John Huston

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John Huston was an American Film Director, Producer and Actor known for directing classic films such as The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, and The African Queen. Huston had a long and varied career spanning over five decades.

Early Life and Career Beginnings

John-Huston

John Huston was born on August 5, 1906 in Nevada, Missouri. He was born into a family involved in theatre and acting. His father Walter Huston was a famous character actor in vaudeville and on Broadway.

Huston followed in his father’s footsteps and after a brief stint as an amateur boxer, he began acting on stage. He made his Broadway debut in 1924, appearing in several productions throughout the 1920s.

In the 1930s, Huston moved to Hollywood hoping to make it as an actor in films. Though he appeared in a few minor roles, he was far more interested in getting behind the camera. He began writing scripts, including the screenplay for the 1939 Hollywood blockbuster Jezebel starring Bette Davis.

Childhood and Family Background

John Huston was born in Nevada, Missouri in 1906. His father Walter was a famous actor who performed in vaudeville and on Broadway. His mother Reah was a journalist.

Even as a young child, Huston was drawn to the world of theatre and acting due to his father’s profession. He travelled around the country with his family as his father toured in various theatre productions.

This unconventional, transient childhood contributed to Huston’s sense of independence and gave him an opportunity to observe his father’s craft firsthand. These early experiences heavily influenced Huston’s eventual path.

Early Acting Career

In the 1920s, John Huston decided to follow in his father’s footsteps as an actor. He made his Broadway debut in 1924 in a play called Mr. Pitt.

Over the next several years, Huston acted in about a dozen more Broadway productions. Though he received positive notices, he was never able to achieve great success or fame as an actor.

Acting did however give Huston important experience and connections in the world of theatre that he would draw on later when he transitioned to directing and screenwriting. His frustrations with his acting limitations increasingly drew him behind the scenes.

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Transition to Screenwriting and Directing

John-Huston

By the late 1930s, John Huston set his sights on Hollywood. While he acted in a few minor film roles, he was far more focused on becoming a writer and director.

His first major Hollywood script was for the film Jezebel starring Bette Davis in 1938. The success of this film established Huston’s reputation as a talented screenwriter.

Early Hollywood Screenwriting

When John Huston first arrived in Hollywood in the 1930s, he was determined to transition from acting to writing for the screen. After a few small acting roles, he got his first major break writing the script for the 1938 film Jezebel.

Starring Bette Davis, Jezebel was a major box office and critical hit, earning Huston attention as an up-and-coming talent. He went on to write screenplays for several other successful films like Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet and High Sierra.

Huston had a natural talent for storytelling and for adapting works for the screen. His background in acting and theatre gave him insights into writing vivid, compelling characters and dialogue. His early screenwriting laid the foundation for his eventual directing career.

Directorial Debut with The Maltese Falcon

John Huston’s true directorial debut came with the 1941 film noir classic The Maltese Falcon, starring Humphrey Bogart.

Not only did Huston co-write the screenplay and direct the film, he managed to do so on a tight budget and under significant studio oversight. Despite these challenges, The Maltese Falcon was both a critical and commercial hit.

It cemented Huston’s reputation as a talented new director and also helped shape film noir as a genre. Scenes and cinematography from the film became iconic and highly influential. The film launched Bogart to stardom playing private eye Sam Spade.

Directing Career: 1940s-50s

The Life and Career of John Huston

Over the course of the 1940s and 1950s, John Huston became one of Hollywood’s most prominent and respected directors. Some of his most acclaimed works came during this highly productive period.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

In 1948, John Huston wrote and directed the adventure drama The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Starring Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston, it was one of Huston’s first major critical successes as a director.

The Treasure of Sierra Madre told the story of three drifters hunting for gold in Mexico. Huston shot the film on location under difficult conditions to achieve a gritty, realistic look. Both Walter Huston and Bogart gave standout performances.

The film was praised for its moral complexity and examination of greed and human nature. It won Oscars for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Walter Huston.

Key Largo and The Asphalt Jungle

Two more of Huston’s most acclaimed films from this period were Key Largo (1948) starring Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and The Asphalt Jungle (1950), a crime drama starring Sterling Hayden.

