviews: 1939–1948, The New York Times Company & Arno Press, 1970, p. 2072).

James Agee

Several of the best people in Hollywood grew, noticeably, during their years away at war; the man who grew most impressively, I thought, as an artist, as a man, in intelligence, in intransigence, and in an ability to put through fine work against difficult odds, was John Huston, whose "San Pietro" and "Let There Be Light" were full of evidence of this many-sided growth. I therefore looked forward with the greatest eagerness to the work he would do after the war.

His first movie since the war has been a long time coming, but it was certainly worth waiting for. "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" is Huston's adaptation of B. Traven's novel of the same title. It is not quite a completely satisfying...

(The entire section is 1125 words.)

Bosley Crowther

In making this screen translation of an old Maxwell Anderson play ["Key Largo"] … Director John Huston has certainly done a great deal to tighten and speed a still overcrowded story of the forces of evil versus good. He has dropped out a lot of prior build-up, thrown away some complexities and avoided the final fatalism which Mr. Anderson always seems to indulge.

Now he has got a story of two strong men who come face to face in a hotel, shut down for the summer, on a sweaty Florida key….

With remarkable filming and cutting, Mr. Huston had notably achieved a great deal of interest and tension in some rather static scenes—and scenes, too, that give the bald appearance of having...

(The entire section is 253 words.)

Manny Farber

[John Huston] is a smooth blend of iconoclast and sheep. If you look closely at his films, what appears to be a familiar story, face, grouping of actors, or tempo has in each case an obscure, outrageous, double-crossing unfamiliarity that is the product of an Einstein-lubricated brain…. His films, which should be rich with this extraordinary experience are rich with cut-and-dried homilies; expecting a mobile and desperate style, you find stasis manipulated with the sure-handedness of a Raffles.

Though Huston deals with the gangster, detective, adventure thriller that the average fan knows like the palm of his hand, he is Message-Mad, and mixes a savage story with puddin'head righteousness. His...

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James Agee

The first movie [John Huston] directed, The Maltese Falcon, is the best private-eye melodrama ever made. San Pietro, his microcosm of the meaning of war in terms of the fight for one hill town, is generally conceded to be the finest of war documentaries. Treasure of Sierra Madre, which he developed from B. Traven's sardonic adventure-fable about the corrosive effect of gold on character, is the clearest proof in perhaps twenty years that first-rate work can come out of the big commercial studios.

Most of the really good popular art produced anywhere comes from Hollywood, and much of it bears Huston's name. To put it conservatively, there is nobody under fifty at work in movies,...

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Gavin Lambert

[In The Asphalt Jungle, as] in nearly all his previous films, Huston has selected a group of people whose conflicting motives and ambitions set the course of the story, and provide a dual tension, since their activities are usually illegal and the relations between them constantly changing. In The Asphalt Jungle, as in The Maltese Falcon and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the people are brought together by common greed. But whether the motives are noble … or debased, Huston's attitude remains objective. His observation is sharp, and the characters here … are as brilliant as any he has presented. But a refusal to identify himself with any character, to show compassion, to leave the...

(The entire section is 266 words.)

Bosley Crowther

[Thanks to John Huston] "The Red Badge of Courage" has been transferred to the screen with almost literal fidelity….

Don't expect too much from it in the way of emotional punch—at least, not as much as is compacted in [Stephen] Crane's thin little book. For, of course, Mr. Crane was conveying the reactions of his hero to war in almost stream-of-consciousness descriptions, which is a technique that works best with words….

[The] major achievement of this picture is the whole scene, it re-creates of a battlefield near the Rappahannock (Chancellorsville) from the soldier's point of view…. Mr. Huston, who made "San Pietro," one of the great documentaries of World War II, can...

(The entire section is 270 words.)

Gavin Lambert

[We Were Strangers is a] collective study of men in a crisis. (p. 82)

Huston has … conceived his film as a melodrama—which has earned him the disapproval of those who consider that melodrama should be reserved for "unimportant" subjects like The Maltese Falcon, and who feel that it vitiates anything more "serious". Nevertheless, there are many major dramatic and literary works highly seasoned with melodrama…. The flaws in We Were Strangers are in details of the treatment, not imposed by the choice of treatment itself. In some ways it is carefully stylised: in the striking camera-work by Russell Metty with its powerful groupings and broad contrasts; in the dialogue's...

(The entire section is 592 words.)

Bosley Crowther

Whether C. S. Forester had his salty British tongue in his cheek when he wrote his extravagant story of romance and adventure, "The African Queen," we wouldn't be able to tell you. But it is obvious—to us, at least—that Director John Huston was larking when he turned the novel into a film….

