Friday, September 25, 2009

John Huston, Eisenstein Of the Bogart Thriller

Hollywood's fair-haired boy, to the critics, is director John Huston; in terms of falling into the Hollywood mold, Huston is a smooth blend of iconoclast and sheep. If you look closely at his films, what appears to be a familiar story, face, grouping of actors, or tempo has in each case an obscure, outrageous, double-crossing unfamiliarity that is the product of an Eisenstein-­lubricated brain. Huston has a personal reputation as a bad-boy, a homely one (called "Double-Ugly" by friends, "monster" by enemies), who has been in every known trade, rugged or sedentary: Mexican army cavalryman, editor of the first pictorial weekly, expatriate painter, hobo, hunter, Greenwich Village actor, amateur lightweight champ of California. His films, which should be rich with this extraordinary experience, are rich with cut-and-dried homilies; expecting a mobile and desperate style, you find stasis manipulated with the surehandedness of a Raffles.

Though Huston deals with the gangster, detective, adventure thriller that the average fan knows like the palm of his hand, he is Message-Mad, and mixes a savage story with puddin' head righteousness. His characters are humorless and troubled and quite reasonably so, since Huston, like a Puritan judge, is forever calling on them to prove that they can soak up punishment, carry through harrowing tasks, withstand the ugliest taunts. Huston is a crazy man with death: he pockmarks a story with gratuitous deaths, fast deaths, and noisy ones, and in idle moments, has his characters play parlor games with gats. Though his movies are persistently concerned with grim interpersonal relationships viewed from an ethic-happy plane, half of each audience takes them for comedies. The directing underlines a single vice or virtue of each character so that his one-track actions become either boring or funny; it expands and slows figures until they are like oxen driven with a big moralistic whip.

Money -- its possession, influence, manufacture, lack-- is a star performer in Huston's moral fables and gilds his technique; his irony toward and preoccupation with money indicate a director who is a little bitter at being so rich -- the two brief appearances Huston makes in his own films are quite appropriately as a bank teller and a rich, absent-minded American handing out gold pieces to a recurring panhandler. His movies will please a Russian audience: half the characters (Americans) are money-mad, directly enriching themselves by counterfeiting, prospecting, blackmail, panhandling.

His style is so tony it should embarrass his threadbare subjects. The texture of a Panama hat is emphasized to the point where you feel Huston is trying to stamp its price tag on your retina. He creates a splendiferous effect out of the tiniest details -- each hair of an eyelid -- and the tunnel dug in a week by six proletarian heroes is the size of the Holland Tunnel.

Huston's technique differs on many counts from classic Hollywood practice, which from Sennett to Wellman has visualized stories by means of the unbroken action sequence, in which the primary image is the fluid landscape shot where terrain and individual are blended together and the whole effect is scenic rather than portraiture. Huston's art is stage presentation, based on oral expression and static composition: the scenery is curiously deadened, and the individual has an exaggerated vitality.

His characters do everything the hard way -- the mastication of a gum-chewing gangster resembles the leg-motion in bicycling. In the traditional film life is viewed from a comfortable vantage point, one that is so unobtrusive that the audience is seldom conscious of the fact a camera had anything to do with what is shown. In Huston's you are constantly aware of a vitaminized photographer. Huston breaks up a film into a hundred disparate midget films: a character with a pin head in one incident is shown megacephalic in another; the first shot of a brawl shows a modest Tampico saloon, the second expands the saloon into a skating rink.

The Huston trademark consists of two unorthodox practices -- the statically designed image (objects and figures locked into various pyramid designs) and the mobile handling of close three­figured shots. The Eisenstein of the Bogart thriller, he rigidly delimits the subject matter that goes into a frame, by chiaroscuro or by grouping his figures within the square of the screen so that there is hardly room for an actor to move an arm: given a small group in close quarters, around a bar, bonfire, table, he will hang on to the event for dear life and show you peculiarities of posture, expression, and anatomy that only the actor's doctor should know. The arty, competent Huston would probably seem to an old rough-and-ready silent film director like a boy who graduated from Oxford at the age of eight, and painted the Sistine Chapel during his lunch hours.

Aside from its spectacular evidences of his ability to condense events and characterization, the one persistent virtue of Huston's newest and worst movie, ''We Were Strangers" is Jennifer Jones, who wears a constant frown as though she had just swallowed John Garfield. Garfield acts as though he'd just been swallowed.

--  Manny Farber (June 4, 1949, The Nation)

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