Key Largo was a suspenseful drama set largely in a hotel during a hurricane. The Asphalt Jungle used an ensemble cast to portray a complex heist storyline from multiple perspectives. Both films were successes praised for their strong acting and tense atmosphere.

Later Films and Acting Roles

While John Huston continued directing films through the 1960s and 1970s, some critics believe his later output did not reach the heights of his earlier classics. He did make several memorable films, while also taking on some notable acting parts.

The African Queen

In 1951, Huston wrote and directed The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. The story followed a river journey through Africa undertaken by an unlikely pair.

Filmed on location, The African Queen featured superb performances by Bogart and Hepburn. It became one of Huston’s most acclaimed and enduring films, renowned for its exciting storyline and chemistry between the lead actors. Bogart won his only Oscar for his role.

Acting in Chinatown and The Cardinal

In addition to directing, Huston was an occasional actor in films, especially later in his career. He had memorable roles in Chinatown (1974) and The Cardinal (1963), the latter of which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Huston brought gravitas and authority to his acting roles, skills developed over his lifelong immersion in cinema. Though not known as a great actor, he was nonetheless a capable one able to hold his own with the best.

John Huston leaves behind an incredible legacy as one of classic Hollywood’s most talented writer-directors. He made his mark across film noir, adventure epics, heist films, and more.

Key trademarks of Huston’s directing were his vivid sense of realism, talent for drawing strong performances, and bold risk-taking spirit. He pushed boundaries and tackled challenging material throughout his career. Huston’s reputation as an “actor’s director” enabled him to get the best from Hollywood legends like Bogart, Hepburn and others.

Few directors have shown such versatility and longevity while maintaining a consistent standard of excellence. John Huston’s films remain highly regarded and enormously influential on generations of filmmakers. He stands as one of the iconic directors of Hollywood’s golden age.

Filmography

1941: The Maltese Falcon

  • Functioned as: Director, Writer
  • Genre: Film Noir, Mystery
  • Plot: Private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is hired by a woman (Mary Astor) to find her missing sister’s lover. Spade soon finds himself caught up in a web of intrigue involving a priceless statuette known as the Maltese Falcon.
  • Reception: The Maltese Falcon was a critical and commercial success, grossing over $2 million at the box office. It is considered one of the greatest film noirs ever made and is frequently included in lists of the best films of all time.

1942: In This Our Life

  • Functioned as: Director
  • Genre: Drama
  • Plot: Two sisters (Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland) from different social backgrounds fall in love with the same man (Dennis Morgan). The film follows the sisters’ lives as they navigate their relationships and the societal pressures that come with them.
  • Reception: In This Our Life was a critical and commercial success, receiving six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress for Davis. It remains a respected example of Hollywood melodrama.

1942: Across the Pacific

  • Functioned as: Director
  • Genre: War Film
  • Plot: During World War II, a group of American soldiers (Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet) are assigned to transport a Japanese spy (Akim Tamiroff) across the Pacific Ocean. The soldiers must overcome numerous obstacles, including enemy submarines and treacherous weather, to complete their mission.
  • Reception: Across the Pacific was a popular film with audiences and critics alike, grossing over $2 million at the box office. It is remembered today as an exciting and suspenseful war film.

1946: Let There Be Light

  • Functioned as: Director, Writer, Producer
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Plot: Let There Be Light is a documentary film that follows the lives of several World War II veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The film highlights the psychological and emotional challenges faced by veterans and the importance of providing them with adequate care.
  • Reception: Let There Be Light was praised for its realism and its insights into the psychological effects of war. However, it was also controversial for its graphic depiction of mental illness and its criticism of the Veterans Administration.

1948: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

  • Functioned as: Director, Writer
  • Genre: Western, Adventure
  • Plot: Two down-on-their-luck prospectors (Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt) team up to search for gold in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico. They are joined by a third prospector (Walter Huston), but their greed and paranoia soon drive them apart.
  • Reception: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a critical and commercial success, winning three Academy Awards, including Best Supporting Actor for Huston. It is considered one of the greatest westerns ever made and is often included in lists of the best films of all time.