[The movie] is a slick job of … hoodwinking with a thoroughly implausible romance, set in a frame of wild adventure that is as whopping as its tale of off-beat love. And the main tone and character of it are in the area of the well-disguised spoof.

This is not noted with disfavor. Considering the nature of the yarn, it is hard to conceive its presentation in any other way—that is in the...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Gavin Lambert

Pierre la Mure did not claim that his Moulin Rouge was an accurate biography of Toulouse-Lautrec, but a dramatic evocation of the artist and his background; and since John Huston has based his film upon the book, one imagines his intention to have been the same. Obviously, then, one mustn't reproach it for factual errors and fictionalised episodes—though one may feel this kind of approach to be ultimately pointless …; but one can, and must, complain that Moulin Rouge … adds up to an unacceptably glib and misleading portrait of a famous artist. (p. 194)

The concentration on visual effect suggests that Huston may have been more interested in his surface than his people…. On the...

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Peter Barnes

[The Maltese Falcon reveals John Huston's] style at its best—direct, analytic, and disciplined. This film succeeds brilliantly as a character thriller, but also, through its ruthless elimination of inessentials, gains an extra depth. All the characters are obsessed; their lives are devoted to one pursuit only, the acquisition of money (in the shape of the fabulous maltese falcon, "the stuff that dreams are made of"). The Maltese Falcon and, later, The Treasure of Sierra Madre show what film art can gain by a relentless concentration on two or three characters only: what might be called "observation in depth" rather than painting the usual broad but superficial canvas—"observation in breadth."...

(The entire section is 1058 words.)

Tony Richardson

[In Moby Dick John Huston] has been unable to make the book his own cinematically, and the final gesture the film makes is simply that Melville once wrote a "Great Book"….

As with [The Red Badge of Courage], Huston has seized on the heightened pressure of the book. But he has failed to comprehend the balance, the interior stresses by which it was produced. The spectacle he can certainly provide—the painted Queequeg, the weird Coleridgean calm, the whalebone leg of Ahab—but, because he has been unable to realise the context, the ordinary weary grind of life on the Pequod, the careful expertise of the whale hunts, these become just so many theatrical effects. Wherever the...

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Arlene Croce

The Roots of Heaven is about the hunting and killing of elephants. It remains for the kitsch-hounds to pick up the scent….

On the face of it, The Roots of Heaven is promising Huston material. Like nearly every film he has ever made, it is concerned with a prodigious undertaking: sometimes it is the pursuit of wealth, sometimes it is an objective in war, or blowing up a ship or a politician, or killing a whale. Usually it involves a protracted physical, ordeal of utmost realism…. The trouble with The Roots of Heaven, and with the last half-dozen or so of Huston's efforts, is that the virtues of this approach exist quite independently of the film itself. A style of...

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Eugene Archer

The Hemingway personality has become a familiar stereotype in contemporary folklore, but its influence on the American screen has not been readily apparent. Although the novelist's protagonists—disillusioned outcasts indulging in sensory sensations for the sake of experience—have emerged as prototypes for the characters who inhabit the specific genre of dimly-lit melodramas of the American underworld, the crucial elements of the Hemingway style are less frequently encountered in modern drama. The ruthless excision of non-essentials for the purpose of lucidity and unity, although Aristotleian in concept, imposes complex demands upon a medium which is primarily visual, while the insistence upon the principles of...

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Eugene Archer

In the first part of this monograph [see excerpt above] we considered the early Huston. In later years his work has become more introspective. He has increasingly focused his attention on a handful of characters in conflict with their environment … small people in a big world….

In [the opening scene of The Asphalt Jungle] the film has captured the impression of the hunted desperation which pervades the underworld mentality, and conveyed a sympathy and comprehension toward certain elementary factors of criminal existence which suggest a point of view as decisive as that of the jungle it invades. The deterministic factors which may have contrived to produce this world are at once irrelevant....

(The entire section is 2511 words.)

Gordon Gow

Right from the beginning, it's clear that The Unforgiven is a western in search of significance. The credit titles are backed up by a dust storm, a white moon in a blue-black sky, and a grim vision of cracked earth and cattle-skulls. The significance, once found, turns out to be familiar: this is a story of racial prejudice, deep-ingrained, acted out amid the also familiar tradition of the Western. The combination of familiarities is blended into a solemn-paced film that might occasionally give western addicts the fidgets, but compensates with spirited out-breaks of action and a fair share of visual poetry. (p. 21)

Gordon Gow, "New Films: 'The Unforgiven'" (© copyright...

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Gerald Weales

Much was to be expected of The Misfits. With two men as talented as John Huston and Arthur Miller behind the cameras and two personalities as powerful as Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in front of them, the resulting film should have been a strong one. One might have expected it to be very good or very bad, but it was a surprise that it should have turned out so dull.

