Many of his movies are literary adaptations. A passionate reader, he was audacious in the work he brought to the screen — Joyce, Flannery O’Connor, Genesis. In this series you find, among transcriptions of Carson McCullers, Stephen Crane, Rudyard Kipling, and Dashiell Hammett, a noble — if misbegotten — attempt to film Malcolm Lowry’s notoriously interior novel Under the Volcano. There’s also a movie version of Tennessee Williams’s play The Night of the Iguana and a collaboration with Arthur Miller, The Misfits, which Miller wrote for his wife, Marilyn Monroe — though in truth Monroe comes off far better, at the outset of her career, as Louis Calhern’s luscious mistress in The Asphalt Jungle. Huston almost always did the adaptations himself, either alone or in tandem with someone else (often Anthony Veiller); he had a remarkable feel for how to find the dramatic rhythms in fiction. It’s telling that when he let Leonard Gardner adapt his own Fat City, in 1972, Gardner botched it. The movie feels as if it had been written by a novelist — the monologues, the clumsy exposition, the lack of shape, the focus on novelistic rather than dramatic detail.Aside from The Night of the Iguana, with a lethally miscast Richard Burton as the ex-minister tour guide who breaks down during a bus trip to Mexico, a movie that makes nonsense out of one of Williams’s most lyrical and profound plays, I don’t think there’s a single picture among these 14 that I would skip. Even the lesser entries frame marvelous performances: Clift and Thelma Ritter in The Misfits, Jeff Bridges as the young fighter in Fat City, Albert Finney as the dipsomaniac consul in Under the Volcano, Paul Newman reaching the craggy bottom of his register in a lowdown comic turn as Judge Roy Bean. The 1963 The List of Adrian Messenger, which seldom surfaces, is an amusingly understated murder mystery with a British setting whose plot is a cross between a tale of World War II skullduggery and the old Alec Guinness black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets. (It has a second layer of intrigue: several Hollywood stars appear under mounds of disfiguring make-up and aren’t revealed until the end credits.) Billing it with Beat the Devil was a smart idea: together they make for a night of utterly insignificant entertainment. Bogart, by the way, is the only member of the Beat the Devil ensemble who isn’t funny and doesn’t seem to be having a very good time. The others — Peter Lorre; Robert Morley; Gina Lollobrigida; Edward Underdown; tight-voiced, waspish Ivor Barnard; cadaver-faced Marco Tulli; Jennifer Jones in a blond wig — are outrageous. But don’t look for narrative coherence: Huston and Truman Capote are said to have written the script on the set, and the whole production is touched with the lunatic spirit of improvisation.
Huston was one of Hollywood’s legendary actor’s directors, and he didn’t often make casting errors. (His worst was Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab, though the movie has wonderful sequences — especially the seaport-chapel sermon delivered by Orson Welles as Father Mapple.) This centennial tribute is full of fine acting: Bogart and Walter Huston in Sierra Madre, Bogart and the whole supporting cast (especially Mary Astor) in The Maltese Falcon, Sterling Hayden and Louis Calhern in The Asphalt Jungle. Brando’s portrayal of a closeted homosexual, a major at a peacetime military outpost in the South, in Huston’s version of Carson McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye is perhaps the least known of his great performances, and his co-stars, Elizabeth Taylor, Brian Keith, and Julie Harris, provide admirable support. And if you haven’t seen Michael Caine and Sean Connery playing gleefully off each other as Kipling’s colonial scamps in The Man Who Would Be King, you really must, especially on a screen large enough to do justice to Oswald Morris’s cinematography and Alexander Trauner’s production design. This is one of the most thrilling of the boys’-adventure spectacles, and Huston’s handling of tone keeps you in a continual state of suspense and surprise. Huston had been making movies for more than three decades when he finally got to film it (it was a long-term pet project of his), but you can see he was still at the peak of his powers. In fact, he never declined: his last two movies were Prizzi’s Honor and The Dead, which he filmed from a wheelchair, hooked up to oxygen. His movies are about both the wide imaginative reach of human aspiration and the human limitations that can rein it in. What you see in his own work reflects the first far more than the second.
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