Re-watching “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” last night reminds me once again that John Huston, like most great artists, had an over-arching theme that inspired him. Unfortunately for his chances of being popularly acclaimed as A Great Director, his theme was the futility of our human endeavors. I suspect that even those who have never seen “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” may know the film’s punch-line–that no one gets the gold-dust treasure, carried by the wind back to the mountain that it came from. For fans of Huston this is an old story. Who gets the real Maltese Falcon? No one, the black statuette that so much blood as been spilled over is a fake, a lead decoy. What good does the careful planning of Fenner and the Cuban revolutionaries in “We Were Strangers” do them? None whatsoever. The ceremony they had intended to bomb is moved at the last minute to a different location. And how about those gritty small-time thieves in “The Asphalt Jungle”? The score of their lives becomes a ticket to disaster for them all. We all know what became of Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale in “Moby Dick.” But how about that small crew of corrupters sent to the Soviet Union to retrieve a certain incriminating document in “The Kremlin Letter”? Not only does the document itself prove worthless, but the whole caper turns out to be a private vendetta engineered by a master-spy believed long dead against his successor. In “The Mackintosh Man” the good guys turn out to be more blood-thirsty that than the bad ones and all of agent Reardon’s suffering goes for naught as the traitor he was supposed to apprehend is gunned down right before his eyes.
Even in lesser Huston films the theme of futility lurks somewhere. The vainglorious exiled racketeer Johnny Rocco of “Key Largo” will never re-gain his perch atop the underworld. The stupidest character in “Beat the Devil” will inherit the uranium-rich holdings in Africa. The wranglers will fail to successfully round up those mustangs in “The Misfits.” Major Pemberton will discover that the handsome young soldier was pining for his lusty wife, not for him in “Reflections in a Golden Eye.” If “The Red Badge of Courage” appears to end on a somewhat upbeat note, it’s only because it endured a brutal hatchet job at the hand of M.G.M., eliminating some of its darkest moments.
Occasionally there is a grace note to the futility. Disillusioned war-hero Maj. Frank McCloud will get his mojo back by taking on Rocco and his gang single-handed. In death Tony Fenner will be immortalized in song as the American who came to help the Cuban people re-gain their freedom. The weary Mexican boxer in “Fat City” will at least survive another bout, even if a losing one. Dix Handley “gets back” the family farm in “The Asphalt Jungle” if only to collapse and die in its grassy meadow. Ismael will live to tell the tale of “Moby Dick” and Rone, the deeply compromised hero of “The Kremlin Letter” will make a devil’s-bargain to at least save the woman he loves from the monstrous Sturdevant.
I confess that I’ve always had a soft-spot for Huston’s films. I know that we like to rank our directors, and although Huston may have finished “out-of-the-money” in most people’s eyes, he and his films still matter to me.