An Interview With John Huston

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John Huston was born on August 5, 1906, in Nevada, Missouri, a town that his grandfather won in a poker game, according to family legend. He was the son of Walter Huston, who, after fifteen years as a vaudeville headliner, became one of America’s finest dramatic actors, best known for playing the old farmer in Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms and for the title role in Dodsworth . He was forty-six before he made his first film and again achieved instant critical and popular success. Until his death, Walter Huston appeared in all his son’s films.

John Huston’s mother was Rhea Gore Huston, a talented newspaperwoman, horse fancier, and inveterate traveler. The parents separated when John was three and later divorced. The boy grew up following his mother around the country to a succession of reporting jobs spelled by visits to his father on the vaudeville circuit.

As a young man he was a ranking lightweight boxer in California, winning twenty-two of twenty-five bouts, briefly attached to the Mexican cavalry, a street artist in Paris, and a reporter on the old New York Graphic . He began his motion-picture career as a screenwriter on such films as The Killers and Sergeant York.

He has directed thirty-eight movies, among them: The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle, The Red Badge of Courage, The African Queen, Moulin Rouge, Moby Dick, The Misfits, The Night of the Iguana, Reflections in a Golden Eye , and The Man Who Would Be King . Huston also occasionally acts in films and appeared in The Cardinal, The Bible, Chinatown, The Wind and The Lion , and Myra Breckinridge.

He won the Academy Award for best direction for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948; The Screen Directors Guild Award for The Asphalt Jungle in 1950; and the New York Film Critics Award for Moby Dick in 1956. Along the way he has also been a big-game hunter, a high-stakes gambler, a long-time resident of Ireland and of Mexico, where he now lives, and he has been married five times.

The interview began on the Burbank Studios set of Annie , Huston’s first musical. He is slouched in the director’s chair, a gangling, seemingly fleshless man with a grizzled beard and deep creases radiating from his eyes like spokes. With his slat-thin arms and folded legs, he suggests a collapsible yardstick. He is dressed with almost deliberate anonymity, loafers, nondescript dark blue slacks, and one of the last white, messageless T-shirts in America. He is seventy-five now and moves with a slow, stiff grace. Between takes, he sips lemonade from a huge Styrofoam cup. And he talks.

You managed to avoid much formal schooling in your life, didn’t you?

School bored the hell out of me. It was tedious. Irksome. I regret this in a way because today I don’t think of myself as an educated man. In another way, it’s just as well. Instead of giving form and shape to my view of life, formal schooling would only have limited me. Of course, I admire disciplined learning in others, the academic education. It’s just that the one I had stood me better.

You almost didn’t make it to adulthood. At least you were told you wouldn’t.

Yes, the doctors thought I was doomed by a heart ailment. I’m not sure something like this means as much to a kid as to a grown man. At the time I was ten. It didn’t terrify me. I learned to accept it. I wasn’t allowed to play or eat a normal diet. I was told I’d certainly die if I did. But I resisted it. Somehow I knew they were wrong and I was right. I can still remember the names of the specialists who attended me over sixty years ago, and I can’t account for what they did to that child.

Were you drawn to the movies early?

No. Kids in my time didn’t haunt theaters. There were no movie buffs, no autograph seekers with that almost unhealthy preoccupation with the famous. Oh sure, the girls loved a Rudolph Valentino. But movies were not the consuming subject in my circle. To this day, having a single consuming interest is unthinkable to me. At different times in my life, boxing, writing, the horses, and art have been just as important to me as making pictures.

The greatest influence on your formative years was not someone in film making, was it?

No, it was Stanton MacDonald-Wright. He and Morgan Russell were the first Americans to paint abstractions. As a young man, I was enrolled in the Art Students League in Los Angeles. We invited Wright over as a mentor. In my judgment, he knew more about the Renaissance than Bernard Berenson. He also knew Chinese art and music. He composed music and spoke several languages. He introduced me to Baudelaire, Verlaine, Balzac, Rabelais. Wright had an extraordinary turn of mind and tongue. I remember how he described a fat woman he’d seen on the street as looking, below her waist, like two young boys wrestling. Whatever education I’ve got, this man furnished the foundation. I owe him more than I can ever express.

