John Huston Raymond Durgnat - Essay

Raymond Durgnat

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Huston's career is curiously unequal. The life of Toulouse-Lautrec is viewed through the prism of Pierre La Mure's dim-witted tear-jerker, while The Misfits is eked out with bits of arty-craftiness like Marilyn Monroe embracing a tree trunk to show she loves life in all its forms. Often between the idea and the execution there interposes a kind of gangling, almost cynical nonchalance, at other times an almost naive solemnity. One feels John Huston is two people—the thoughtful, basically rather ascetic, middlebrow, and, far more interesting, the rugged extrovert for whom life is keenest during the brawl, the hunt, and the genial drinking-session. In Huston the two often seem to cancel out rather than link up—perhaps after all his best films are those where Bogart, saturnine, craven, vulnerable, establishes the emotional core which somehow seems to me to be lacking in We Were Strangers and Moby Dick….

In its amiable way [the] least serious of all Huston's films [The List of Adrian Messenger] retains a rather cerebral flavour….

[Whereas] Beat the Devil was so relaxed that it lost all its tensions and just fell apart, Adrian Messenger is firm, sharp and atmospheric, whether the scene is a seamy dockside murder or the panoply of a hunt in full cry. The bane of English detective films of the Trent's Last Case tradition are the stuffy countryhouse settings, the stiff-upper-lip characters, the interminable conversations. Huston takes all these elements and makes them thoroughly filmic…. (p. 25)

Huston's London, with its florid Italian organ-grinder churning out 'A wandering minstrel I', is [gloriously Edwardian]…. Huston is so charmed with the spirit and ceremonies of gentlemanly tally-ho that in the final sequence he comes within striking distance of doing for fox-hunting what Hemingway did for the bullfight. In fact Huston's country gentry ideally combine English politeness with American zest and remind us that Huston, like the regretted Jacques Becker, is, unconsciously perhaps, a moralist preoccupied with the question of what causes, manners and attitudes are worthy of the real gentleman, nature's. (p. 26)

Raymond Durgnat, "'The List of Adrian Messenger'" (© copyright Raymond Durgnat 1963; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 9, No. 10, July, 1963, pp. 25-6.