Beating the Devil

By Drew Morton | Film | July 21, 2009 | Comments ()

By Drew Morton | Film | July 21, 2009 |


"[John] Huston is still coasting on his reputation as a wronged individualist with an alibi for every bad movie ... Huston has confused indifference with integrity for such a long time that he is no longer the competent craftsman of The Asphalt Jungle, The Maltese Falcon, and The African Queen, films that owe more to casting coups than to directorial acumen." -- Andrew Sarris, "John Huston: Less than Meets the Eye" in The American Cinema (1968).

"People often ask if I have any regrets over my rankings of directors in The American Cinema. Actually, there have been shifts and slides, rises and falls, all along the line. Film history is always in the process of revision, and some of our earliest masters are still alive. The American Cinema was a very tentative probe designed mainly to establish the existence of a subject worthy of study. The rest is refinement and elaboration."-- Andrew Sarris, "Billy Wilder Reconsidered" in You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet (1998).

As both a film scholar and film critic, I've always felt a bit ambivalent about Andrew Sarris's book The American Cinema. On one hand, Sarris's auteur theory, building off the writings of François Truffaut and the other young Turks at Cahiers du Cinéma, aided in making the study of film a valid intellectual enterprise. Without the work of Andrew Sarris and his fellow auteur theorists, film retrospectives and books organized around the work of specific directors (The Philosophy of Stanley Kubrick, The Magic World of Orson Welles, Forever Godard, and The Genius of Michael Bay ... just kidding) might never have bred the contemporary cinephile. Plus one for Sarris. Yet, as both André Bazin and Pauline Kael observed in their critiques of auteurism, the theory has a number of flaws. The one of primary concern here is the ability to overestimate the work of one director by overlooking the filmmaker's less-than-stellar work (as many of my friends did with Wes Anderson and the atrocious Darjeeling Limited) or to underestimate a director by narrowing the focus to their failures.

As the above quotations from Sarris no doubt show, the work of John Huston falls into the latter category, a casualty at the hands of auteurism. Sarris realized the power of his ranking of directors and his criticisms and noted the tentative status of his evaluation by reconsidering the work of Billy Wilder (like Huston, another "Less than Meets the Eye"). Yet, despite Sarris's disclaimer and to quote film critic David Coursen, "Film critics have never quite known what to make of John Huston; whether his work has been praised or disparaged, it has almost always inspired critical overkill." With the hopes of re-evaluating the work of John Huston, I've chosen to ignore his most regarded masterpieces (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The African Queen) and his most reviled failures (Phobia, Annie) in favor of trying to find truth in the middle-ground of Beat the Devil (1953), Wise Blood (1979), and Under the Volcano (1984).

Beat the Devil (1953)

Huston was a prolific filmmaker, completing 47 films across both a half-century and genre lines, sometimes at the rate of two films a year. Beat the Devil followed The African Queen (1951) and Moulin Rouge (1952), both films bringing Huston Academy Award nominations for Best Director. Yet, Beat the Devil was both a critical and box-office flop. I was drawn to Beat the Devil by Roger Ebert's essay on the film and its placement into his series on The Great Movies. Yet, after watching the film, Ebert's evaluation seems to be a key-example of critical overstatement.

Based upon a script by Huston and Truman Capote, who insisted on talking to his raven via telephone each morning during production, Beat the Devil follows a group of con men (including Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre) en route to Kenya to buy a plot of land, which may have vast amounts of uranium. Yet, due to a drunken captain and malfunctioning machinery, the crew's boat gets stranded Italy. Trying to make the best of his time, Billy (Bogart) attempts to court Gwendolen (Jennifer Jones), a married woman who claims to be a member of the British gentry. Yet, to describe the plot is completely futile. As even Ebert observes, "the plot is an after thought." The film is better described as a satire of mystery films, existing purely for Bogart and his brigade of character actors to lob hilarious one-liners ("I was an orphan until I was 20. Then a rich and beautiful lady adopted me.") at one another while admiring the Italian landscape of both the city of Ravallo and of sexpot actress Gina Lollobrigida.

