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10 Essential John Huston Films You Need To Watch

12 July 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Emilio Santoni

best John Huston movies

One of Hollywood’s true legendary directors, screenwriters and actors, John Huston is part of Hollywood royalty. He was the son of Walter Huston, a renowned stage and screen actor, and the father of actress Anjelica Huston. They are the only family that can make the claim of having won Academy Awards in three separate generations as Walter received the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, directed by his son John Huston, who himself won Best Director and Best Screenplay for the same film, whilst Anjelica Huston received the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Prizzi’s Honor, once again directed by John Huston, her father.

Possibly best described as the Ernest Hemingway of directors, John Huston was a macho, grander than life type of man, who had studied painting, been an amateur boxer, reporter and author before he turned his attention to the film business, directing feature films and some documentaries as well as screenwriting and acting. Like Hemingway, he also enjoyed to hunt and when on location in Uganda and the Congo to film The African Queen, he got distracted from shooting his movie as he became obsessed with hunting elephants, a story which later served as the basis for Clint Eastwood’s White Hunter, Black Heart.

Over the course of his career John Huston directed more than 35 feature films, wrote about as many screenplays, racked up 54 acting credits and found himself nominated for no less than 15 Academy Awards. It should also be noted that he started his directorial career by directing a true masterpiece when he made The Maltese Falcon in 1941. Without a doubt one of Hollywood’s greatest American directors.

 

10. The Misfits (1961)

The Misfits (1961)

The Misfits is a remarkable film for various reasons. First of all it was obviously directed by one of Hollywood’s legendary old school directors, John Huston. It was also the last film for two of Hollywood;s legendary stars, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, as well as one of the last films for third one, Montgomery Clift, all of whom gave outstanding performances. On top of that it’s also the only original screenplay ever written by Arthur Miller whose marriage to Monroe was breaking down during the shooting of the film. The result is a uniquely dark drama about a divorced woman spending time in the Nevada desert with some cowboys, the disappearance of the old west and mortality itself.

The film revolves around Gay Langland (Clark Gable), an aging cowboy and his friends Guido (Eli Wallach) and Perce (Montgomery Clift), a rodeo rider. They meet young ex-stripper and recently divorced Roslyn Taber (Marilyn Monroe), who has come to the country to forget about her woes, and her friend Isabelle (Thelma Ritter) who is accompanying her. They invite the women over to Gay’s house, which is only half finished as construction halted after his wife died during childbirth. Soon after, Roslyn moves in with Gay but both Guido and Perce also have eyes for Roslyn and matters complicate even further when Roslyn finds out that the three men are planning to sell some mustangs only to be processed into dog food.

For such a high profile film with so much star power, The Misfits, with its bleak and depressing subject matter, did not do well at the box-office at the time of release even though Huston was nominated for an Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures by the Director’s Guild of America. Nowadays however, it’s considered a classic and well worth seeking out for fans of the director or any of its stars.

 

9. The Dead (1987)

The Dead (1987)

Based on the same name story from James Joyce’s short story collection Dubliners, The Dead turned out to be John Huston’s final film and a fitting end to the director’s lengthy and distinguished career. The film is also noteworthy for dealing with warmer and more intimate subject matter than most of Huston’s previous work, which probably has a lot to do with the fact the director knew his days were numbered even going as far as predicting himself that The Dead would be his last movie.

The story, which is set at a Christmas party held by two elderly sisters in 1904 Dublin, focuses on their cousin Gabriel Conroy (Donal McCann) and his wife Gretta (Anjelica Huston). During the course of the night, Gabriel finds out about a previous dead lover of Gretta and how he died out of love for her. As a result Gabriel ends up pondering about mortality and one’s ultimately lonely journey through life.

John Huston directed the movie from a wheelchair and hooked up to oxygen tanks at the age of 80. The film was released posthumously as it came out three months after Huston’s death. A small, beautiful and thoughtful film on one’s mortality and loved ones, starring his daughter and co-written by his son, the film was a truly fitting end to his legendary career. The Dead won various international awards and picked up two Oscar nominations for Best Costume Design and Best Adapted Screenplay. A small, beautiful and intimate film from a director whose career had largely consisted of far more stout-hearted fare.

