IMMERSION: John Huston Ch2

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Friday, August 03, 2007

IMMERSION: John Huston Ch2
Current mood: curious

I have never seen Key Largo like that before. Suddenly Humphrey Bogart’s character has so much more depth than I ever saw before. Now, when he says that he fought in Italy, from Salerno to Cassino (“that’s where my boy got it, Cassino” says his father Lionel Barrymore in a tour de force and Bugs Bunny inspiring performance), I KNOW what that means, because of San Pietro (which he would have had to go through). Key Largo is a brilliant picture, translated to the screen from a Theater Play, and with so much Huston stitched in, it becomes a true masterpiece. Here once again is someone trying to get to a dream, in fact a group of people, all trying to get their hands on “the stuff that dreams are made of”.

Humphrey Bogart comes to Key Largo, ostensibly as an emissary of the dead George, son of Barrymore, lover of Bacall. But it is soon apparent that he has usurped George’s dreams of Key Largo, an idyll created through hours of dark night radio talking. “He used to talk, just to keep himself awake. I was on the other end.” Edward G. Robinson, a BRILLIANTLY performed washed-up, deported, yet still resurgent ex-mob overlord, is looking to get “more”, to get back on top, to get a new prohibition, “only this time we’ll be smart, we’ll keep it illegal, we’ll all work together.” (War on Drugs, anyone?). The Seminole Indians stranded on the porch are looking for shelter. Lionel Barrymore is looking for a replacement son in Humphrey Bogart. Lauren Bacall is looking for a replacement George. Claire Trevor is looking for past glories in the bottom of a bottle (she won Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance). Even the gangsters who drive down from Miami are looking for a score from Eddie G. And the law? The law is looking for two Indians who busted outta jail on a 30 day sentence. “30 days for an Indian is like 30 years for somebody else.” The first shot is a bus being pulled over and searched. Huston’s essential theme again. In the end, does anybody really get anything they wanted? People die, people are left scarred, friendships are ended, and new relationships are formed. The ending is a definite downbeat one, making this of course, ESSENTIAL Film Noir (from the man who invented it).

The Asphalt Jungle(1950) is another essential Noir to own, and again, everyone is looking for someone, only this time Huston tightens his focus to each character having a single driving VICE. “We all work for our Vice, one way or another” says mastermind “Dr.” Riebenschneider, still the German’s are the bad guys. Riebenschneider’s vice? Young Girls. Other’s vices: Booze, Corruption payoffs, Lavish living, Pride, Love. Dark story by W.R. Burnett, Huston as always in on the screenplay (with Ben Barrow in this instance). “I can’t be in to a guy like that, a guy who’ll bone ya in front of a stranger. Not and keep my self respect.” the epic nutjob of the 40’s and 50’s, Stirling Hayden. This guy is HUGE, and CA-RAZY, in this role as a Kentucky horsefarmer who’s dad died and he got kicked off his farm when the crops failed, now he just wants to get back to Kentucky. If this film has a flaw, it is that it has no real protagonist, and no real antagonist. It breathes with all the cynicism of a WW2 vet encountering for the first time the corrupt cesspools that American Urban life has become after 5 years of profiteering, hoarding, and rations. Yet it doesn’t, as Darryl Zanuck once said to Fuller: “These are all great characters, now who do I root for?” There really isn’t anyone in this who isn’t dirty in one way or another. The police Commisioner is a puritan zealot who is disgusted by the notion of an older man/younger woman union, as much on the age difference as the fact that it is an adulterous liason. The police lieutenant is on the take from the Alch-y bookie who fronts the money for the caper. The bookie is a drunk, as I said. The good old boy is a violent prideful psychopath and his girlfriend is a masochist addicted to his affections. The big bad boss is broke and looking to double cross someone, his lieutenant is also corrupt and instantly turns murderous, even the safecracker with a wife and a perpetually sick kid is a prideful egomaniac thrill seeker. And “good old Gus” (James Whitmore-catch his commentary on the DVD), is a hunchback woman beater. All that being said, it is a great caper, a great flick, and an almost nihilistic tale of just rewards being doled out in true cinema justice form. Perhaps the popular notions of cinema justice were as much playthings as our preconcieved notions about structure in the hands of Mr. Huston?

The Red Badge of Courage is an obviously VERY personal film for John Huston. Apparently he had to fight to even get it made, since the project became a pawn in a hollywood Mogul power struggle. This is the classic literature-converted to cinema at which Huston is unmatched. Stephen Foster’s book of a nameless civil war  (though given names in the movie to help audiences) soldier who deserts under fire only to get wounded by another fleeing union soldier, then reunited with his unit and hailed as a hero. The shame of the mislabeling turns him into a real hero, or, as Foster puts it “A boy who became a man.”. In those terms, this is NOT really a “War” film, it is a coming of age story. And come of age he does, to the point of charging alone an advancing rebel line out of sheer passion to “destroy the enemy”. The day before, in a panic of certainty, he had tossed aside his rifle and run till exhaustion dropped him, into the woods.