That's not to say Beat the Devil is not worth a viewing, given that your expectations are kept in check. Clocking in at less than 90 minutes, Huston was seemingly aware that without a comprehendible plot you cannot sustain an audience's attention for more than an hour and a half. Watching this ensemble toss around Capote's dialogue for 90 minutes is far more amusing than watching paint dry (or watching The Darjeeling Limited for that matter). Yet, watching Beat the Devil also gave me an unfortunate sense of déjà vu, as it brought back memories of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Twelve (2004). Like Ocean's Twelve, Beat the Devil is a film that exists for watching its actors and actresses amusing themselves in an exotic locale. Unfortunately, watching famous people romp around in Italy is not all it is cracked up to be ... even with John Huston and Truman Capote's help.

Wise Blood (1979)

I tried to keep my optimism up after the minor disappointment of Beat the Devil. After all, a long time had passed between Huston's Beat the Devil and his adaptation of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. Huston was not the workhorse he once was, churning out a picture or two every year. His previous film, The Man Who Would Be King (1975), garnered decent reviews and the writer/director an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay. To help me gain some perspective on Huston, I enlisted the help of a good friend and classmate, David. David, who not only cut his screenwriting teeth on a Flannery O'Connor adaptation, produced a presentation of Lillian Ross's Picture (the book that chronicled the production of Huston's adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage) for a historiography seminar and subsequently found himself neck deep in Huston's personal papers at the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library.

Unfortunately, what David and I both found in Wise Blood was a disappointment. The film chronicles the life of Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif) who, trading his army uniform for a suit and hat, sets out for the southern town of Taulkinham. After arriving, Hazel encounters a barrel full of Southern monkeys that O'Connor was so enamored with including Enoch (Dan Shor), a dull-witted teenager, blind Preacher Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton) and his daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright). Hazel, inspired by both his terrible memories of his preacher grandfather (John Huston) and Asa's exploitation of religion, decides to start a new church: The Church of Truth Without Christ. Hazel attempts to preach the virtues of his church but no one seems to be genuinely receptive except for Enoch, whom Hazel pushes away because of his incompetence. The only others who embrace the Church seem to do so for their own economic gains, be it the nymph Sabbath or the evangelist and huckster Onnie Jay Holy (Ned Beatty). Soon, Hazel has a murder on his hands and finds himself questioning his faith ... without Christ.

Neither David nor I have read the novel Wise Blood but, given my experiences with O'Connor via her short story collection Everything that Rises Must Converge and plot summaries I have read, the film adaptation of Wise Blood seems fairly close to the novel with one exception: the character of Enoch. The character has an arc in the novel and comes off as incredibly tragic. He has an arc in the film, but the repercussions of his actions are glossed over and the film leaves him in the third-act, not in the final scene as the novel does. Why this decision was made by Huston and his screenwriters Michael and Benedict Fitzgerald (Benedict would later write The Passion of the Christ) is unclear and flaws the construction of the ending, as the interplay between Hazel and Enoch is critical. More importantly however, the chief criticism of this film is the odd shifts in tone, no doubt hampered by the odd score by Alex North. O'Connor is full of moments of the comedic and the grotesque, but the score underlines the comedic far too often, derailing the film by not keeping in line with the author's delicate balance.

In the end, what makes these criticisms so much more devastating is that the film actually can be quite good. Brad Dourif and Amy Wright are especially good as Hazel and Sabbath. Moreover, Huston's framing of the actors' faces is sublime and he really shows off some great compositions here, embracing O'Connor's love of the Southern gothic grotesque. The pairing of Huston and O'Connor is quite apt and can be very effective, as in the beginning scenes of the film, particularly when Hazel meets Eva, Sabbath, and Enoch. Perhaps if Huston had embraced the filmic equivalent of a Church without Alex North this film would have the possibility of greatness.

