John Huston

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, with Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet looking on in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade, with Peter Lorre, Mary Astor and Sydney Greenstreet looking on in John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941)

  • Born:  1906
  • Died:  1987
  • Rank:  14
  • Score:  745.90
  • Awards:  Oscar / 2 Golden Globes / 3 NYFC / NSFC / 2 NBR / BSFC
  • Nominations:  5 Oscars / 7 DGA / 5 Golden Globes
  • Awards Note:  Nominated for 15 Oscars overall, including 6 for Adapted Screenplay (the most ever)
  • Feature Films:  36
  • Best:  The Maltese Falcon
  • Worst:  Phobia

Top 5 Feature Films:

  1. The Maltese Falcon – 1941
  2. Treasure of the Sierra Madre – 1948
  3. The African Queen – 1951
  4. The Man Who Would Be King – 1975
  5. The Dead – 1987

Top 10 Director Finishes  (Nighthawk Awards):

  • 1941 – 2nd – The Maltese Falcon
  • 1942 – 7th – Across the Pacific
  • 1948 – 1st – Treasure of the Sierra Madre
  • 1948 – 10th – Key Largo
  • 1950 – 5th – The Asphalt Jungle
  • 1951 – 4th – The African Queen
  • 1953 – 10th – Beat the Devil
  • 1964 – 4th – Night of the Iguana
  • 1973 – 10th – Fat City
  • 1975 – 4th – The Man Who Would Be King
  • 1984 – 6th – Under the Volcano
  • 1985 – 7th – Prizzi’s Honor
  • 1987 – 7th – The Dead

John Huston is almost the opposite of John Ford.  Ford got his start in silent films and eventually burst forth into a major director.  He was loved by the auteur theorists.  He only received 5 Oscar nominations, but he won 4 of them.  John Huston on the other hand, began as a screenwriter and didn’t get a chance to direct until he was 35.  He immediately leaped out of the gate with The Maltese Falcon, which would be hailed as possibly the greatest debut film ever if it didn’t have the bad luck to come out in the same year as the greatest debut film ever: Citizen Kane.  Huston was nominated for 15 Oscars, but only won two of them.  And even though Huston wrote (and often produced) his own films, he was never embraced by the theorists.  Andrew Sarris dismissed him as “less than meets the eye” with the phrase “Mere technique can never transcend conviction,” and David Thomson noted “the act and the legend keep getting in the way of the movies he made.”  Unlike Ford, Huston’s decline came in the middle of his career (the same time that Sarris was writing his all important book).

But let’s look at the films themselves.  Huston, more than any other director, was attracted to literature.  In his time he adapted Hammett, Kipling, Traven, Melville, Williams, Crane, Forester and O’Connor.  He then ended his career with two works that had been considered unfilmable: Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Joyce’s The Dead.  Has any director ended his career (and life, for Huston died before The Dead was released) with any more grace or style?  And while Coppola might have made good use of his family, it was Huston who pioneered it, directing both his father and daughter to Oscars.  He teamed with Bogart for many of his best films (including the film he won the Oscar for).  There is no question that he slipped badly in his middle age.  After he made The Night of the Iguana there was a decade in the wilderness with only one truly worthwhile film (Fat City) to show for it.  He had a resurgence with The Man Who Would Be King, a film he had planning for 20 years, and his sly, subtle Wise Blood, but then made what are easily the two worst films of his career: Phobia and Annie.  But then came those final three films and people remembered before he died why he had been nominated for so many Oscars over the years.

The Maltese Falcon – #2 film of 1941

He is a cold man.  He’s not emotionless.  His blood can run red hot and then you watch out because he is a smart and dangerous man.  But he is most assuredly a cold man, the kind of man who says “I stick my neck out for no one.”  Would he still have sent the girl away if she hadn’t killed his partner?  If maybe she had killed someone else?  I think maybe he would because under his coldness is a line of morality, of what he approves of, and murder is not one of those things.

So why is Sam Spade so admired?  Is it that he’s a private detective, the kind of job that doesn’t really exist anymore?  Is that he’s unaffected by the kind of romanticism that infects Rick Blaine (call Rick a cynic, but cynics are simply failed romantics).  Is it that coldness that allows him to be so efficient at his job?  The kind of coldness where you push away the widow of your partner, the one you’ve been sleeping with so you can pursue a younger, more attractive suspect who you might be able to get rid of?

Of course the character is only part of the film and he’s the part that came from the pen of Dashiell Hammett.  But John Huston took the novel and turned it into a first-rate film even though it had been filmed (with mediocre results) twice before.  Huston knew to storyboard the action, plan how he wanted to make use of San Francisco and make the city come to life in the darkness and fog.  It is in many ways the birth of film noir, a style that came from Hammett’s novels but was born in Huston’s direction.  It is darkly lit, but brilliantly shot, an ode to a time in a city that no longer exists.

But the film wouldn’t be the same without the other characters, and more specifically, without the discovery of the right actors to play those characters.  Over the years, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre would team up in numerous Warner Bros. productions, but this was the first time that Greenstreet was on screen and the first time in years that good use had been made of Lorre.  Greenstreet was nominated for an Oscar for his debut (and should have won).  He and Lorre both perfectly match the description of their characters from the novel and the lines come to life in a way they hadn’t in previous versions.  It was no coincidence that Warners would again use both of them in a later Bogart film, Casablanca.

But in the end it came back to Bogart.  Thanks to Leslie Howard’s insistence on the casting of Bogart in The Petrified Forest, Bogart had become a classic Warners gangster, and with High Sierra, he had finally achieved a kind of stardom, but this was his first role as the starring hero and he made the most of it.  Spade is a hard-boiled detective, as cold as they come, much colder than Marlowe, the other great detective portrayed by Bogart, but he is efficient and in the end, he evades the cops and evades death itself and comes out on top.  He doesn’t get the girl and he doesn’t get the bird.  But I’m not sure he ever really wanted either.  He just wanted to figure it all out.