John Huston

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Eugene Archer

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2511

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 area is shadowy and elusive, governed by animal law and jungle ethics, but at the moment of crisis, the only reality is tangible.

The first section of the film establishes this environment by introducing the men scheduled to participate in an elaborate criminal operation, and in this exposition the observation extends to some of the further boundaries of underworld activity…. At length [their] masks are pierced and the reasons for the twitches relentlessly exposed to reveal an assortment of human vices: alcohol, greed, lechery, self-pity, all examined with a dispassionate objectivity which accepts the human condition without apology or embarrassment.

The structure of The Asphalt Jungle is more complex than anything Huston had previously attempted, and it is expressed with an advanced technique commensurate with his material. An expert criminal arrives in the city to supervise a million dollar jewel robbery, and methodically arranges for the financing and execution of the plan and the ultimate disposition of the proceeds. The plan is organised along the lines of a business venture….

[The] business analogy is maintained throughout the film. The protagonists conduct their affairs along lines rigidly determined by a profit-and-loss economy, with their negotiations assuming a heightened interest through an acute awareness of the high cost of failure…. The film records the minor struggles for success which are symptomatic of any semi-civilized society, but it constantly suggests that these men who attempt to function as best they can within their predestined framework are actually existing on the edge of extinction, and their lives are governed by acceptance of this decisive fact.

It is this underlying meaning which gives symbolic power to the film. The protagonists are not good men gone wrong, nor is the robbery a rational plan spoiled only by a careless mistake. These doomed protagonists cannot expect salvation and cannot hope to avoid the fate which has become the core of their existence. The robbery merely represents an endeavour to obtain the limited rewards which their situation offers….

Huston's directorial method is elaborately designed to weave this material into a cohesive pattern. The action is edited sharply for tension, with the aid of many short scenes, incisive observation of detail, and rapid cuts for effect. By examining every aspect of a scene with objective clarity and rarely focusing on a detail which does not record some revelation of character in expression or gesture, however minute, Huston is able to decisively characterise each participant during the early development of the plot. (p. 9)

Harsh as this analytical approach to character appears, these figures, coldly studied at moments of weakness and duplicity, emerge as people far too truthful to be rejected or ignored. The essential humanity of the director's insight is most clearly felt when Huston momentarily abandons his doomed criminals to record the fallacy of the opposing point of view, the implacable determination of the judicially oriented citizen to enforce the law by wilful...

(This entire section contains 2511 words.)

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extermination of its infringers. This uncompromising moral condemnation by the professional law-maker assumes ironic force to the observer not yet adjusted to the realisation that the criminal mentality is moulded by economic pressures very similar to his own. The conclusion underscores this meaning by bringing the action full circle. Accompanied by the pathetic girl who hopes to find regeneration in selfless devotion to another human being, the solitary Neanderthal figure of the opening, delirious and on the borderline of death, struggles to return to his point of origin, the green Kentucky meadows which represent pre-natal innocence. The figure has made no bid for sympathy in the film, and makes none now: he is a ruthless gunman, large and brutal, not involved in the complexities of the plan, dominating the action by physical proportions rather than by heroic character. The nature of his final flight toward a non-existent ideal, returning beyond the concrete to die in the fields, suggests an attempt at tragedy which the film has not previously implied, and carries its meaning to a point beyond all previous deterministic investigations of the theme.

In the odyssey of The African Queen, man's indefatigable spirit proves triumphant over the forces of a hostile nature and the militant circumscription of twentieth century civilisation. If the approach is comic, the theme would do credit to Melville. Neither the tugboat, the African Queen, nor its crew seem qualified for adventure or high romance, but when the occasion arises they meet it with heroic dispatch. The drama is a testament to human endurance and natural instinct against the worst that man and nature can provide.

