John Huston Eugene Archer

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Eugene Archer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 courage, pity and honour as the only extant values which cannot be wholly distorted by the process of living in the contemporary wasteland presents a difficult problem for an industry geared to more acceptable ethical standards. In a medium dedicated to the synonymous relationship of such terms as love and marriage, poverty and happiness, sex and sin, the emergence of a director with seriousness of purpose is in itself unusual. When, as in the case of John Huston, the principles include an insistence upon serious themes and an artistic method which emphasises functionality, the parallel with the Hemingway tradition is unavoidable.

Considered in the light of this analogy, the work of John Huston appears at a certain disadvantage. Interesting as his films are in terms of narrative content, the subjects lack the originality expected from the work of a creative artist. Huston's films are all adaptations of novels or plays, and although he writes most of his own scripts, the subjects can be considered only in regard to choice of material…. Huston's early work falls primarily into the categories of melodrama (The Maltese Falcon) and social comment (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), or a combination of the two (The Asphalt Jungle, We Were Strangers). More recently, his selections have grown more varied, and shown a tendency toward art for its own sake—as in the comedy, The African Queen, the biography, Moulin Rouge, and the ambitious adaptations of classic novels, The Red Badge of Courage and Moby Dick. The diversity of this material is in itself suggestive of an unusual artistic temperament, but it is in his technique that Huston's personality most clearly emerges. The gradual sharpening of individual images, the intensive concentration on problems of composition, the precise gradation of sequences within a carefully organised pattern, the application of different editing devices to varied types of material, the rigid prohibition of excesses either in manner or in content, all suggest an endeavour to express his subject with Flaubert's mot juste, to communicate with his audience in the most exact and lucid terms….

The melodramatic plot [of The Maltese Falcon], dealing with a weird assortment of conspirators searching for a valuable statuette and an unsentimental private detective determined to avenge his partner's murder, is both suspenseful and satirical, and the technique, while not adventurous, extends each ingredient to its fullest cinematic effect….

In This Our Life (1942), in contrast, struggles for social comment. Ellen Glasgow's novel about a decaying Southern family dominated by a predatory younger daughter contains elements of insight into the influence of the outmoded social traditions of the modern Southern aristocracy, but in its cinematic adaptation the subtler implications of the theme are subordinate to a conventionally melodramatic plot…. The film's interest lies less in the central action than in the detailed implications of a changing social climate. (p. 13)

The comparative failure of In This Our Life prompted Huston to repeat the more successful formula of The Maltese Falcon in his third film, Across the Pacific . Using an inferior wartime espionage plot as subject, Huston concentrates on concealing the theme from...

(The entire section is 2,020 words.)