THEATER AND FILM : Three John Huston Films at UC Irvine Are Rarely Seen but Typically Off-Beat

Director John Huston, the subject of a UC Irvine Film Society mini-retrospective this month, is certainly getting his due these days.

It isn't just because Huston's death--last August at the age of 81--had unleashed eulogistic memories of him as a grand old maverick, devout pleasure-seeker and one of the world's consummate movie makers.

It's also because certain films of Huston's old age--1984's "Under the Volcano" is surely one--demonstrated that he never lost his superior craftsmanship and restless intellect.

Although Huston's touching last work, "The Dead," the best-picture choice of the National Society of Film Critics, has yet to play Orange County, the UCI tribute itself is a vintage sampling.

Three rarely seen films are in the UCI survey. They are enough to underscore not only Huston's creative longevity but also his predilection for profoundly off-beat material and affinity for societal misfits.

A doomed, scabby band of jewel thieves are the anti-heroes of "The Asphalt Jungle," the 1950 work that opened the UCI series last Friday. A two-bit, has-been boxer slipping into oblivion is the crux of 1972's "Fat City" (screening this Friday. And 1979's "Wise Blood" (being shown Jan. 29) is an even darker, quirkier descent, this time inside the madness of religious fanaticism.

UCI's sampling reminds us why the movie masses never took to Huston the way they did the galloping mythologies of John Ford, the pyrotechnical melodramas of Alfred Hitchcock or the populist fables of Frank Capra.

For such audiences, Huston's most characteristic works were too remote, even cold. They found his direction too sardonic and clinical; the stories too fatalistic and devoid of Hollywood happy endings, the protagonists too esoteric or pathetic. To them, an Ahab, a Freud or a gold-craving Fred C. Dobbs were not the stuff of lovable heroes.

More than any of the major directors of his era, Huston, a self-proclaimed eclectic, successfully avoided type-casting. He reworked certain themes--particularly man's obsessions and quixotic quests--but, unlike other directors, he came up with freshly complex variations, not virtual remakes.

But he remained a personal enigma, a movie maker who revealed virtually nothing of himself on screen, and whose body of work seemed too intentionally diverse so that it defied attempts for easily pigeonholing "Hustonesque" motifs--or for finding the man himself.

And whatever this eclecticism may have brought Huston in supposed artistic independence, his career suffered from a spectacular unpredictability.

This wild fluctuation in the quality of his films still amazes me. It is exasperating that so much cinematic claptrap bears his name--such as "The Barbarian and the Geisha," his 1958 venture for 20th Century Fox.

The results were pure trivia, the work of a studio menial. The film was no better than a half-decent travelogue, the 19th-Century opening of Japan to the West reduced to spy-and-geisha romantics and a central performance (John Wayne as American envoy Townsend Harris) that trampled whatever subtleties that might have existed.

It should have been a Hollywood movie of rare delicacy, an American work that recaptured the feel and look of 1850s Japan and the true nuances of that era's Japanese and American encounters, and one graced with historical realism and pictorial splendor.

Yet Huston could turn around and make a work of surpassing fineness, like "The Asphalt Jungle," the 1950 crime film he made without starry actors, big budget or fanciful fanfare in 1950 for MGM.

It remains a work of power and poignancy, a relentlessly bleak examination of human disintegration, a more concise and lucid account of losers, avarice and desperation than "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."

A great piece of direction, each scene is perfectly framed and timed, each performance extraordinarily vivid. The overall tone is almost documentary in its unsparing, detached chronicling. Yet Huston has given this cycle of destruction--gang members are brought down one by one by fatal flaw or coincidence--the humanness of tragedy.

Then there is "Beat the Devil," the cult's delight that is Huston's most exhilarating and mocking work.

This independently made 1954 film is a throwaway, a cinematic lark. The convoluted script (written with Truman Capote) apes Huston's 1941 "The Maltese Falcon," first as a whimsical variation, then becoming an anarchic spoof of that classic genre.

But the film suffers from the usual Huston plague--the jarring uneveness where the direction is flat, bored and pedestrian, but followed suddenly by scenes of inspired brillance and galvanizing intensity.

One explanation might be that Huston was always the experimenter, always the movies' gadfly. A man of naturally mercurial temperament, he took far greater chances than most of his contemporaries, while never losing his nerve or knack for artistic questing.

"Beat the Devil" also contains some of Huston's most directly personal statements--glimpses of a personal philosophy that fit his latter-day image as the quizzical, gallant, forgiving patriarch.

The famous fade-out to "Beat the Devil" is pure Huston: Bogart, learning that the greedy little clan had been out-conned by a bigger fool than any of them, erupts into boisterous, lingering laughter.

It seems to be Huston's way of saying that life is one long charade--to be exited with neither bitterness nor whininess, but with celebratory defiance.

The UCI Film Society tribute to John Huston continues with "Fat City" Friday and "Wise Blood" on Jan. 29. Screenings are 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. General admission: $3. Information: (714) 856-5589.

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