The Huston Family: 75 Years on Film
August 18 through September 22, MOMA
The main course of MOMA’s retro of this remarkable showbiz dynasty is a generous selection of films directed by John Huston. Though difficult to categorize, Huston’s films are nearly all are based on literary sources. The best ones often concern men who go after dreams that exceed their grasp. After years as scriptwriter at Warner’s, Huston made his directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon (1941), a film noir cornerstone that graduated Humphrey Bogart from bad guy to tough romantic hero. Bogart is the star who most frequently recurs in Huston’s work. In the entertaining wartime adventure Across the Pacific (1942) he thwarts a Japanese plot to blow up the Panama Canal. He’s a paranoid gold prospector, one of his most unsettling roles, in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), Huston’s bleak allegory on the futility of greed. And in Key Largo (1948), he’s an army veteran who moves from apathy to action. Huston teamed Bogart with Katharine Hepburn in The African Queen (1951), enabling the actor to extend his range and display his comic timing. Beat the Devil (1954), Bogart’s last project with Huston, is an off-the-wall yarn about a quartet of inept crooks—a flop when released, it has since become a cult film.
A good deal of Huston’s work is forgettable. No director of his stature has turned out as many duds. But The Asphalt Jungle (1950), the mother of all modern caper pictures, is near perfect—finely detailed, vividly written and performed. And after a few dry seasons, The Man Who Would Be King (1975) was a brilliant return to form, a sweeping but lighthearted adaptation of Kipling’s fable about the delusions of empire, with superb performances by Michael Caine and Sean Connery. It’s Huston at his exhilarating best.