November 11, 2007


Huston's Novel Approach to Film (GARY GIDDINS, November 6, 2007, NY Sun)

It is an axiom of cinema that second- and third-rate books often make for good movies, while great books rarely do. Ethel Lina White ("The Lady Vanishes"), Alan Le May ("The Searchers"), and Mario Puzo ("The Godfather") all are immortalized in auteurist filmographies, whereas Willa Cather, William Faulkner, and Eudora Welty have not fared too well at the movie theater. Still, personal and even visionary films adapted from slavishly admired literary works do exist, and John Huston made an impressive number of them.

Nearly half of Huston's 39 feature films, not counting his wartime documentaries (good as they are) and his acknowledged or unacknowledged collaborations (bad as they are), are based on literary landmarks — novels, plays, and stories. Only four ("The Bible," "Moby Dick," "The Red Badge of Courage," and "The Man Who Would Be King") predate the 20th century, which is copiously examined in the others. Some of his films have supplanted source material that was once highly regarded ("The African Queen," "Key Largo"); others helped to establish or raise the stature of their sources ("Treasure of the Sierra Madre," "Fat City"). Huston's best films, beginning with his first, 1941's "The Maltese Falcon," survive on a parallel plain to that of the originals. They reflect, above all else, Huston's craggy sensibility.

That sensibility, essentially agnostic and existential, is predicated on a conviction that heaven and hell exist not in the clouds or along the Styx, but in what we make of the world. It prizes moral courage over physical derring-do and sneers at moral certainty.

Setting aside for now the truths that LeMay's novel is far superior to anything written by Cather, Faulkner or Welty and that Huston made his reputation in the Puritanical field of film noir, it seems pertinent to ask whether there has ever been a cinematic moment of more profound moral certitude than when Sam Spade tells Brigid O'Shaughnessy that no matter how much he loves her and disliked Miles Archer she has to go down for shooting his partner? This moment is only made more delicious by the fact that it serves retrospectively as an indictment of Dashiell Hammett's appalling decision to cover-up for his fellow Stalinists.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 11, 2007 12:29 PM

In my limited experience, great authors, especially of the twentieth century (post WWII), spend their time telling their readers how rotten they are.

Insulting the audience may be the way to a Nobel or a Pulitzer, but is unlikely the route to the box office.

My experience is limited, because after my high school and college courses my response to acclaimed fiction has been "And the same to you, pal."

Posted by: Mikey at November 11, 2007 4:04 PM

If one substitutes Miles Archer for the Stalinists, and Brigid for the amoral America he loves then, maybe, Hammet's coded work takes on a whole different meaning. Or maybe it was just one hell of a good yarn.

Posted by: GWClarke at November 12, 2007 4:48 PM