The man who filmed the stuff that dreams are made of.
Mar 12, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 25 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
After mastoid surgery laid John low, his father gave him $500 to recover in Mexico and he wound up an honorary lieutenant in the Mexican cavalry as an equestrian competitor. The yearlong interlude was not exactly warlike but furnished danger enough to keep Huston amused:
Marriage followed his return to Los Angeles—wives and lovers will get more detailed treatment shortly—and the couple promptly headed for Greenwich Village. Huston painted, boxed, and wrote, both fish-wrap journalism and upper-middlebrow art for would-be hard guys. Two boxing stories of his made the rounds from his father to Ring Lardner to H. L. Mencken, who published them in the American Mercury. A prestigious publisher paid him handsomely for a marionette play, Frankie and Johnny.
The next year, John tailed Walter to Hollywood. The son started out contributing dialogue to movies starring the father, and soon caught on as a screenwriting regular. But his marriage fell apart, he took to heavy drinking, got into two drunken car wrecks, and then killed a woman with his car—through no fault of his own. John took heat from the press, and Walter lined up a short-term screenwriting contract for him in London so that things could cool off. When the job ended, John was reduced to singing for his supper in the streets. A providential score in the Irish Sweepstakes and a screenplay sale brought in enough money that he could take off for Paris and a shot at serious painting. This time he realized for certain that he did not have the talent to win distinction as an artist.
But he needed to distinguish himself, somehow, and he would do that in Hollywood. After working on several screenplays between 1938 and 1941, he bulled his way into the chance to write and direct The Maltese Falcon, the archetypal private-eye movie, cold-eyed and wittily sinister, against which all others are measured and come up short. This first big success pointed Huston at 35 toward his life’s work, and he would direct 40 films, writing 20 screenplays by himself or in collaboration.
Telling the story straightforwardly, eschewing flashbacks and fancy camera maneuvers, became his artistic credo. He considered casting the indispensable directorial skill. And he honored the integrity of the original works from which he adapted his screenplays. Much of the stinging patter in The Maltese Falcon comes directly from Dashiell Hammett’s novel, the notable exception being the final, signature line, the most famous in any Huston film, lifted from The Tempest: “The stuff that dreams are made of,” the cynical hero calls the statuette that men (and a woman he fell in love with) were willing to kill for.
The life Huston led after that first smash hit would have fulfilled many men’s dreams. As a Signal Corps officer, he made stunning war documentaries in the Aleutians and in Italy, risking his skin and loving the action. During congressional investigations into communism in Hollywood he stood up for freedom of speech, although he admitted that in some of his political activism the anti-Soviet liberal had been a Red stooge. While filming The African Queen in the Belgian Congo, he devoted almost as much energy to hunting big game as he did to the picture. He drank too much, gambled too much, smoked 20 cigars a day, shot a Bengal tiger from the back of an elephant. In 1953, he bought and restored a Georgian manor in the west of Ireland, St. Clerans, and carried on like a lord, filling the house with art treasures, fishing in his private trout stream, foxhunting as Master of the Galway Blazers.
When St. Clerans grew too expensive to maintain, he decamped to an outpost on the then-primitive Mexican west coast near Puerto Vallarta. Although he regarded directing as his true business, he made a reputation as a character actor, best known for the incestuous, murderous, rich Noah Cross in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. For the last two decades of his life he suffered from emphysema, and directed Under the Volcano, Prizzi’s Honor, and The Dead from a wheelchair.