The original Miller story … out of which the book and movie grew is a reasonably effective moral tale that uses a pathetic roundup of wild horses as setting and device. The three men in the story—the aging Gay, the youthful Perce, the pilot Guido—are explicitly identified with the mustangs they capture. The men, like the...

(The entire section is 389 words.)

Raymond Durgnat

John Huston's career is curiously unequal. The life of Toulouse-Lautrec is viewed through the prism of Pierre La Mure's dim-witted tear-jerker, while The Misfits is eked out with bits of arty-craftiness like Marilyn Monroe embracing a tree trunk to show she loves life in all its forms. Often between the idea and the execution there interposes a kind of gangling, almost cynical nonchalance, at other times an almost naive solemnity. One feels John Huston is two people—the thoughtful, basically rather ascetic, middlebrow, and, far more interesting, the rugged extrovert for whom life is keenest during the brawl, the hunt, and the genial drinking-session. In Huston the two often seem to cancel out rather than link...

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Richard Whitehall

[One] of the most fashionable blood-sports seems to be baiting John Huston. The fury of disciples suddenly recognising false idols is not a pretty one…. [Because] Adrian Messenger and The Secret Passion [released in the United States as Freud] are bad films … then it also follows that The Maltese Falcon must have been a bad film. This is one of the sillier aspects of the 'Cahiers' school of criticism, which has spread to its British and American hangers on. Well, Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, Sierra Madre, still look pretty good. Huston's decline seems to date from his decision to enter the characterless international cinema with African Queen, which still looks pretty bad....

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Stephen Taylor

Ideas interpreted on a scale different from the one in which they were conceived frequently accumulate new meaning along the way. Huston's rescaling—you might call it "cinematizing"—of [The Night of the Iguana] results in a reduction of meaning, yet sometimes the results are surprisingly beneficial. Listening to the protagonists reel off accounts of their spiritual difficulties and arrive verbosely at poetic solutions to them, it becomes patently clear that [Tennessee] Williams' thinking is no longer abreast of the times…. Williams has fallen behind, has been overtaken by America, and Huston's reinterpretation, whether by deliberate deflation or plain vulgarization, often acts to soften the blow.

...

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Allen Eyles

[In The Maltese Falcon] Huston displays a rare talent for the film medium is in his exact manipulation of his actors, cameraman, set designer, and others, to capture such a rich, near flawlessly correct mood, not just at moments and scenes but throughout the length of the film. It is an extremely powerful and richly suggestive work and has a rare solidity as a whole. It is a great film. (p. 49)

[Huston's hand is] obvious in his superb relating of actors to the camera, as in the way the latter closes in on Spade's bulk so that it cuts between Brigid and Cairo at their first meeting to suggest how he is in the middle, listening in to pick up what he can. There is the beautiful economy of the...

(The entire section is 372 words.)

John Russell Taylor

The most consistent feature of John Huston's very diverse output is a certain brisk directness of style. He is not necessarily incapable of subtlety, but he prefers to state rather than to imply, to drive straight through the middle of a subject rather than circle it warily first. This means that his failures—like most of The Bible—are startlingly shameless and undisguised. But the manly, neck-or-nothing approach can also work astonishingly well with a lot of otherwise intractable material. We last saw it doing so in that weird hodge-podge Casino Royale, where only the Huston episode at the beginning made no attempt at subtlety and no bones about playing it up to the hilt as farce. This worked, while...

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Pauline Kael

The worst problem of recent movie epics is that they usually start with an epic in another form and so the director must try to make a masterpiece to compete with an already existing one. This is enough to petrify most directors but it probably delights Huston. What more perverse challenge than to test himself against the Book? It's a flashy demonic gesture, like Nimrod shooting his arrow into God's heaven.

Huston shoots arrows all over the place [in The Bible]; he pushes himself too hard, he tries to do too many different things. The movie is episodic not merely because the original material is episodic but also because, like [D. W.] Griffith in Intolerance, he can find no way to...

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Hans Koningsberger

Last October, in the oldest gothic abbey of Italy, Fossanova, John Huston completed filming A Walk with Love and Death, a novel of mine published in 1961…. I was present from the beginning and worked with the director, which is not standard practice; and Huston is not a standard director….

[It] was my good fortune as a writer that Huston is a man who believes in books. Real books are seldom seen circulating in the movie world; its dealings are with story outlines, as if what mattered in literature was really and only what the personages ended up doing to each other, and the rest just decoration—a parallel to saying, never mind whether this painting is a Vermeer or a Picasso or a...