Under the Volcano (1984)

Having watched Wise Blood and Under the Volcano in one, four-hour sitting, I think I can objectively say that my disappointment for the former did not rub off on the latter. Yet, halfway into Volcano, I found myself met with disappointment again as David and I turned to one another, quoted Peggy Lee, and asked, "Is that all there is?" The film, an adaptation of Malcolm Lowry's novel, follows British ex-consulate to Mexico Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) who, in the midst of both the Mexican celebrations for the Day of the Dead and the return of his estranged wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset), finds himself on a drunken odyssey in the hopes of redemption. Along for the ride is Hugh (Anthony Andrews), Geoffrey's half-brother with whom Yvonne once had an affair. And yes, that's really all there is. We expect drama between the love-triangle when, in actuality, there is little. Even if this had been the stereotypical choice for tension, at least there would have been some.

The sole reason this film exists is for Geoffrey, as portrayed wonderfully by Albert Finney (who was nominated for an Oscar). Geoffrey is a tragic figure, attempting to find a chemical balance "the shakes of too little and the abyss of too much" despite the return of his wife, who wants to make amends. While Finney is able to sustain interest for a greater part of the film, watching an actor play drunk for two-hours, even with minor character revelations, does not make for terribly interesting cinema. Perhaps this is why Volcano seems stagy and rather uninteresting. I dislike Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945) for the same reason. I don't deny that acting can be incredibly affecting and I don't mind portrayals of drunkenness, but I am asked to feel sympathy for Geoffrey and I cannot find it in me, despite the charm of his wit.

I did not expect nor desire Volcano to be a conventional film, but its narrative preoccupations are not interesting. I found myself wanted to see why Geoffrey had resigned from his position rather than guzzling down another bottle of tequila. Like Wise Blood, there is a great deal of promise to be found in the team behind Volcano. Finney is marvelous if your patience can endure his character (although his sunglasses kept distracting me as being out of place in 1930s Mexico) and Huston is capable of making the film visually arresting, once again via his framing and staging and his use of Mexican locales. Yet, in the end, I found Wise Blood the more intriguing film despite its failures. Under the Volcano perhaps has fewer disappointing elements, but it sets the bar for itself at a rather comfortable height. Wise Blood, on the other hand, attempts and fails in its ambition.

Conclusion

I disagree with Sarris's assessment of Huston. While the proper rebuttal evidence is probably not to be found in any of these three films, The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (my vote for his best film, a noir even blacker than his proper noirs), Sarris uses his auteur criticism to misjudge Huston. Sarris claims that a proper auteur has thematic and stylistic preoccupations that run throughout their work. No doubt, Huston's are more thematic (masculinity!) than stylistic, but shouldn't that be viewed as a good thing? My friend and Huston historian David told me that Huston's papers included autobiography in which Huston seems to have vaguely responded to Sarris's critique by noting that a style should emerge from the material, not be pre-determined by the director. Is that not what critics look for in a good work of art, the integration of form and content? I found Huston's comment echoed by Steven Soderbergh when I interviewed him. Soderbergh noted, "When I think about any movie and I decide this is the way it's going to be made ... I sit down and look at a lot of things that I think are similar or will give me some sort of inspiration and I have a tool kit in my mind."

Needless to say, I see many similarities between Huston and Soderbergh. Both are directors whose eclectic tastes in genre and prolific ability to churn out film after film can leave them at odds with critics. After all, how can we make sense of a director's career where there is an absence of conventional through-lines? How can we make a definitive judgment of a director's ability when, for every Treasure of the Sierra Madre, there is a Beat the Devil? In some senses, Huston and Soderbergh are the true auteurs. They are individuals not even willing to bend to their own predisposed tastes and usually willing to try something new. Is Huston a perfect director? No, but at least he is capable of being an interesting one.

Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.


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