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.

The Army wanted no part of the picture at first. During the first screening, they all started walking out, by rank order, beginning with a three-star general. For a time I was highly suspect for turning out such a product. They figured the picture would dishearten any young soldier. Mental casualties usually occur, you know, during the baptism of fire. General George C. Marshall saved the picture. He saw it and said, of course, every recruit should see this film to prepare himself for the reality of combat. There were some scenes I did take out, reluctantly. Again, it was Marshall who requested it. I could understand. I had interviewed some of the men on camera before the first attack to ask them why they thought they were fighting the war. They were quite eloquent. It wasn’t like Korea or Vietnam then, you know. I can never forget the kid who told me how everything was going to change after the war. There he was in the midst of hell, and he believed the world was going to be a better place. Why, he told me, there was going to be a tunnel under the English Channel, maybe under the Atlantic. Not long afterward he was dead. They laid out the casualties in a row on their bedrolls. They had to lift their backs up to pull the bedroll over the head. I had my camera right down there filming their faces close up. In the original version of the film, I had their voices speaking about their hopes for the future over the dead faces. I guess that would have been too much for the families. So it was cut, along with about a third of the film. But after General Marshall approved of the picture, the rest of the brass fell into line. I was decorated, promoted, too, to major.

 
 

Your other Army documentary, Let There Be Light , was suppressed for thirty-five years. How did you finally get it released?

It was to show how men who had been mentally damaged in the war could be helped by psychiatric care to lead useful lives. We filmed it at Mason General Hospital on Long Island. We set the cameras up in the receiving room and filmed the patients as they were checked in. Then, as their treatment progressed, we kept on filming, thousands of feet. The cameras caught miraculous things—men who couldn’t walk recovering the use of their legs; one fellow regained the power of speech. But the War Department wouldn’t release the film. They said it violated the patients’ privacy, even though all the men filmed had signed releases. I think the Army was concerned about not destroying the warrior myth. Only a few weaklings were supposed to break under the experience of war. The others were to come out standing proud and tall. No one had been able to budge the Army before, but after years of trying we finally got the picture released in 1981. It was quite a campaign. Ray Stark, one of the most powerful figures in the film business and a man for whom I have the deepest affection, led the effort. Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association, worked on it. We had the U.S. senators and representatives from California, but the person who was most instrumental in getting Let There Be Light released was Vice President Walter Mondale.

In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre there is a memorable scene at the end in which the wind is blowing the gold dust away. And Old Howard, played by your father, is laughing a mad, gleeful laugh. What is that laugh saying?

The point is he gets the young character, played by Tim Holt, to laugh, too. They laugh at the absurdity of the venture. My father could inspire that kind of awareness and laughter in others. He would laugh and get me laughing—not necessarily at a joke. Usually it was a shared weakness he spotted or made me see that brought on that marvelous laughter. I haven’t laughed like that since he died.

You obviously had a close relationship with your father. Yet you weren’t raised by him. Is that possibly the reason for the father-son success, that you weren’t always under each other’s feet?

It was more that I didn’t regard him so much as a father but as a friend. He hadn’t been much of a father to me; that wasn’t required. When I got to know him, I liked him. I also respected him, but I didn’t go to him for advice. Instead, I learned from his actions, from his way of looking at life. My father was my closest friend, and he would have been even had he not been my father.

You made a picture of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. But the film you made is not exactly what the public saw. What happened?

