The Treasure of John Huston

Times Staff Writer

John HUSTON was large than life. He was a poet, gambler, raconteur, womanizer, charmer and man's man. He had an uncanny ability to adapt novels and plays and turn them into bold, living cinema. And he had knack for casting his movies and guiding his actors to Oscar-caliber performance.

Beginning Friday, the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood is kicking off the first part of its two-part retrospective, "Beat the Devil: The Films of John Huston." The six-day festival features 12 of Huston's early films, including such well-known classics as "The Maltese Falcon," "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "Key Largo" and "The Asphalt Jungle." The tribute also features rarely seen early Huston, including 1949's drama "We Were Strangers"; his 1951 "The Red Badge of Courage"; and "Moulin Rouge," his 1953 bio-pic on Toulouse-Lautrec

The director's son, Danny Huston; actors Theodore Bikel, Harry Lewis, Marc Lawrence and Robert Easton; and screenwriter Ray Bradbury are scheduled to make personal appearances. The second half of the retrospective, which covers the films from the latter part of his career, is set for early next year.

Born in 1906, Huston began his career on the vaudeville circuit at age 3. After unsuccessfully trying to follow in his father Walter's footsteps in New York in the 1920s, he turned to writing screenplays, becoming one of the most sought-after writers of the 1930s and early '40s, working on such films as "Jezebel," "Sergeant York" and "High Sierra" before turning his hand to directing in 1941.

Though his career went through more ups and downs than a roller-coaster, he ended his career on a high note with "Under the Volcano in 1984; "Prizzi's Honor" in 1985, in which he guided daughter Anjelica to an Oscar, and 1987's "The Dead," which was released posthumously.

Danny Huston, documentary filmmaker Gail Levin ("American Masters: The Making of the Misfits") and script supervisor Angela Allen, who worked with Huston on 14 films, recently discussed the man, the myth and the legend.

The Great Adapter

Danny Huston: He was great at adapting great work. He had an understanding for the written word, and he was able to adapt so beautifully. He was a wonderful maverick -- the way he would work the system. He was always able to basically get away with what he wanted but preserved the integrity of the piece. He was also a great poker player, a great prankster and could certainly play the bluff with the studio system beautifully.

Gail Levin: I think he was not only a great writer, he was a great reader. When he was writing those scripts, he wasn't writing scripts like a screenwriter but a great lover of literature.

The Un-Method

Angela Allen: Where actors were concerned, he always admitted that if you cast them right, [the actors] do it for you. John did not like having to talk [to actors]. If an actor said, "What should I be thinking? What's my motivation?" he loathed that. He used to hate to answer those questions. His technique was normally when you would come to a scene he'd say, "Show me what you want to do." Then he would say "a bit less" or "bit over the top there, take it down a bit." That was about it. He wouldn't say "you're wonderful." [Some actors] would get a little perturbed about it. He was best, I think, with people like Bogey, whom he knew and understood him.

Danny Huston: There is a wonderful story where Katharine Hepburn was struggling with her role a little bit and he said, "Eleanor Roosevelt." And that cracked it for her. She said, "Oh, I see. I get it."

Civilized Hours

Angela Allen: John was not an early riser. We used to work civilized hours in those days. John work 12 hours a day? No. None of those big directors did. The day was 8:30 to 5:30 or 6. He had a dinner engagement. He had a life as well. He was an extremely economical director. He did not cover and overshoot. He never came in with a list of shots or anything like that. He used to rehearse the scene and out of the rehearsal, he would get his idea of how he was going to shoot it. If production managers said to him, "You have to choose the first setup in the morning" and they would push him, he'd come in the morning and do it completely different.

The Gambling Man

Angela Allen: He had an extraordinary personality. Most people would do anything for him. The crews adored him and would do anything for him. When he wanted to turn on the charm, my God. It was interesting for me because I would be an observer. I was never one of his girlfriends but to watch him charm a room! He would make the ugliest woman feel beautiful if he chose to talk to them. What you have to say about John is that he had tremendous charisma.

He was a gambler. I think on "Moby Dick," if somebody said, "bet on what crab is going to get there first," he would have chosen a wager. He was mad about horses. When he was on "The Misfits" it was craps. . He was a gambler in life -- with everything, with his women.


Gail Levin: Certainly Walter was just his best friend even in his life, such a great actor and such a true soul mate. They were truly friends as well as father and son, and he loved him so completely, and Walter did the same. John Huston really fumbled around for a long time before he got his legs and Walter kind of kept him moving along.


'Beat the Devil: The Films of John Huston Part I -- The Maltese Falcon to Moby Dick'

Where: American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood

When: Various times

Ends: Nov. 30

Price: $9 general admission; $6 for members, $8 for seniors 65 and over and students with valid ID

Contact: (323) 466-FILM or

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