True comedy is always closely related to pain, as in the famous example of the man who steps on a banana peel. In The African Queen, one of the richest comedies ever made, the central situation is essentially tragic. Charlie Allnutt, the tugboat captain, and Rose, the prim missionary, are trapped by the Germans in British West Africa in World War I…. [Their] seemingly impossible, supremely arduous journey resembles the heroic efforts of other Huston protagonists—the miners' trek to the forbidden mountain in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the revolutionaries' tunnel in We Were Strangers, the soldier returning to his regiment in The Red Badge of Courage, the jewel thieves of The Asphalt Jungle, Ahab in Moby Dick. If the quest in this case is not tragic but comic, it is an achievement of treatment rather than material, a question of subtle exaggeration bringing elements of heroic tragedy to a point of sublime ridiculousness. The close relationship of comedy to tragedy is illustrated here at its furthest extreme. C. S. Forester's novel is generally considered a dramatic melodrama rather than a farce, and Huston's film, hilarious from its opening scene to its gloriously happy ending, was initially received by several critics as a serious dramatic adventure. (p. 10)

When the narrator of Moby Dick reads Melville's opening lines in measured tones, he evokes a mood of apprehension at once suggestive of a great work of art. Huston's obeisance to the author's "Call me Ishmael", plunging the narrative immediately into action without allowing time for a visual placement of mood, indicates the difficult quality of this adaptation. The film makes no allowance for the limited comprehension of its audience in its attempt to retain as much of the complexity of the novel as can be captured cinematically.

Huston has developed his adaptation according to a thoughtful structure, beginning with an artful exposition of paths of water leading to the sea which is wholly appropriate to Melville's metaphysical conception. Mysticism underlies the depiction of the three aspects of man in the key opening scenes: Coffin's tavern, where sailors boisterously dance to a sea chanty on a stormy night to express the joy of living in defiance to forbidding nature; Father Mapple's narration of the legend of Jonah, a pious reminder of man's inconsequence in a mystic universe; and the ship's departure, where active man abandons domestic ties, an eternal wanderer deliberately severing the emotional bonds of home and family which remain the motivating objects of his search. The first appearance of Ahab at sea fore-shadowed by the ghostly tapping of his footsteps on the deserted deck, introduces the book's great theme, ably expounded in Ahab's long and arresting conversation with Starbuck about the nature of infinity, and the exciting whaling sequence which follows amplifies the nature of the quest. Huston's method of editing and reshaping long sections of the book for cinematic continuity functions admirably until the actual search for Moby Dick begins. From the moment of the departure from fertile seas to approach the fatal area of encounter with the white whale, Huston elaborates each successive incident in Melville's concluding chapters…. Memorable though each incident is within its context, the accumulation of so much significant development conspires to defeat its purpose by over-extension of dramatic weight. When the climax comes, it is fine enough to sustain a lesser film, but it is unable to rise to quite the soaring grandeur necessary to complete this massive structure.

A failure of this nature seems typical of Huston, whose reticent objectivity is unsuited to the full-bodied statement which Melville requires. Huston's tendency to withdraw from overt comment is noticeable in earlier passages of the film. When Ishmael's journey to the sea seems built towards the logical culmination of crashing waves and a panoramic vista, Huston curiously substitutes a distant backdrop of an immobile coastline for an incomplete effect. Later, the fine episode of the ship's departure from Nantucket, brilliantly created by intercutting from seamen labouring in preparation for the voyage to the tragic faces of women watching silently from the shore, seems to lead naturally to some positive conclusion, whether grandiose (the ship as man's aspiration severing its inhibiting roots in search of greater destiny) or moving (the women in foreground representing conventional humanity watching the fragile craft vanish into the formidable infinity of sea and sky). The actual ending of the scene, a quiet distant shot of a toy ship slowly moving toward the mouth of the harbour, seems a deliberate avoidance of an essential large effect. The obvious justification for muting early climaxes in preparation for the finale is negated by the limitations of the proper conclusion, suggesting a crucial weakness in the director's temperament which renders him incapable of interpreting a theme of these proportions. (p. 25)

Huston has chosen three key passages from the novel for his text. Father Mapple's sermon articulates the conventional viewpoint of moral man, while Ahab, in long speeches to Starbuck, defines the nature of his defiance of the unwritten laws. For these expressions of the theme Huston abandons his usual flow of visual movement to focus directly on the speaker and thus actively force the observer's attention. The sermon emphasises man's humility before the will of God by recounting the parable of Jonah, who sought a land where God's hard law would not exist. As punishment for this transgression, God in the form of nature sends a tidal wave, and casts Jonah into the sea to be swallowed by a whale. Jonah's submission within the inferno takes the form of humble prayer, without request for deliverance—"I leave eternity to Thee." When Jonah is saved, he devotes the remainder of his life to preaching the doctrine of humility, with man at the mercy of an all-powerful Deity.

