John Huston Showed Us the Dark Side of the Quest for Riches

There has never been a greater storyteller in American movies than John Huston. A recurring thematic element in many of Huston’s films is the quest for riches that comes to naught. In The Maltese Falcon (1941), the action centers on an antique object that turns out to be fake; in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), three prospectors amass a fortune in gold dust only to have it scattered by the wind. Before hubris brings about their downfall, two soldiers enjoy ruling the remote country of Kafiristan in The Man Who Would Be King (1975).

Huston was born August 5, 1906, in Nevada, Missouri. His mother Rhea, a journalist, and his father, actor Walter Huston, were divorced when he was small. As a young man, he became interested in acting and writing while watching his father rehearse Eugene O’Neill’s play Desire Under the Elms. An early milestone in the younger Huston’s life came in 1929, when a short story he wrote was accepted for publication in the American Mercury, then a highly regarded magazine. During this period, he also tried his hand at newspaper reporting.

With his father’s film industry connections, Huston got a job writing for the movies. He received his first Academy Award nomination for his contribution to the screenplay for Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet (1940). The following year, he received two nominations: one for his work on the team that wrote Sergeant York and one for his solo effort on The Maltese Falcon, also the first film he directed.

Based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, The Maltese Falcon brought detective Sam Spade to life in a definitive performance by Humphrey Bogart. The archetypal gumshoe, Spade becomes involved with an unscrupulous group of characters played by Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Mary Astor. Huston’s signature visual style, with the camera’s movement and placement at the service of the story and its characters, was already in evidence.

Huston joined the Army Signal Corps during World War II and made three documentaries. The Pentagon delayed release of two of these films because of their frankness in showing the horrors of war. (One of them, Let There Be Light, focused on the psychological damage sustained by soldiers in combat, and was suppressed for decades.)

Back in Hollywood after the war, Huston wrote and directed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), an adaptation of a novel by B. Traven. Huston’s father, Walter, played an old prospector who guides two younger men, played by Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt, on a quest for gold in the mountains of Mexico. John Huston won Academy Awards for writing and directing this picture; his father won in the best supporting actor category.

In 1950, Huston directed The Asphalt Jungle, his adaptation (with screenwriter Ben Maddow) of a novel by W.R. Burnett. For his work on this tale of jewel thieves, Huston again received Academy Award nominations for both directing and writing.

One of Huston’s most beloved films, The African Queen (1951), paired Bogart and Katharine Hepburn as a drunken riverboat pilot and a prim missionary. Once again he was nominated for Academy Awards for his screenplay (with James Agee) and direction.

Moulin Rouge (1952) was a story of painter Toulouse-Lautrec. In an effort to create cinematic images that resembled their subject’s work, Huston and his cinematographer Oswald Morris used smoke on the set and other techniques to achieve the right color effects.

Among Huston’s other pictures during this period are Beat the Devil (1954), a parody of film noir; Moby Dick (1956), an adaptation of the classic novel by Herman Melville; and The Misfits (1961), with a screenplay by Arthur Miller. The latter film starred Clark Gable as an aging cowboy who becomes involved with a depressed younger woman played by Marilyn Monroe.

Having appeared in front of the camera on several previous occasions, Huston took the role of Cardinal Glennon in The Cardinal (1963), directed by Otto Preminger, and received an Academy Award nomination for his supporting performance. Some of his other notable performances were as Noah in his own film The Bible (1966) and as villainous Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown(1974).

DCP Keepsake (click to order)

The Man Who Would Be King (1975) paired Sean Connery and Michael Caine as soldiers who go to a remote region of Afghanistan with the intent of stealing its riches. Huston received an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay (written with Gladys Hill), which reflected his admiration for the source story by Rudyard Kipling. His love of storytelling was close to the heart of his work; he spoke of his “desire to share an emotional and intellectual experience with a new audience” as his motive for making movies.

Two strong films brought Huston’s long and varied career to an impressive finish. Prizzi’s Honor (1985), a black comedy about professional assassins, garnered several Academy Award nominations, including one for Huston’s direction, and an Oscar for best supporting actress for his daughter, Anjelica Huston. The Dead (1987), also featuring Anjelica, is an adaptation by Huston’s son, Tony, of the classic story by James Joyce. (Another of his children, son Danny, is also an actor and director.) It was the last film Huston completed before his death on August 28, 1987.

Three of John Huston’s films—The African Queen, The Maltese Falcon, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre—are included on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest movies. He received a total of fourteen Academy Award nominations: eight for writing, five for directing, and one for acting.

John Huston is one of four directors featured on the Great Film Directors pane. The stamps will be issued Wednesday, May 23, at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Maryland, but you can preorder them today!

The use of the name and likeness of John Huston by permission of the Huston Family.

THE MALTESE FALCON © Turner Entertainment Co. A Warner Bros. Entertainment Company.  All Rights Reserved.

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