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John Russell Taylor

There are two films yoked together in The Kremlin Letter …: the film it was apparently meant to be, and the film it actually turns out to be. The situation is not extraordinary; what is extraordinary is that both are interesting, and both in their different ways equally characteristic of their creator. There is little doubt that the film John Huston set out to make may be read in the light of the little scene he gives himself near the beginning. He is the admiral called on to discharge Patrick O'Neal … from the U.S. Navy so that he can take his place in a complicated counter-espionage manoeuvre…. O'Neal is puzzled and unhappy; the admiral is coldly furious. He sees it, quite simply, as a dereliction of...

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Michael Dempsey

No historical data could explain the pervasive terror of that tiny fragment of the Hundred Years War that John Huston treats in his beautiful and under-rated A Walk With Love and Death….

Huston starts with the ordinary reality of this war—the bewildering way that enemies and friends become interchangeable—and works towards more universal overtones of doom and fear. His style is simple and low-keyed, but there is never any question of linkage between his medieval world and the modern zeitgeist. The lovers reject participation in the skirmishes, and society (embryonic as it is) in turn rejects them. The movie spurns conventional characterization for atmosphere and then spurns the...

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Vernon Young

Fat City is a work of art. This is the movie John Huston had under his skin for years to justify all the premature applause…. Allowing for the dreary level of consciousness conveyed by characters who live in the basement of themselves, the film is as perfect as a film can be—… a kind of American Lower Depths, it takes place in a California town where sun-shine is merely something that makes everyone in the film squint, so much of his time is spent in the gym, in the ring, in a bar, in an unmade bed…. The deadbeats and dumb hopefuls who comprise this lost colony are dupes of their own making; especially, one might add, they are victims of their total helplessness when groping for language. You...

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James Naremore

[Huston made from The Maltese Falcon] one of the classics of dark cinema, a film important not only for its fidelity, but because it bears his own distinctive signature.

The very choice of Falcon was consistent with the personality Huston would convey in nearly all his subsequent work—perhaps Falcon even determined that personality to some degree. Notice how neatly it fits into the Huston canon; most of his good films—Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, We Were Strangers, The Asphalt Jungle, The Roots of Heaven, Beat the Devil, The Misfits, Fat City—have depended on simple visual symbolism and sharp contrasts of character. They are all quasiallegorical...

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Penelope Gilliatt

The real puzzle about ["The Mackintosh Man"] is the fact that such a rock-hard, witty director wanted to make it. It has very little humor, apart from quixotries of speech habits; no drive of intellect; some dazed factual mistakes about England; and a lot of holes in the plot. It doesn't work as a parody of spy thrillers, or as a spy thriller in itself, or as the sort of sly joke that "The List of Adrian Messenger" was. Sometimes it has Huston's gaunt comprehension of heroism, but the mediocre Maurice Jarre music is a general measure of the film. Huston, of all directors, usually possesses force, but this movie is flabby. It has echo-chamber moments, like the telling of some story remembered from a long time ago,...

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Pauline Kael

As a movie, this Empire gothic [The Man Who Would Be King] has elements of Gunga Din and of a cynical Lost Horizon, along with something that hasn't been a heroic attribute in other Empire-gothic movies: the desire to become the highest-ranking person that one can envision. The heroes are able to achieve their goal only because of the primitiveness of the people they conquer, and this is very likely the stumbling block that kept the movie from being financed for the twenty-odd years that Huston wanted to do it. Maybe he was able to, finally, on the assumption that enough time has passed for the heroes' attitude toward the native populations of India and Kafiristan—the benighted heathen—to seem...

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Andrew Sarris

John Huston is clearly a survivor, and … Wise Blood provides ample evidence that he has outlasted every movie mogul who ever tried to sweeten the sourness and pessimism in Huston's personality…. Admirers of the late Flannery O'Connor may have strong reservations about Huston's direction and Benedict Fitzgerald's screenplay. Actually, Huston and Fitzgerald have softened the novel's unbearably bleak ending ever so slightly, but most of the pain and suffering and excruciating guilt have been retained.

I respect the film enormously, but I don't have the slightest desire ever to see it again. Yet I think every thoughtful person should see Wise Blood once if only to experience a profound...

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Stanley Kauffmann

The look of [Let There Be Light] is unexceptional, as is the editing. The lighting is like that of every other wartime documentary; the editing is in shot and reverse shot for conversation, quick cross fades for time lapse, etc. The exceptional quality of the film is not cinematic: it's in the concern of the filmmaker and the nakedness of the subjects.

A group of combat soldiers arrives at a US army hospital suffering from various kinds of shell shock, as it used to be called…. Each one gets an interview with an army psychiatrist in which sodium amytol is injected or hypnosis is used to relieve stress and enable him to talk. Each one is "cured"—at least to the point where, six weeks later,...

(The entire section is 296 words.)