I never made anything so thoroughly disliked. The first time the picture was previewed, people walked out, not just in twos and threes but by the score. They left at the parts I considered most important. Remember the death of the Tattered Soldier? He is walking in circles, then just sits down and dies. Audiences just couldn’t take it. I think it was almost unfair to put it on them. This was one of life’s darker moments for me. Before the picture was released I had to go to Africa to make The African Queen . I thought the Red Badge was safe, since I left it with two men who had championed it all along, Wolfgang Reinhardt and Dore Schary. But the studio decided the audience hadn’t been sufficiently aware that they were watching a masterpiece. They had to be told. So they changed my opening. I had shot a little scene for the opener, before the titles, where The Youth is standing sentry by the trees across the river. A Southern-accented voice calls out, “Would you mind stepping out of the moonlight and into the shadows, Yank, or I’ll have to pin one of those red badges on you. ” This was dropped. Instead they had the picture open with a copy of the book, with the title and “by Stephen Crane” so that the audience would appreciate that something serious, you know, important , was coming up. And they added a narration, too, that I hadn’t wanted. They cut a 135-minute picture to 69 minutes. And it still failed. I don’t blame the studio for its concern. I can understand their wanting to avoid an utter, ghastly failure. I believe that any picture, particularly an innovative picture, should pay for itself. If it doesn’t, other innovators who follow you have to suffer. They aren’t going to be given the opportunity to innovate. Still, I think The Red Badge was a good picture the way it was done originally. It’s interesting, almost twenty-five years later, I got a cable from Metro wanting to know if by chance I had a print of the original. Of course I didn’t. It’s gone forever.

 
 

In the late 1940’s you, William Wyler, and Philip Dunne formed the Committee for the First Amendment to combat the House Un-American Activities Committee. It was dubbed a Communist front, and the columnist Frank Conniff even described you as the brains of the Communist party in the West. How did you react?

It just disgusted me. Here people were being persecuted for their beliefs, and nobody was coming to their defense. I felt ashamed of Americans. I saw the thing that was coming and I wanted to cut it dead.

You were at one time vice president of the Screen Directors Guild. Did you know Ronald Reagan, the president of the Screen Actors Guild?

Yes. As a matter of fact, Willy Wyler and I went to him urging that he have his guild take a position on this anti-Communist hysteria. He refused. From that moment on I had very little use for him politically. I should say none.

You gave up your U.S. citizenship and became a citizen of Ireland, no doubt for practical reasons. Was that a difficult decision?

At about that time I had gone to Africa to make The African Queen . Then I went to Paris to shoot Moulin Rouge . I felt no burning desire to come back to the United States. It had temporarily ceased to be my country, so I didn’t mind staying abroad. The anti-Communist lunacy of the period also influenced me to move to Ireland. I found out what they thought of Joe McCarthy. And it was a low opinion of him and what he was doing. That made me even fonder of those people.

You have described yourself as a Jeffersonian Democrat. What does that mean to you?

I’m against dictatorship in any form. And I believe in the principles of decentralized government, not as interpreted by Ronald Reagan but as interpreted by Franklin D. Roosevelt. I have never felt so well about our society as when FDR was in the driver’s seat. I never believed what his enemies said about his assuming the prerogatives of a monarch. I’ll go even further than saying I am a Jeffersonian Democrat. Down deeper, I am an anarchist. Theoretically, doesn’t every right-thinking person desire a society so virtuous that no laws are required? But that’s nonsense, isn’t it?

Is authenticity of locale essential to a film? You’ve been willing to pay a stiff price and to exact a stiff price from your performers to get just the right ambiance. Katharine Hepburn was plagued by dysentery while shooting The African Queen in the Congo. Your crew required nearly a thousand doctor calls in Chad where you shot The Roots of Heaven. Eddie Albert even went delirious.

I don’t expect when I go into those situations that it’s going to be an ordeal. Yes, people got ill on The African Queen . The irony is that we had brought in bottled water to head off trouble, and it turned out to be contaminated. I don’t know if it was required that we make the picture in the darkest heart of the darkest part of Africa. I suppose I was yielding to the romantic impulse within myself. Every day was a joy. This is one of the few experiences in life I could live over again.

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.

You have made outstanding pictures both under the artistic constraints and profit pressures of the old studio system and through independent-producer arrangements. Which produces a better product?

The old studio system offered security, economy, discipline. And they did a program of pictures. That is gone. Now each picture has to be an event. Yet I can’t think of a time when more good pictures were made than this past year.

