John Huston

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619

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.)

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