An Interview With John Huston
The Dean of American Movie Men at Seventy-Five
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
As a young man, you watched your father rehearse Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, and you met O’Neill. What did you learn from that?
I learned the shape and substance of a scene, what constitutes a scene, what makes dialogue. Scenes have to have beginnings, a crisis, a climax. And I observed in O’Neill’s dialogue a formula of contradiction where the character says something and contradicts it at the same time. The dramatic heat rises from this irony. And I saw lines on a page take on life. I was instantly fascinated.
You played your first stage role in Sherwood Anderson’s The Triumph of the Egg with virtually no training and won brilliant notices. You wrote a short story, and H. L. Mencken published it in the American Mercury . You wrote a book based on the Frankie and Johnnie story, and that, too, was published. All this, and you weren’t much more than twenty-one. Did these seemingly effortless early successes give you a misleading idea of the odds on success in life?
No, not really. I didn’t put any great store in it. I didn’t begin to think too highly—or even highly—of myself, for that matter. And after that, I went through a long period when nothing I turned my hand to seemed to come out well. I became almost resigned to failure. It wasn’t regret so much as failing to satisfy certain ambitions, but failure in life, in the deepest sense.
How did you turn failure around?
I think young men need champions. MacDonald-Wright had been a champion. Later, Henry Blanke at Warner Brothers was my advocate. My recovery from this black period began when I met the woman who was to become my second wife, Leslie Black. She was beautiful, not just physically, but a lovely woman. She set a standard. I sat down and wrote a treatment called Three Strangers . Warner Brothers bought it for five thousand dollars and gave me the contract to write the screenplay. On that money Leslie and I got married in 1937. I went to the studio, and from then on, everything changed.
A few years later, in 1941, you directed your first picture, The Maltese Falcon . Did you have the immediate sensation when you did it that “this is right for me”?
Yes. I felt an immediate mastery. I knew what I was doing. I don’t say that in the sense that I was an expert or good director, but in the sense of its being right and therefore true for me.
The Maltese Falcon broke new ground in that the picture is seen almost entirely through the eyes of Sam Spade, the private eye. How did you achieve that first-person effect?
First of all, I felt myself at one with the Sam Spade character, and [Dashiell] Hammett’s mentality and philosophy were quite congenial to me. The story was a dramatization of myself, of how I felt about things. I remember the look of astonishment on a friend’s face when I told him that Hammett compared with the great French stylists. A detective-story writer being compared to Flaubert?
Were you aware that you were doing something different, untried, as a director?
Yes, I did. There could not be a scene in which Sam did not appear. The audience was to know nothing Sam didn’t know. And they meet the other characters only when Sam does. There was just one exception, when Sam doesn’t appear in a scene. That’s where his partner, Archer, is shot. You only see the gun come onto the screen and don’t know who fired it. The studio wanted that. I didn’t. I reconciled myself by saying, “That’s really not a part of my picture.”
Shortly after The Maltese Falcon you went into the Army as a documentary film maker. San Pietro , your film about the battle for an obscure Italian village, shows war’s horror and madness. One hardly expects that this was the message the U.S. Army had in mind.