THIS is a coming of age that Huston understands intimately, and it is all the more apparent that the ghosts of war have not left him. Perhaps this is his attempt to rectify those horrors with peacetime realities that he now faced. It should also be mentioned that the year this picture came out, 1950, was also the year that the North Korean People’s Army invaded South Korea, killing everything in their path and pushing the ROK and US forces all the way down to the tip of the peninsula, “the Pusan Perimeter”. It was one of the longest retreats in American military history. This film of Civil War cowardice and eventual transfigured heroism came out in this environment. Another 1950 film came out that might be seen as a bridge between them: “The Steel Helmet” by Samuel Fuller, WW2 Infantryman and prewar crime reporter.

The Red Badge of Courage is the first hand view of what can get a soldier into a film like “Let there be light”. As usual, Huston’s portrayal of daily Army life is detailed, nuanced, coded, and VERY real. His portrayal of the smoke and confusion and just straight FEAR is also perfect. The look of the film itself presages the style of the French New Wave cinematographers, with smoky, somewhat flattened and washedout images, LOTS of closeups and “intimate moments” (at times at very UNintimate moments), and a sometimes frantic handheld camera. Simply put, Huston understands what it is to be afraid, TERRIFIED, under fire, and by the end of this film, you will too, but you will also see that there is also a way back out of the horror. That true warriors dream only of peace.

The African Queen is wonderful. Once again the Germans are the bad guys, only this time it’s 1914 and German East Africa, and the Germans are complete DICKS for no apparent reason, burning a village, taking all it’s inhabitants prisoner and beating a priest into a mental collapse and ugly delusional death. In this we immediately see a link to “Let there be light”, indeed almost all the postwar films of Huston to date have mentally defective characters, and neurotic references. This seems like the adventure-romantic-comedy-pseudowar picture that Huston set out to make with “Across the Pacific”. Where he failed in that picture, here he succeeds Marvelously. This is a river journey that literally makes you itch, from the insect swarm to the hippos to the leechs, Huston succeeds in the first quality of great cinema, he absolutely creates, cements, and transports us to, a sense of PLACE. You are REALLY in Africa, and brothers and sisters, it is hot and smelly and dangerous as hell, but with some good humor, some gin, and a little bit of heavenly assistance, you can make it through, no matter how bad it seems. Thoroughly optimistic, this is a real departure, almost a vacation from his war trauma. Apparently they drank like fishes the whole production which was a brute and ran long on location in Africa. Great fun! Check out the Sodium process shots in the rapids sequences, this is the Yellow Sodium light compositing process of Walt Disney that Hitchcock later used to make the bird attack sequences (exteriors) in “The Birds”(1964)

Moulin Rouge is fucking beautiful. This movie is more painting than cinema. Huston’s first color film in this Immersion, with DP Freddie Young (soon to be BSC and DP on “Lawrence of Arabia”) so upset the Technicolour color corrector team that they threatened to take their name off. In response to this, Huston asked Freddie if he liked what they were doing, that he [Huston] thought it was pretty good, but did Freddie like it. When Freddie responded in the affirmative, Huston responded to the Technicolour team: “Thank you Gentlemen, but Fuck You.” Everything in here, the wardrobe, the set design (check the wall patterns that give the frame an impressionist energy), the lights, the unbelieveable amount of smoke, the supersaturated colors, the MONTAGES OF LAUTREC PAINTINGS cut to music, this picture lives and breathes. If some think it a bad story, what can you do, it’s a man’s life. If it wasn’t the way the audience wanted, well, tough shit, the guy’s life wasn’t the way he wanted it either. For those of you who still think I am talking about Nicole Kidman and Ewan MacGregor(LOVE HIM!!), I am not. Moulin Rouge(1951) is the story of the life of Toulouse Lautrec, with 2 songs by Zsa Zsa Gabor doing the worst lipsynch for 10 years in either direction.Sad tortured incredibly talented artist that little cripple was, and an Aristocrat to boot who believed in breaking tradition and actually WORKING. His art was the first to be hung in the Louvre while he was still alive (for about 10 more minutes). Huston spends a good amounto of time just showing Lautrec’s art, which one has to admit is REally REALLY good, it breathes, it moves, it still has LIFE in it. Indeed, Lautrec talks in the film of each piece of art as a living thing. “she is older than France, older than Christ, and no one knows anything more about her than that she was found in a cave by a peasant and sold to France for 6000 Francs.” he says of the Venus De Milo.When asked about an artist getting paid he responds : “The artist was already paid. He got to make it.” Huston in this movie for the first time since the war, gets aways from the war, or the haunting of war. He begins to become more spiritual, in general and in particular about art. I understand that Huston was quite a talented painter in his own right. His command of color in the look of the film is quite a confirmation of at least a painter’s eye.

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