John Huston

by Manuel Vicent (translated by Louis S. Bedrock), September 20, 2017

In the biography of a writer there is a moment in which fascination with literature unites with, even surrenders to, the mythology of cinema.

When I was 16 years old, I ran away from home and took a train to Valencia. It was a brief escape, a gallinaceous flight that lasted 24 hours with one single night. After losing myself in the nocturnal streets of the city, sneaking into a few sleazy bars, going to the American Circus in the Plaza de Toros, I went into a movie theater whose facade had giant posters in full color in which there appeared a dwarf with monocle attached to a cord and dancers with their bloomers bobbing in the air.

The movie was John Huston’s Moulin Rouge. From that moment, the director became one of the phantoms of my freedom. I associate him with the taste of running away, of being beyond the moral authority of the father and the punishment that awaited me when I went home. And, with time, I also adored Toulouse-Latrec, as interpreted by Jose Ferrer, as the painter who served as a link to modern painting, from whom Picasso took inspiration.

They are experiences only learned through sin. No Treasure Island provided so much convulsive throbbing in my forehead as that flight that ended up in a bed in a foul smelling pension on Pelayo Street, next to the train station, where I slept in the same room as a drunk who was a traveler passing through town.

The terrace of our house in the village overlooked the garden of a resort in which a drive-in movie theater had been installed. During those calm nights of the 1950s, beneath the stars, the acoustics were perfect and the sound of every passion, every shot, every shout, and every whisper of love of the characters reached me with great clarity; however, standing upon a small elevation, I could only see slightly more than half the screen. Hidden on the terrace, I saw all the films prohibited for minors by the censor—half with images, the other half with my imagination. When Glenn Ford slapped Gilda, I couldn’t see his hand; I could only intuit the crack of his hand when she moved her face and nothing more.

Another film that marked one of those summers during which I was reading Crime and Punishment stretched out in a hammock was A Place in the Sun, also seen from the terrace of my house. Montgomery Cliff in a sports jacket plays billiards by himself while Elizabeth Taylor prowls around the table trying to seduce him. She would disappear intermittently into the invisible half of the screen and I would hear her provocative voice that would inspire me to recreate mentally her mouth, her eyes, her face as she pronounced each word; he passed into the darkness of the cell before going to the electric chair.

During the light of the day, I read the Russians, Camus, Gide; however no literary phantasmagoria gave me the morbid satisfaction of jumping out of bed at night when my parents were already sleeping, and dressed in pajamas, make my way to the terrace with soft steps and hide there while watching all the prohibited movies on a screen that was split in half: the bloody screams of Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun, the submachine guns from the night of Saint Valentine’s, the hurricane of Key Largo.

Key Largo: John Huston again. The intense life of this film maker still fascinates me. In his memoirs, he informs us:

—I had five wives; a lot of affairs—some more memorable than my marriages. I got married to a schoolgirl, a lady, a movie star, a ballerina, and to a crocodile.

He devoted himself to hunting, gambling at the racetrack, raising thoroughbred horses, collecting paintings, boxing, writing, and acting in or directing more than 70 films. In fact, in my personal mythology, before buying myself a trench coat that resembled the one worn by Albert Camus, I wanted to be like John Huston so badly that when I had just got back to Madrid, before winding up in the Cafe Gijón, I went to The School of Cinematography on Montesquinza Street to take a test to become a movie director. I was greeted by a character in checkered slippers who was eating an omelet sandwich. I knew I would never become John Huston by hanging around that place for another moment.

There was a time when I couldn’t decide which I liked better—reading Camus’s The Stranger or Faulkner’s Sanctuary; or watching The Maltese Falcon or The African Queen at the film club. I understood that a movie director worked with characters of flesh and blood, was in charge of them, supported and even admired them, was familiar with their passions inside and outside the screen.

Movies had subsumed people’s dreams. When Clark Gable took off his shirt in one picture and displayed his naked torso, the businesses that sold undershirts sank. It was necessary to show Marlon Brando in a tight-fitting, sweaty undershirt for the textile market to recover. A book will never accomplish that, I thought.

But above all was John Huston. The mythology of literature and film coalesced when this filmmaker directed The Misfits. Marilyn Monroe had already become a broken doll. She came from the ever more tired arms of Arthur Miller. She would arrive to the shoot in a daze from pills, without having bathed, her hair greasy; everything led one to believe that she was in the final stretch and the abyss was already within view.

Arthur Miller had written the script of that film to save his love, but it was futile. Under Huston’s direction was also Montgomery Clift with his face split by the scar from an automobile accident—neurotic, alcoholic, at the breaking point like the wild horses that filled the screen. But the first to die was Clark Gable whose heart burst. Shortly after this, nembutal finished off Marilyn as she was swinging the telephone cord to the foot of the bed. It was her last phone call and one which no one answered, giving rise to the legend that she was murdered.

Montgomery Clift didn’t take long to accompany them.

John Huston survived them to direct his masterpiece, “The Dead” from the collection of short stories Dubliners in homage to a genius of literature, his countryman, James Joyce. He did this when he was already in a wheelchair with an intravenous drip attached to his forearm. That Christmas dinner. That song that stirred the residues of emotion of Greta. Her memory of her first love—that young man in Galway. The jealousy of her husband Gabriel in the room of The Hotel Gresham. The snow which was falling all over Ireland. Upon all the living and the dead.

The life of John Huston was snobbish and wild, full of talent and fascination. His greatest moment had been when he appeared before House Un-American Activities Committee and risked his own skin by confronting its members in order to save his friends.

After directing The Night of The Iguana with Ava Gardner in Puerto Vallarta in Mexico, he remained living there in the middle of the jungle among boas and mosquitos in a solitary cabin that you could only reach by canoe.

I promise that in another lifetime, if I once again run away and watch Moulin Rouge, this time I will not go back home. I will do everything possible to be like John Huston or merely his big toe, although may only be because he was the first connection conceived in my imagination between the phantoms spawned by the psychosis of the writer and the real people that become phantoms on the movie screen.

John Huston, illustration by Fernando Vicente

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