Ahab's search for the whale represents the opposite point of view. The whale may be defined as unknown nature wearing the mask of evil, and Ahab in his quest represents man searching for knowledge. The desire for vengeance against the mute beast which mutilated his body is merely an aspect of Ahab's deeper motivation, his proud refusal to accept the doctrine of the insignificance of man….

The ethical problem posed by Ahab's obsession lies not within his right to pursue his goal, which must be considered heroic, but in his obligations to society. By taking the blind, unmotivated men of the Pequod with him on his quest, Ahab has overstepped the boundaries of morality and assumed identification with the evil which he seeks to conquer. It is this dilemma which defeats Starbuck, who fears the wrath of God; but he is prevented from murdering Ahab because such an act would in itself involve the assumption of decisive powers in defiance of the inevitable. In Ahab's final speech he suggests the weight of the responsibility which he has assumed by the act. Probing into the reasons for his pursuit of inevitable destruction, he challenges the crux of Starbuck's religious conviction….

If Moby Dick does not capture the full force of Melville's pessimistic philosophy, it conveys more depth in these three speeches than any American film of recent years. Considerably more than a technical achievement, Huston's film is probably as distinguished an adaptation of a great novel as the contemporary screen is capable of producing.

In a discussion of his style, Huston once commented: "Maybe it's what Hemingway says about writing: 'You must write it as if you were there.' Maybe, I just try to to do it as if I were there."

A director's style cannot be adequately evaluated according to the standards applied to literary technique, due to the basic distinction between the processes of invention and interpretation. Working with other men's material imposes a limitation on the activity of a director which, considered from a literary standpoint, cannot be disregarded. Since Huston's cinematic works, both as writer and director, are all adaptations, he is necessarily required to operate within the range of the original subject matter, without undue imposition of his individual personality. A more subjective director might re-shape his material along personal lines, but Huston's basic approach to his work demands subordination to the requirements of his material. His adaptations, uniformly faithful to the original intentions of the authors, give little insight into Huston's temperament: the scripts are economical, sophisticated, carefully constructed, and invariably avoid personal statement. Factors of personality emerge only in choice of material indicating a preference for journalistic prose, protagonists whose weaknesses do not extend to softness and avoid self-pity, themes which express social or moral issues through violent action and ironic counter-point….

Huston's cinematic devices stem from a specific theory of film aesthetics. The screen is basically a conventional, not a realistic art, with physical qualities derived from human actions….

Based on this principle, Huston's style is consciously derived from the nature of the subject, with its ultimate aim a simple expression of the meaning to be derived from that subject and communicated clearly to the observer….

These cinematic devices, entirely justified by aesthetic theories, are limited only by the calculation by which they are applied to Huston's films. The cold precision of his application of technical methods to a dramatic medium remains Huston's one serious defect as an artist. Technical dexterity, while admirable as manner, can never be wholly satisfactory as a substitute for valid emotional drama, and Huston's apparent inability to engage himself subjectively with his material gives much of his work the character of chamber drama, artfully moulded and graphically observed, but essentially dispassionate. Nevertheless, the body of work which this objective manner has formulated has been constructed to withstand the closest scrutiny into form and content, and emerges as a considerable achievement by a responsible modern artist. (p. 34)

Eugene Archer, "Small People in a Big World" (© copyright Eugene Archer 1959; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 6, No. 1, October, 1959, pp. 9-10, 25, 34.


Eugene Archer


Gordon Gow