Does that mean that the present system of independent production is better?

No. There might never have been more bad pictures than the year before. It is not the producing structure that makes the difference, it’s the talent and the material.

You’ve said that the styles of individual directors may vary, but there is a basic grammar to film making that must be obeyed. Can you give an example?

Grammar in its broadest application is the adherence to form, not changing the style. I’ve known directors who lay out a scene—here’s the camera, you stand here, and you stand there. Sometimes they even light the set in advance to save time. Then the actors step in and they shoot. Of course this is possible, but it’s highly limiting. As a rule, I bring people on, don’t tell them much, bring them into the camera lens, and let them say their lines to one another until I’ve found my way into the scene. Once you have found the right shot to introduce the scene—written your first declarative sentence—then the rest flows. You’ve found the key to the whole scene. That’s grammar. Also, the spatial relationships of the images on the screen should be what they are in life. If you are shooting people a few feet apart, then the upper part of the body should fill the screen. That’s what we would see looking at someone from that distance in life. If the characters are inches apart, you shoot a big head close-up. Again, that’s what the eye sees in life. And that is grammar.

The layman assumes that anyone who made a picture as critically and commercially successful as, say, The African Queen, must have made a great deal of money.

I took twenty-five thousand dollars out of The African Queen . That is all I have gotten to this day. I also got living expenses while it was being made. Once the film was released, I was supposed to share in the proceeds. They never came in. You know the business about gross and net earnings in pictures?

There never seem to be any net earnings?

That’s right. I see my pictures on TV all the time and I never get a penny from it. Fortunately, I usually commanded good salaries for my work.

If you had to stand or fall on just one of your films, which one would it be?

I can’t name just one. I realize that the honors falling on me now are for the cumulative weight of my work. But I especially like The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Man Who Would Be King, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Fat City, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison . And I like moments in all my work, whatever the reason I made the picture, including some that I don’t like on the whole. I always shot each scene as if it was the most important scene in the picture and shot every picture as though it was the most important one I ever made.

Who are your heroes in film making?

I’d pick Willy Wyler, beginning at the present and working backward, for his faithfulness and painstaking commitment to what he was doing. Vittorio De Sica was one of the finest directors: I rate Bicycle Thief among the five best pictures ever made. Then there’s James Crewes, who directed The Covered Wagon , a great sweeping statement about what America was, not what it now is. I particularly admire Fellini’s delight at the discovery of truth within the grotesque. I admire George Stevens and René Clair. And, of course, there is D. W. Griffith. Among actors, William S. Hart influenced my childhood. I too wanted to peer through steely, narrow eyes and fight wrongdoers.

Any villains?

The people heading up studios nowadays aren’t a particularly creative lot. They are businessmen, accountants, former agents, tax lawyers. Most of them don’t know a damned thing about making a picture. They can wheel and deal and come up with somebody else’s money. Not the sort you would want to spend much time with by choice.

You wrote in your autobiography, “The best men tend to think of themselves as failures.” Do you feel that way about yourself?

Sometimes when I look at the body of my work I’ll say, “Oh, shit!” But even Michelangelo on his deathbed thought he’d done nothing to ennoble art. He wanted to destroy his work—the Pieta! And this from the greatest artist who ever lived. Of course I am not comparing my work to Michelangelo’s. But this eternal dissatisfaction of the artist is what I was talking about.

In 1977 you underwent serious surgery for an aneurism, a condition almost identical to that which took your father’s life. Did this experience give you some sort of insight into life, into the meaning of existence?

Certainly not. I am more lost in wonder than ever.

Do you think that Americans tend to underestimate the productive span of life?

Quite possibly. I’m sure I’m not fooling myself when I say I am just as able to make a picture today at seventy-five as I ever was—as long as it doesn’t involve climbing a mountain. I would rule out Everest as a location. I’ll accept the end readily and easily when the time comes. I expect I’ll go out the way Saroyan said he would, curious about what comes next.