 

8. The Night of the Iguana (1964)

the night of the iguana (1964)

Based on the play of the same name by Tennessee Williams, The Night of the Iguana is yet another highly successful adaptation to the screen of the famous playwright’s work.

The film tells the story of an alcoholic defrocked clergyman, Reverend Shannon (Richard Burton), who now works as a tour guide in Mexico. As he’s taking a group of Baptist school teachers on one of these tours he gets accused of trying to seduce the young niece of one of the teachers (Sue Lyon). In an attempt to stop the women from calling his superiors, he takes the tour to a cheap hotel on the coast owned by a widow (Ava Gardner), mistakenly thinking they have no phone there. During their stay sexual tension between Shannon, the niece, the widow and another female guest (Deborah Kerr) plays out in the hot sweltering climate.

The film won an Oscar for Best Costume Design and received three more nominations for Best Supporting Actress, Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography. It was also renowned for the tensions on set as the cast was stuck on location in a small Mexican village for quite some time and the fact that Burton brought his soon to be second wife Elizabeth Taylor along to the shoot, whilst still being married to his first wife, Sybel Burton.

 

7. The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

The Man Who Would Be King is a largely forgotten adventure movie, adapted from a short story of the same name by Rudyard Kipling. Huston had been planning to make the movie since the mid fifties, originally envisioning Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart in the leads. Throughout the years other actor combinations were considered, amongst them Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole and even Robert Redford and Paul Newman, but the project never materialised until the seventies when Sean Connery and Michael Caine were finally signed to take on the lead roles.

The story is bookended by two scenes of Rudyard Kipling (Christopher Plummer) working in his newspaper office in 1885 as he is visited by a ragged vagabond who turns out to be his old acquaintance Peachy Carnahan (Michael Caine). Peachy tells him the story of how he and his companion Daniel Dravot (Sean Connery), both con men, planned to obtain great riches from Afghanistan after their service for the British Empire in India had left them empty-handed. The two travel to Afghanistan and swindle the locals as Dravot pretends to be the incarnation of Alexander the Great and is consequently seen as a god. This scam initially brings them great fortunes but as time passes, power goes to Dravot’s head and he starts to believe he’s actually divine.

Both Michael Caine and Sean Connery turned out to be perfected as the arrogant, snobbish and slightly strange British imperialists and complemented each other perfectly. The film was a throwback to the adventures of yesteryear and consequently a bit of an oddity at a time when Hollywood was breaking with much of its past. An epic and often hilarious and thrilling adventure, The Man Who Would Be King ended up being nominated for four Oscars (Best Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Art Direction and Costumes) and is a must-see film for lovers of grand old school adventure.

 

6. The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Based on the novel of the same name by W. R. Burnett, The Asphalt Jungle is a classic heist flick, which was groundbreaking in a number of ways. First of all it was one of the first movies to present its “crime does not pay” story from the perspective of the criminals. Secondly, it starred a little known starlet at the time by the name of Marilyn Monroe in a minor part, just before she would hit the big time.

Master criminal Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) has just been released from prison after a seven year stretch and immediately gets involved in a planned jewellery heist by crooked lawyer Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern) . Doc assembles a team, which includes a hooligan named Dix (Sterling Hayden), a driver called Gus(James Whitmore) and professional safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso). The job is meticulously planned and executed but on their way out Louis get shot in the belly when Dix slugs a security guard whose gun drops and goes off accidentally. From there on in, the team’s perfect plan slowly starts to unravel as the police close in and the men start double-crossing each other.

A classic film noir with a fantastic heist sequence, which takes up about 11 minutes of screen time, The Asphalt Jungle is a suspenseful and gritty caper. Beautifully shot in moody black and white and featuring a great cast, the film managed to pick up four Academy Award nominations (Best Director, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay and Cinematography) as well as winning Huston Best Director at the National Board of Review and Sam Jaffe Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival.

 

 

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  • Ted Wolf

    Great list. Huston’s autobiography should be made into a movie.