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...
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successful formula ofThe 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 audience for the greater portion of the film. Huston's gift for atmospheric detail is again apparent in his handling of a ship's departure into a fog, when the montage of tightening ropes, the rumbling of engines, and the slow weaving motion past the docks builds the scene into a vivid experience. The regular spray of the sea waves on deck, the hypnotic revolutions of a ceiling fan, the heat-inducing tinkling of ice in a glass, all combine to convey a world of sensory sensations to the audience. The drama centres on the trio of actors who distinguished the earlier film…. The measured relationships between these characters dominate the film, and Huston amplifies them by bringing the camera close to the actors' faces, where a minute flicker of the eyelids or a twitch about the mouth gives a sudden intensity to the stresses of this unexpected intellectual conflict. After the long suspenseful development aboard ship, as the relationships are gradually clarified and brought toward a climax, the actual ending—a Japanese attempt to blow up the Panama Canal, foiled by the hero and heroine who abandon their interesting poses of blase cynicism—disappointingly reduces the film to a comic-strip level. Although the absurd conclusion spoils the final effect, it does not completely negate the skilfully manipulated tension of the earlier reels. The film emerges as a minor but workmanlike directorial exercise within a conventional suspense format. (pp. 13-14)
Using the terse style of his Hollywood films [in Report from the Aleutians], Huston obtained a great deal of difficult footage from one of the least known areas of the war, the Aleutian atoll where American forces launched attacks on Kiska and Attu….
With emphasis on weather as an opposing force, the camera records the struggles of men to unload ships and transport equipment across areas impassable to vehicles. When the site is established, the film becomes impressionistic, with shots of clusters of tents on beds of ice, the smoke curling upward, then swept horizontal by the incessant wind, the bulldozers pushing through the slushy ice, the American Liberators departing from watery fields on missions toward the intensively guarded Kiska, the quiet, deadly effect of flak and anti-aircraft exploding in small black puffs from the ground below. This fragmentary film may be considered a prelude to Huston's second wartime documentary, The Battle of San Pietro, perhaps the finest film to come out of World War II…. Huston endeavours in this film to symbolise the nature of the war by illustrating a single battle against an impregnable position. In an unforgettable sequence, the American troops charge against enemy gunfire so intensive that it literally becomes a wall of fire…. The film ends when one peak is finally taken and the Germans withdraw. In its stark conclusion, the exhausted American soldiers enter the shattered town of San Pietro, as the Italian villagers emerge from their caves and holes, too numb from the war to greet its end with even a simulated joy. The effect is poignant and ironic, with none of the triumphant elation expected from a victory. This overwhelming anti-war motif is emphasised by the film's technique. The raw, grey photography captures the poverty and ugliness of the environment without neglecting the stark elemental beauty of the mountainside. The narration is sober and restrained, avoiding editorialising, but sincere in its admiration for the soldiers' courage and comprehensive in its portrait of military life and understanding of enlisted men's psychology. The film as a whole has a compelling sense of immediacy, with the Germans as a hidden enemy, formidable in the security of their positions. In its final effect, The Battle of San Pietro is as solemn a protest against warfare as the screen has ever depicted—a strange film to appear under War Department auspices in 1944.
As an example of documentary technique, this film was equalled only by Huston's last war film, Let There Be Light, a study of mental therapy in the Army rehabilitation programme for psychoneurotic veterans. Huston took his camera inside Army hospitals, and peered without self-consciousness at the actual faces of patients, recording true case histories of servicemen in a frank exposition of some of the war's effects. The film is at once compassionate and uncompromisingly candid in its approach to the subject, and is generally considered a masterpiece in the documentary field….
Harsh, gripping and distinctively personal, [The Treasure of Sierra Madre] commanded respect for its large theme in spite of numerous minor defects, and amply fulfilled the promise of The Maltese Falcon. Although Huston's technique had not fully matured, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre remains an exciting film to watch. Huston's direction, clean and original, shows a youthful vigour and strength of purpose which his later, more accomplished works lack.
Key Largo, released the same year, was much less ambitious, but technically more glib. A diluted adaptation of Maxwell Anderson's poor verse play, the film reduces the outmoded fascism versus democracy theme to the level of a conventional gangster thriller with a climax borrowed from To Have and Have Not. As a directorial exercise, however, Key Largo is an interesting study in atmosphere and closeted character melodrama…. (p. 4)
As finally released, The Red Badge of Courage seemed erratically brilliant, containing one of the finest battle sequences ever filmed and many eloquent cinematic details, but with much of its effectiveness nullified by awkward continuity and an ill-advised narrator who sententiously informed the audience that, the novel being a literary classic, the film must in consequence be a classic as well. If The Red Badge of Courage fell short of its goal, The African Queen, also released in 1951, did not. The hilarious adventure of a dissipated tugboat captain and a passionate missionary, deriving its comedy from the rich and complex interplay of two of the screen's great comic characterisations …, emerged as one of the most original films ever made, an authentic classic, and one of Huston's two best films. (pp. 14, 28)
Beat the Devil (1954), a satire of The Maltese Falcon, is parody within parody, a private joke, amusing to the initiated, incomprehensible to the uninformed. If the wit is introverted, the technique is haphazard, skirting the borderline of embarrassment veering toward the irrational, and trailing off into trivia. It is a film for connoisseurs, who treasure it highly—most highly, perhaps, because it is valueless for the layman. For Huston, Beat the Devil (which he wrote in collaboration, significantly, with Truman Capote) is an act of self-indulgence harmless in itself but disturbing in its implications. "Art for art's sake" is a respectable creed, but divorcement from one's audience in a medium as commercially oriented as the cinema must be considered a dangerous trend. Ths result of the tendency is apparent in Moby Dick…. [Moby Dick] is a technical masterpiece, impressive in conception, formidable in execution, and emotionless at the core, a film for critics rather than patrons, difficult not to admire, impossible to enjoy….
[The Roots of Heaven] is relentlessly "modern," with a popular anti-war theme, African backgrounds shot on location, an international cast speaking in mixed and frequently unintelligible accents, an excessive running time, and a musical score by the fashionable Malcolm Arnold which strongly resembles his earlier composition for The Bridge on the River Kwai. The Cinemascope width is too obviously epic for such a film, and the neo-romantic script intersperses crude passages of character analysis ("I don't know why I'm telling you all this," the heroine murmurs to the hero) with large symbols which are a good deal too elliptically vague. In spite of such flaws as uneven acting and a diffusion of dramatic effects (for which Huston must share the blame with Darryl Zanuck, who chose the cast and did most of the editing), The Roots of Heaven emerges as an interesting, sometimes impressive film which holds out some hope for Huston's future. Still too objective in regard to association with his subjects, Huston remains willing to attempt major themes and to experiment with unusual material. The elephant-protector Morel … is a modern hero of some stature, and in his attention to this character Huston indicates his continued respect and admiration for the individualist who goes his own way, suing others only as practicable means towards his ends, and finds his ultimate rewards in his own integrity. (p. 28)
Eugene Archer, "Taking Life Seriously" (© copyright Eugene Archer 1959; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 5, No. 12, September, 1959, pp. 13-14, 28, 33.