1948: Key Largo

  • Functioned as: Director, Writer
  • Genre: Film Noir, Drama
  • Plot: A group of gangsters led by Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson) take over a small Florida town and terrorize the local residents. A former Army major (Humphrey Bogart) and his wife (Lauren Bacall) must stand up to Rocco and his gang to protect their town.
  • Reception: Key Largo was a critical and commercial success, grossing over $3 million at the box office. It is remembered today as a classic film noir and a showcase for Bogart and Bacall’s chemistry

1949: We Were Strangers

  • Genre: Drama
  • Runtime: 105 minutes
  • Plot: A former Nazi sympathizer tries to rebuild his life in America but finds that his past is not forgotten.
  • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial failure.

1950: The Asphalt Jungle

  • Genre: Crime Thriller
  • Runtime: 112 minutes
  • Plot: A group of criminals plot to rob a jewelry store but things go awry when one of them betrays the others.
  • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, and is considered one of the greatest heist films ever made.

1951: The Red Badge of Courage

  • Genre: War Drama
  • Runtime: 83 minutes
  • Plot: A young soldier’s coming-of-age story as he experiences the horrors of the American Civil War.
  • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, and won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

1951: The African Queen

  • Genre: Adventure Romance
  • Runtime: 105 minutes
  • Plot: A stern spinster and a roguish riverboat captain team up to escape German East Africa during World War I.
  • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, and won an Academy Award for Best Actor (Humphrey Bogart).

1952: Moulin Rouge

  • Genre: Musical Drama
  • Runtime: 121 minutes
  • Plot: A young courtesan rises to fame at the Moulin Rouge cabaret in Paris.
  • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success, and won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design.

1953: Beat the Devil

  • Genre: Crime Comedy
  • Runtime: 89 minutes
  • Plot: A group of shady characters plot to sell uranium to the highest bidder.
  • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial failure.

1956: Moby Dick

  • Genre: Adventure Drama
  • Runtime: 116 minutes
  • Plot: Captain Ahab’s obsessive quest for the white whale, Moby Dick, that took his leg.
  • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial failure.

1957: Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

  • Genre: War Drama
  • Runtime: 108 minutes
  • Plot: A US Marine and a nun stranded on a remote island during World War II find solace in each other.
  • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success.

1958: The Barbarian and the Geisha

  • Genre: Historical Drama
  • Runtime: 121 minutes
  • Plot: An American diplomat falls in love with a Japanese geisha during the 1860s.
  • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial failure.

1958: The Roots of Heaven

  • Genre: Adventure Drama
  • Runtime: 135 minutes
  • Plot: A group of animal rights activists try to stop a ruthless hunter from killing elephants in Africa.
  • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial failure.

1960: The Unforgiven

  • Genre: Western
  • Runtime: 125 minutes
  • Plot: A Civil War veteran is forced to confront his past when his half-Native American granddaughter is kidnapped.
  • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success.

1961: The Misfits

  • Genre: Western Drama
  • Runtime: 124 minutes
  • Plot: A group of misfits come together in the Nevada desert and find solace in each other.
  • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial failure.

1962: Freud: The Secret Passion

  • Genre: Historical Drama
  • Runtime: 139 minutes
  • Plot: A fictionalized account of Sigmund Freud’s early life and the development of psychoanalysis.
  • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial failure.

1963: The List of Adrian Messenger

  • Genre: Spy Thriller
  • Runtime: 98 minutes
  • Plot: A British agent tracks down a list of Nazi collaborators.
  • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial failure.

1964: The Night of the Iguana

  • Genre: Drama
  • Runtime: 125 minutes
  • Plot: A defrocked minister takes a job as a tour guide in Mexico and becomes involved with a group of troubled people.
  • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success.

1966: The Bible: In the Beginning…

  • Genre: Biblical Epic
  • Runtime: 175 minutes
  • Plot: An adaptation of the Book of Genesis.
  • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial failure.

1967: Reflections in a Golden Eye

  • Genre: Drama
  • Runtime: 108 minutes
  • Plot: A closeted gay Army Major stationed in the American South struggles with his sexuality and relationships.
  • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial failure.

