Peter Barnes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1058

[The Maltese Falcon reveals John Huston's] style at its best—direct, analytic, and disciplined. This film succeeds brilliantly as a character thriller, but also, through its ruthless elimination of inessentials, gains an extra depth. All the characters are obsessed; their lives are devoted to one pursuit only, the acquisition of money (in the shape of the fabulous maltese falcon, "the stuff that dreams are made of"). The Maltese Falcon and, later, The Treasure of Sierra Madre show what film art can gain by a relentless concentration on two or three characters only: what might be called "observation in depth" rather than painting the usual broad but superficial canvas—"observation in breadth." For the art of the film loses much by its refusal to abstract or isolate a subject or to work within definite limits. (pp. 281-82)

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[Huston's The Treasure of Sierra Madre] seems in retrospect his finest achievement…. [The] film has a rare power and depth. As in The Maltese Falcon, Huston is concerned with people whose lives are dominated by a ruthless desire for wealth. Though not very worthy members of society, they have, to start with, certain sparks of comradeship and kindliness. But hardship and loneliness individualize like acid, bringing to the surface all the suspicion and hatred in their characters. They begin by pooling the gold and end by fighting for their share.

By concentrating on the three men and not emphasizing the accurately realized background, Sierra Madre does achieve a certain universality. Bogart's desire for an eternal leisure relieved by wine and women and Tim Holt's adolescent dream of a peach farm reveal the petty vulgarities of a cheap civilization. This is a work of real integrity and power. Critics who complain of its detachment, and of Huston's artistic detachment in general, fail to see that detached artists are often more truly sensitive to the spirit of their time than the committed.

We Were Strangers … is important in that it raised the first serious doubts about Huston's talents. In all his previous work, he had dealt either with the American scene or with themes that touched America very closely. But with this story of Cuban revolutionaries who plan to overthrow a fascist government, he was treating a subject outside his usual scope. The film has numerous virtues, a bold dramatic style, a taut structure, dialogue of real force, and acting … of great subtlety and power. Many scenes are outstanding …—and all the action sequences are carried off with superb assurance and skill. But something is missing. This is not just a story of political murder: deeper issues are involved; moral problems have to be settled. In the assassination of the heads of the government, innocent people are to be sacrificed. The ethics of such a sacrifice are briefly discussed, but only briefly, as it is not the business of the film to deal with them. However, it is here that one can detect the fatal flaw. We Were Strangers would not have been a better film if Huston had included a fuller discussion of the moral problems involved. But a director must have an imaginative understanding of everything connected with the material he is working on; and if his material involves, as Huston's did, a sense of deep ethical issues, then the director's own awareness and understanding of these issues is relevant. He must convey the sense of them even if they are outside the scope of his film. Huston has failed to achieve this sense; there is a failure of intellect, a failure to be aware of the full power and complexity of his subject.

With The Asphalt Jungle …, he returned to the solid realities of the American scene for his subject; and the result is noticeably beneficial. Gone is the uncertainty, the fatal touch of fantasy which characterizes the former work; instead, there is a complete understanding of all the aspects of his material. Only a minor film, The Asphalt Jungle has a solidness and completeness that We Were Strangers lacks.

Despite undeniable virtues, however, these two films disappointed. They did not fulfill the promise of Sierra Madre, but gave evidence of a talent marking time. (pp. 281-84)

[Huston's next three films were totally] unlike his previous work, both in style and content, they represent in their mediocrity, inherent vulgarity, and emptiness, the unexpected collapse of a unique talent. The first of these films, The African Queen …, is probably the best…. But the script lacks bite, and the direction is monotonous and ineffective. Gone is the hard confident style and acute approach to character; in its place is flabbiness and a curious air of unreality which have become the hallmark of Huston's later work.

No redeeming features cover the appalling vulgarity of Moulin Rouge…. Even granting that the film does not attempt to be an accurate biography of the artist, its glibness and superficiality are completely unacceptable…. But what really appalls is the lack of depth, the purely superficial treatment of Lautrec's life and times. This is in fact a "gimmick" film with the leading actor performing on his knees. The agony, the desperate loneliness of the creative artist, is never even remotely caught; and neither is the authentic period atmosphere despite all the cancan girls, hansom cabs, and bustles. One short dance sequence in Becker's Casque D'or is worth the whole of Moulin Rouge. Once again, Huston's lack of personal acquaintance with his material has betrayed him.

It was confidently expected that a return to the style of The Maltese Falcon would produce a film of some worth. But Beat the Devil proved to be completely empty and pointless. This satiric thriller about a gang of crooks on the track of a vast uranium deposit in Africa is neither mildly amusing nor remotely convincing. The plot does bear a vague resemblance to that of The Maltese Falcon, but Huston has adopted a fatally fatuous manner towards his subject. He no longer seems to believe in his films…. Except for some bizarre close-ups, this is two hours of unrelieved tedium. From The Maltese Falcon to Beat the Devil, the decline is complete. (pp. 284-85)

Peter Barnes, "The Director on Horseback," in The Quarterly of Film, Radio, and Television (copyright, 1955, by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. X, No. 2, Winter, 1955, pp. 281-87.

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