Reflections of a Golden Eye
John Huston, like Ernest Hemingway, Charles Bukowski, Howard Hawks and Johnny Cash, was one of the last in a line whose geneology stems from the politics of Thomas Jefferson, the poetry of Walt Whitman and the prose of Henry David Thoreau. Disaffected with the insular, snobbish intellectualism of a Europe consuming itself from within, but at the same time defiant in the face of burgeoning American consumerism, they embodied the full power of individuality in art, both through their lives and their works. They were gross, of course, sometimes coarse and sometimes crass; misogynists, drinkers, and vulgarians, but always, and essentially, human beings. They were also, perhaps, in possession of an innocence that allowed them to stare unflinchingly at their own selves without the baggage of affectation or self-consciousness. Their courage and their humanity remind us of how art can resonate through the prism of a single man and echo in the consciousness of others, crossing all supposed barriers of time and culture.
The first John Huston film I saw was The Maltese Falcon (1941), his first directorial work and perhaps the epitome of 'film noir'. That term has never signified much to me, either as the name of a genre or a stylistic approach; it has always meant far more when used to describe a type of film that confronts the seediness and self-interest running through man in order to seize at an underlying morality. The Maltese Falcon takes us into a web of betrayals, hypocrisy and lies so it can show us a single person fighting for decency from the centre of it all. That man, Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), is likeable because we sense his own vulnerability and empathise with his constant battle to uphold individual principles in a world gone mad on corruption. Really, it is an old story, but its relevance is ongoing because so is the corruption, and if that is ongoing, then so is the redemptive power of watching a man with his back against the wall fighting because he believes, first and foremost, in himself.
This redemptive theme is central to John Huston's work. Key Largo (1948) explores the same dilemmas, as Frank McCloud (also Humphrey Bogart) must battle his own sense of self-preservation in order to make a stand against the actions of others - an Edward G. Robinson-led band of gangsters on the lam in the Florida Keys. He knows they are wrong, he knows they are violent and cruel, but there is a conflict within him between responsibility to one's principles and cowardice in the face of physical danger. This illustrates another hallmark of John Huston's craft: his characters are never merely players reacting to a set of circumstances they do not understand. They are self-aware enough to realise their own contradictions and flaws, a quality which makes their struggle all the more riveting.
In Key Largo, Bogart's McCloud overcomes his fears to risk himself for the sake of personal principles. In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), we see avarice and lust for power destroying the bonds which tie people together, turning friends into enemies and trust into suspicion. Humphrey Bogart as Frank Dobbs is a weak and weakened drifter, without his usual self-possession, and he finds himself powerless to resist the allure of gold, 'the stuff that dreams are made of' What makes his failure resonant is that the viewer is given the opportunity to witness his slow detoriation, as the prospect of riches demonises him and subverts his values. It is all the more powerful because the change is so plausible. The wealth he discovers in the Sierra Madre is like an escape clause from all the humiliations and hardships of his existence. Why shouldn't he guard it? It offers the social and material elevation he has always dreamt of. But at what cost? As the film progresses we find him becoming an isolated man riven with fears. Money, the hallmark of civilised society, has only served to create a savage of the individual and, ultimately, provides the biggest obstacle between himself and the dreams he yearns to realise.
Night of the Iguana (1964) is without doubt John Huston's greatest film, and in some ways the final resolution of film noir. In The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo and Treasure of the Sierra Madre, we find individuals in corrupt, harsh worlds struggling for the sake of both their own humanity and their faith in others. In Night of the Iguana, the defrocked clergyman (Richard Burton) searching for belief, travelling painter (Deborah Kerr), and widowed hotelier (Ava Gardner) hiding the lonely beating of a warm heart behind a tough exterior, all find courage to endure through the power of human compassion. They carry the scars of experience, and when they speak, the film throbs with real life, real sorrow, and real hope. Throughout, the key is Hannah Jelkes (Kerr). She has the power of every warrior who has survived with eyes wide open, and it is her strength to endure, when faced with time's cruelty or the demons within, that galvanises Shannon's will to go on. And that is what it comes down to: the war to be and the will to face a harsh, ignominious world with a sense of personal dignity won without the existence of a social or moral tumbler's net on which to fall if things go wrong. Night of the Iguana is not an easy film to write about, which is probably its greatest tribute. No art that digs via its own illogical logic to the core of humanity can be encapsulated in words alone, since it lives most of all in the realm of the inexpressible. But it suffices, perhaps, to say that we find our truth and humanity in midnight pleas, and that Night of the Iguana is a film of that world, shedding equal measures of light and dark upon ourselves in the hope of finding the whisper of some essential affirmation.
Huston was a great artist not only because of the parabolic clarity of his films and their unashamed yet fluid morality, but because of the hard-bitten elegance he brought to the screen . Humphrey Bogart's weathered face and shrewd mournful eyes are never better employed than in Huston's works, while his atmospherics are virtually faultless. He made some forgettable films, such as The African Queen and, let us not forget even if we would like to, Annie, but no artist's career is consistent so long as they remain interested in taking risks and probing the boundaries of their skills. Looking back over his lifetime's achievements, few, if any, American directors have rivalled him for scope of creation or maintenance of artistic independence. His experience-sculpted face juxtaposed by the brown skin of a long cigar is one of the few of the 20th century to represent the individual expressing himself with courage and truth; perhaps, in all and above all, the greatest tribute one could pay him would be to say that he was a fighter for his own right to be human.
© Ruvi Simmons 2002