1967: Casino Royale

  • Genre: Spy Comedy
  • Runtime: 130 minutes
  • Plot: A group of secret agents try to stop a villainous organization from destroying the world.
  • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success.

1969

  • Title: Sinful Davey
    • Genre: Drama
    • Length: 108 minutes
    • Plot: A young man named Davey (John Hurt) returns to his hometown after serving time in prison. He tries to start a new life, but he is haunted by his past. He is also drawn to a young woman (Pamela Franklin) who is engaged to another man.
  • Title: A Walk with Love and Death
    • Genre: Drama
    • Length: 100 minutes
    • Plot: A young woman named Alma (Anicée Alvina) falls in love with a young man named Roger (Vittorio Caprioli). However, their love is forbidden because Alma is promised to another man.

1970

  • Title: The Kremlin Letter
    • Genre: Thriller
    • Length: 107 minutes
    • Plot: A British spy (Richard Boone) is sent to Moscow to investigate the death of a Soviet scientist. He discovers that the scientist was working on a new type of weapon and that the Soviets are planning to use it.

1972

  • Title: Fat City
    • Genre: Drama
    • Length: 99 minutes
    • Plot: A former boxer (Stacy Keach) tries to make a comeback. He is helped by a young trainer (Jeff Bridges). However, he is also haunted by his past and his addiction to alcohol.
    • Reception: The film was a critical and commercial success.
  • Title: The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
    • Genre: Western
    • Length: 125 minutes
    • Plot: A former outlaw (Paul Newman) becomes a frontier justice. He is known for his harsh and often bizarre rulings.
  • Title: The Mackintosh Man
    • Genre: Thriller
    • Length: 103 minutes
    • Plot: A British agent (Paul Newman) is sent to investigate the death of a fellow agent. He discovers that the agent was killed by a Soviet spy ring.

1975

  • Title: The Man Who Would Be King
    • Genre: Adventure
    • Length: 130 minutes
    • Plot: Two British adventurers (Sean Connery and Michael Caine) travel to Afghanistan to find a lost treasure. They are helped by a local guide (Saeed Jaffrey).

1976

  • Title: Independence
    • Genre: Short film
    • Length: 15 minutes
    • Plot: A young woman (Mare Winningham) tries to find her own identity in a small town.

1979

  • Title: Wise Blood
    • Genre: Drama
    • Length: 113 minutes
    • Plot: A young man (Brad Dourif) moves to a small town to start a new life. He is a self-proclaimed prophet and he tries to spread his message of salvation. However, he is met with resistance from the townspeople.

1980

  • Title: Phobia
    • Genre: Horror
    • Length: 93 minutes
    • Plot: A young woman (Susan Lucci) is haunted by a series of phobias. She sees a psychiatrist (John Colicos) who helps her to overcome her fears.

1981

  • Title: Escape to Victory
    • Genre: Sports drama
    • Length: 113 minutes
    • Plot: A group of Allied prisoners of war (Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Pelé) are forced to play a soccer match against a German team. They use the match as an opportunity to escape.

1982

  • Title: Annie
    • Genre: Musical
    • Length: 121 minutes
    • Plot: A young orphan girl (Aileen Quinn) is adopted by a wealthy businessman (Albert Finney). She brings joy to his life and helps him to learn how to love again.

1984

  • Title: Under the Volcano
    • Genre: Drama
    • Length: 110 minutes
    • Plot: A British consul (Albert Finney) in Mexico is struggling with alcoholism and depression. He is also haunted by the memories of his dead wife.

1985

  • Title: Prizzi’s Honor
    • Genre: Crime drama
    • Length: 129 minutes
    • Plot: A Mafia hitman (Jack Nicholson) falls in love with a beautiful woman (Kathleen Turner). He must choose between his love for her and his loyalty to his family.

1987:

  • Title: The Dead
  • Year: 1987
  • Genre: Drama
  • Length: 82 minutes
  • Plot:
  • The Dead is a 1987 drama film directed by John Huston, based on the short story of the same name by James Joyce. The film is set in Dublin, Ireland, on the eve of the Epiphany in 1904. 
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