James Agee

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 846

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.

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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, here or abroad, who can excel Huston in talent, inventiveness, intransigence, achievement or promise….

Risk, not to say recklessness, are virtual reflexes in him. Action, and the most vivid possible use of the immediate present, were his personal salvation; they have remained lifelong habits. Because action also is the natural language of the screen and the instant present is its tense, Huston is a born popular artist. In his life, his dealings and his work as an artist he operates largely by instinct, unencumbered by much reflectiveness or abstract thinking, or any serious self-doubt. (p. 35)

Each of Huston's pictures has a visual tone and style of its own, dictated to his camera by the story's essential content and spirit. In Treasure the camera is generally static and at a middle distance from the action …; the composition is—superficially—informal, the light cruel and clean like noon sun on quartz and bone. Most of the action in Key Largo takes place inside a small Florida hotel. The problems are to convey heat, suspense, enclosedness, the illusion of some eighteen hours of continuous action in two hours' playing time, with only one time lapse. The lighting is stickily fungoid. The camera is sneakily 'personal'; working close and in almost continuous motion, it enlarges the ambiguous suspensefulness of almost every human move. In [We Were Strangers] the main pressures are inside a home and beneath it, where conspirators dig a tunnel. Here Huston's chief keys are lighting contrasts. Underground the players move in and out of shadow like trout; upstairs the light is mainly the luminous pallor of marble without sunlight: a cemetery, a bank interior, a great outdoor staircase.

Much that is best in Huston's work comes of his sense of what is natural to the eye and his delicate, simple feeling for space relationships: his camera huddles close to those who huddle to talk, leans back a proportionate distance, relaxing, if they talk casually. He loathes camera rhetoric and the shot-for-shot's-sake; but because he takes each moment catch-as-catch-can and is so deeply absorbed in doing the best possible thing with it he has made any number of unforgettable shots. He can make an unexpected close-up reverberate like a gong. (p. 37)

The most inventive director of his generation, Huston has done more to extend, invigorate and purify the essential idiom of American movies, the truly visual telling of stories than anyone since the prime of D W Griffith. To date, however, his work as a whole is not on the level with the finest and most deeply imaginative work that has been done in movies—the work of Chaplin, Dovzhenko, Eisenstein, Griffith, the late Jean Vigo. For an artist of such conscience and caliber, his range is surprisingly narrow, both in subject matter and technique. In general he is leery of emotion of the 'feminine' aspects of art—and if he explored it with more assurance, with his taste and equipment, he might show himself to be a much more sensitive artist. With only one early exception, his moves have centered on men under pressure, have usually involved violence and have occasionally verged on a kind of romanticism about danger. Though he uses sound and dialogue more intelligently than most directors he has not shown much interest in exploring the tremendous possibilities of the former or in solving the crippling problems of the latter. While his cutting is astute, terse, thoroughly appropriate to his kind of work, yet compared with that of Eisenstein, who regarded cutting as the essence of the art of movies, it seems distinctly unadventurous….

Conceivably Huston lacks that deepest kind of creative impulse and that intense self-critical skepticism without which the stature of great artist is rarely achieved. A brilliant adapter, he has yet to do a Huston 'original', barring the war documentaries. He is probably too much at the mercy of his immediate surroundings. When the surroundings are right for him there is no need to talk about mercy: during the war and just after he was as hard as a rock and made his three finest pictures in a row. Since then the pictures, for all their excellence, are, like the surroundings, relatively softened and blurred. (p. 38)

James Age, "Huston on the Analyst's Couch" (© copyright James Agee Trust; reprinted with permission; originally published in Life, Vol. 29, No. 12, September 18, 1950), in Films and Filming, Vol. 9, No. 11, August, 1963, pp. 35-8.

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