Film studies: He won a few and lost plenty - but Huston kept on gambling

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The Independent Culture

On 5 August, 2006, John Huston would have been 100. It was good to hear a tribute to him on America's National Public Radio, done by Pat Dowell And it was proper that the tribute included not just his father (Walter's riotous laughter at the end of Treasure of the Sierra Madre), but his daughter's sly innuendos in Prizzi's Honor. One of the things John Huston did was guide both his father and his daughter to Supporting Oscars in those two films. Yet, in the broadcast, Anjelica testified to how there had been not just a fondness in her father but a wild, dangerous anger, too. He did everything he could in life but still seemed put out that there were things he had missed.

To read about his early years is to see the extraordinary frontier life that was still possible in 1906. He had been born in a small town in Missouri that his grandfather said he won in a poker game. After that, John travelled with his parents as they roamed the country doing theatre. Aged 12, he was so sick he needed a year in a clinic, and then when he came out he left high school to be a boxer. He was the lightweight champion of California. He was an officer in the Mexican cavalry. He started writing and influence got him a job in Hollywood.

He was not a careful man. He killed someone in a driving accident. He was a gambler all his life. He painted and he collected Mexican art and there would be trouble later about things smuggled out of that country.

He was a beaten up-looking guy, but women adored him. He was married officially five times, but there were many other liaisons and kids he took care of. He was a Major in the war when he served in Europe and the Pacific and made astonishing documentaries about shell-shocked troops. And at the very end of his life, when he had emphysema so badly he had to carry oxygen around with him, he smoked cigars and made a film from James Joyce's "The Dead" - he recreated Dublin with Irish actors flown in specially in a small studio north of Los Angeles. He was a great pretender.

He started to write scripts in the 1930s, and he was said to have done wonders on these films, not always with credit, but making sure they worked: Jezebel (the Bette Davis hit), High Sierra (a turning point in Bogart's career), The Killers (that beautiful film noir from the Hemingway short story, where the movie begins with the story of the hoods in the diner and then goes back in time).

And, in 1941, he seized a chance to direct a story that had failed twice already as a movie: Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon. He filmed the book very faithfully, and he cast it to perfection: with Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre and the newcomer Sydney Greenstreet, it has some of the great talking set-pieces in American film.

He worked for another 46 years, travelling all over the world, never grieving if a picture didn't work, so relaxed that he sometimes let others edit, shoot or direct his films. It was the least neurotic career of any great director. And to prove that, you can easily name a dozen films that are not very good: In This Our Life, We Were Strangers, Moulin Rouge, The Barbarian and the Geisha, The List of Adrian Messenger, The Bible, Sinful Davey, A Walk With Love and Death, The Kremlin Letter, The Mackintosh Man, Victory, Annie. And if you asked him, he'd likely agree and say yes, one was a dreadful pity - he really wanted Moulin Rouge to work, because he loved Toulouse-Lautrec. But he took it for granted that the movie business was daft enough to get in the way of good intentions. You just had to move on. It was an attitude that could seem casual and, when it was applied to women, I think it sometimes looked cruel.

On the other hand, who was mad enough to make a film of Moby Dick off the coast of Ireland, and get maybe halfway towards the grandeur of Melville? Who made Fat City, the best picture ever done about the shabby business of boxing? He did The Asphalt Jungle as one of the first films where you sided with the crooks and wanted them to get away with the jewel robbery. And when the mastermind, the Dutchman (Sam Jaffe) stayed behind 30 seconds to watch a pretty girl dance to a juke box, and was caught, you could hear Huston sigh and chuckle. He did The African Queen in Africa in a filthy river so the leeches were lining up to work. He waited half his life to get a chance to do The Man Who Would Be King, and then when he thought it was too late, along came opportunity in the form of Sean Connery and Michael Caine. Long before anyone had heard of camp or pastiche in films, he did Beat the Devil a satire on films such as The Maltese Falcon.

And don't forget Key Largo, with that scene where the gross Edward G Robinson just whispers in Lauren Bacall's ear and she looks like a terrified mare. Don't forget Wise Blood, The Red Badge of Courage and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, three of the strangest films you'd ever wish to see. There may not be one masterpiece in the crowd - and I'm not sure that Huston believed in masterpieces. Because you lived for the game and you knew that you lost as much as you'd won. "So what do you do it for?" someone might have asked. That question was asked of his character Noah Cross, in Chinatown.

Now there's a great film and his is the central performance, the standard of evil that knows shame. And Cross answers, "For the future!" in the spirit of someone who had lived in a very raw America once where towns, kingdoms and even wives changed hands at the poker table. And gamblers must never yield to sentiment, neither hope nor regret.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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