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An Interview With John Huston
The Dean of American Movie Men at Seventy-Five
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
The African Queen was one of six pictures in which you directed Humphrey Bogart. How did you and he get along so well?
Bogey was not particularly well read. We didn’t share much common intellectual ground. But Bogey was a good companion. We got along. We could insult each other without taking umbrage. And you can’t do that with many people. And he was a decent man, completely without pretense. The one quality he could not take in anybody was pomposity. Consequently you were rarely at a party where Bogey wasn’t going after somebody. Often he had to be rescued.
You’ve observed that certain actors, like Bogart, are not terribly impressive in person. Yet they achieve some sort of magic through the eye of the camera.
I never felt, for example, Marilyn Monroe’s highly publicized appeal in person. But it was obviously there on the screen. I think the camera is simply a better observer than the human eye. It sees into the soul somehow. For example, in the film I am now directing, you see the charm well enough in Aileen Quinn, the little girl playing Annie, when she looks at you and smiles. But on the screen it comes across as though incandescent lights have been thrown on.
Movies are notorious for losing the essence of literary masterpieces. How did you approach Moby Dick?
One could not hope merely to transfer the novel to the screen. Melville’s book has that wonderful, random, disparate quality. Authors of the last century could indulge themselves more, the way Melville did with those chapters on the flensing of whales. He allows himself to slip under the influence of Shakespeare, too, and goes into the dramatic form. So, calling the picture Moby Dick is, in a sense, only a means of identification. The essential, however, is Melville’s philosophic argument. Ahab speaks for Melville, and through him he is raging at the deity. This point, by the way, was never commented on by any critic who saw the picture, not even those who championed it. They failed to recognize that the work was a blasphemy. The message of Moby Dick was hate. The whale is the mask of a malignant deity who torments mankind. Ahab pits himself against this evil power. Melville doesn’t choose to call the power Satan, but God. I thought the picture was quite good when it was released. But it went against the critics’ preconceptions. And what they wrote influenced the way the picture was received by audiences. They seemed to expect Ahab as a raging madman, the way Charles Laughton played him in an earlier version. I rejected that. Then there were those who thought of Moby Dick as an adventure story. No kid of ten is going to read Moby Dick . It takes the hard application of an adult mind to appreciate Melville. It is anything but an adventure story.
You have frequently gone outside the film industry for your collaborators—Arthur Miller, James Agee, Jean-Paul Sartre, Hemingway. You and Hemingway seemed especially like men who would have been natural friends. Was that the case?
Early on we were wary of each other. Ernest Hemingway did not rush into hearty relationships. He was no backslapper. Papa rarely liked anyone he had met only once, particularly men. But after the first two or three meetings, he began to trust me, and we found a sense of kinship. We were at a party once at the Hotel Nacional in Havana. A man was there whom I’d encountered several times before and whom I disliked intensely. He was always talking about “the niggers,” always trying to show that the black man was an inferior breed. Of course, he’d say, they’re human, but certainly far beneath the Caucasian. I was so outraged this time by the son of a bitch that I was about to throw one at him. Papa shook his head slightly in a quiet warning to me. While I was cooling off, Papa went on talking to the man, very gently, understandingly. When the fellow was gone, he pointed out something he’d picked up that I hadn’t sensed. “Don’t you see,”he told me, “he’s part Negro. ” It was deeply sensitive and thoughtful. And it’s not the kind of story one often hears about Hemingway.
There appears to be a common thread running through the best of your work. It’s there in The Asphalt Jungle, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Man Who Would Be King . It’s the dream turned to ashes. Is this conscious?
I’m not consciously aware of it. But I suppose it is there. As the French put it, living is the pursuit, not the gain. It’s the fox hunt and not the fox that matters. Success stories, as such, have never interested me much. In any event, I don’t see any particular continuity in what I’ve done. I am just surprised at how different each picture is from the other.
Are you serious about your acting?
No. I don’t look on myself as an actor. Just take the money and get a kick out of it. It’s so easy. And everyone behaves as though I’m doing a great favor when I agree to take a part.