Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Huston, John from Philip's Encyclopedia

US film director, writer, and actor. His debut feature was The Maltese Falcon (1941). In 1946, he won a best director Academy Award for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Other classics followed, such as Key Largo (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and The African Queen (1951). After a series of critical failures, Huston returned to form with The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and Prizzi's Honor (1985). His last film was The Dead (1987).

Summary Article: HUSTON, JOHN (1906–1987).
from Encyclopedia of Film Noir

Important as both a director and a script writer, Huston confounded auteurists by having no consistent thematic preoccupations. After immediate acclaim as a young director, he experienced some mid-career wobbles but came impressively back into form in his later years. Born in Missouri, John Huston was the son of famous actor Walter Huston and, in turn, the father of actress Anjelica Huston. They are, in fact, the first three-generational family to all win Academy Awards. John Huston led a very eventful life, albeit with some self-mythology built up around its details. In his youth he was a boxer and apparently served for a time in the Mexican cavalry. He joined the film industry when he became a script writer at Warner Bros. Huston made an immediate splash and launched his reputation with his directing debut The Maltese Falcon (1941). In that seminal film, he was able to maintain the core strengths of the Dashiell Hammett story and also to elicit fine performances from his ensemble cast, including Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Ward Bond, and Elisha Cook Jr. A distinguished wartime documentarian with films such as The Battle of San Pietro (1944), Huston also made one documentary about the rehabilitation of psychologically damaged soldiers that is mandatory viewing for anyone interested in the end-of-war malaise that helped create the classical film noir cycle. Let There Be Light (1946), about the psychiatric treatment of veteran soldiers suffering war neuroses, was suppressed by the Defense Department for more than 30 years but emerges today as a haunting factual counterpart to the amnesia noirs such as Somewhere in the Night (1946), High Wall (1947), The Crooked Way (1949), and The Clay Pigeon (1949).

Huston had written the script for the Universal film noir The Killers (1946) without credit as he was working at Warner Bros. at the time, but his first postwar directing success was when he made The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948. In this film, which some have characterized as film noir, Huston portrayed the dynamics of a group working together on a quest, which became a pattern in his films, a recurrent Huston preoccupation being the behavior of ordinary men under tough and extreme circumstances. Some critics thought that the generally admired Key Largo, which he made that same year, betrayed its stage origins and was less cinematic than Sierra Madre. Huston made the most of his chance to helm a caper film with The Asphalt Jungle in 1950, a film that had an inspirational effect on many later heist movies. In a radical move he made the criminals themselves the centre of audience attention and sympathy, not the authority figures, and the resulting film was marvelously atmospheric.The curious and self-indulgent semiparody Beat the Devil (1953), made with Humphrey Bogart, was an attempt to revive the spirit of The Maltese Falcon and featured Robert Morley in a Sydney Greenstreet role. After this, Huston's career was turbulent, and the quality of his films was mixed, but his later adventure story, the Rudyard Kipling adaptation The Man Who Would Be King (1975), was considered a classic piece, as was his 1979 film version of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. John Huston's greatest contribution to neo-noir, however, was as an actor. His compelling performance as the thoroughly corrupt Noah Cross in Chinatown (1974) established a solid link between his place in old noir and in neo-noir.

Selected Noir Films: Huston was director for the following films: The Maltese Falcon (1941, and script writer), The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948, and script writer), The Asphalt Jungle (1950, and script writer), Beat the Devil (1953, and script writer). Huston was also a script writerfor High Sierra (1941), Dark Waters (1944, uncredited), Three Strangers (1946), The Stranger (1946, uncredited), and The Killers (1946, uncredited). Huston also acted in Chinatown (1974).

Copyright © 2007 by Geoff Mayer, Brian McDonnell

Related Articles

Full text Article Huston, John (1906 - 1987)
The Macmillan Encyclopedia

He began his career as a scriptwriter. His first film as director was The Maltese Falcon (1941); subsequent films included ...

Full text Article HUSTON, JOHN (1906-1987)
Ireland and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History

John Marcellus Huston was born on August 5, 1906, in Nevada, Missouri, the son of actor Walter Huston and journalist Rhea. Brought up by his...

Full text Article Huston, John Marcellus (1906-87)
Chambers Film Factfinder

American, born in Nevada, Missouri. The son of actor Walter Huston, he was a boxer, painter, reporter and honorary member of the Mexican cavalry...

See more from Credo