Walter Huston

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948, John Huston)

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre often comes as a complete surprise, even though director Huston carefully foreshadows certain events. He’s playing with viewer expectations–both of having Humphrey Bogart as his lead and Walter Huston in a supporting role. Sierra Madre is a thriller, but a thriller set during an adventure movie.

Bogart and Tim Holt play a couple down on their luck Americans who manage to get out a little ahead and throw in with Huston to go gold prospecting. This development comes at the end of the first act–Huston’s very deliberate with the screenplay, very careful about how he positions the audience’s relationship with the characters. The audience isn’t along for the adventure, the audience is kept back a bit. Huston is also deliberate with the shot composition; he and cinematographer Ted D. McCord fill the first half of the film with these exceptional group shots of the actors.

All three are fantastic. Huston has what seems like it’s going to be the showiest role, but it calms down soon into the second act. Bogart’s a combination of against type and in exaggerated type. He’s got some amazing scenes. Holt’s something of the straight man; Huston gives him the quietest character development and, in some ways, the quietest arc.

Max Steiner’s music is also crucial. Huston uses it to help guide the audience’s relationship with the film.

Sierra Madre is small, contained, expansive, elaborate. Huston and his actors do some truly exceptional work in the film.



Directed by John Huston; screenplay by Huston, based on the novel by B. Traven; director of photography, Ted D. McCord; edited by Owen Marks; music by Max Steiner; produced by Henry Blanke; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Humphrey Bogart (Dobbs), Walter Huston (Howard), Tim Holt (Curtin), Bruce Bennett (Cody), Barton MacLane (McCormick), Alfonso Bedoya (Gold Hat), Arturo Soto Rangel (Presidente), Manuel Dondé (El Jefe), José Torvay (Pablo) and Margarito Luna (Pancho).



The Prizefighter and the Lady (1933, W.S. Van Dyke)

The Prizefighter and the Lady mixes a couple genres–the philandering husband whose wife can’t stop loving him standard and, additionally, stunt casting. Heavyweight contender Max Baer stars as a heavyweight contender, who fights the champ, played by champ Primo Carnera. Myrna Loy plays the suffering wife, while Walter Huston and Otto Kruger finish the supporting cast. There are boxing and wrestling cameos–the biggest being Jack Dempsey.

The film culminates with the fight between Baer and Carnera. Loy’s supposed to be cheering for Baer’s defeat, while Huston–Baer’s boxer is an almost unparalleled narcissist–I can’t remember a feature with a more despicable protagonist who the viewer is supposed to adore and admire–is quietly cheering his fighter on. Kruger sort of stands around, looking doe-eyed, as former love Loy can’t resist the manliness of Baer.

What’s strangest about the scene is the film’s relationship with the viewer–it certainly appears the audience is supposed to be cheering Baer win, after spending forty minutes of him acting like a complete jerk and however much time before with him acting like a moderate jerk. The film opens strong because of Huston, whose performance as a broken down, drunken boxing manager who gets another shot, is utterly fantastic. Every line Huston delivers is perfect. He’s marvelous.

The big fight isn’t even directed with an emphasis on the exhibition. Instead, the film cuts between fight shots and reactions in the crowd and among the main cast. The sequence has great sound, with the background rumble overpowering everything else. Van Dyke has some excellent shots here, but the emotional impact is obviously more important.

Except it’s not, because Baer’s a jerk. The conclusion’s even ambiguous as to the future of his philandering. Whatever lesson Baer’s supposed to have learned through the running time, whatever change he’s going to make to his life, whatever development… the film’s indifferent. He’s a hero because he’s a real-life boxer; he’s not accountable for his actions.

Van Dyke’s got some great shots and some fine moments throughout the picture. Kruger’s gangster with a heart of gold is okay–he and Loy have some good scenes together. She’s fine, if completely unbelievable in the role as it gets towards the end. Like I said before, Huston’s superb. There’s some nice work from Vince Barnett and Robert McWade. Carnera shows more charisma in his practically wordless performance than Baer does as the protagonist.

There’s a lot of filler–musical numbers, mostly, trying to obscure the lack of story. Baer isn’t terrible–he can’t emote, of course–which might have been from Howard Hawks working with him… or not (Hawks was going to direct before MGM signed Baer, then may or may not have stuck around to work with him while Van Dyke finished up a different picture). He can’t make the character likable, which makes the whole premise fail. But he could be worse….

A lot like the film itself. It could be worse–and I had to keep reminding myself of that one.



Produced and directed by W.S. Van Dyke; screenplay by John Lee Mahin and John Meehan, based on a story by Frances Marion; director of photography, Lester White; edited by Robert Kern; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Myrna Loy (Belle), Max Baer (Morgan), Primo Carnera (Carnera), Jack Dempsey (Dempsey), Walter Huston (The Professor), Otto Kruger (Willie Ryan), Vince Barnett (Bugsie) and Robert McWade (Sonny).

Mission to Moscow (1943, Michael Curtiz)

Mission to Moscow is straight propaganda. There’s a lot of Hollywood propaganda in the early 1940s, even the late 1930s, but usually, with those films, there’s at least the pretense of dramatic storytelling. There’s a love story attached, maybe a love triangle, something. There’s nothing attached to Mission to Moscow. It’s essentially a long advertisement for the Soviet Union. Most amusing, I suppose, is when Stalin himself shows up. The film’s from 1943, so nobody knew about him yet.

Walter Huston plays the ambassador to Russia and his story sort of guides the film. It follows him, but the way he moves is for the exposition, not for the character. There isn’t a single conflict for his character in the entire film. Huston’s fantastic, of course, but he’s better at the beginning. For most of the film he looks concerned or he gives speeches, but at the beginning there’s still some dramatic excitement. There are a number of other good performances, particularly Oskar Homolka.

As long as Mission to Moscow is, it’s competently told–writing this screenplay later got Howard Koch blacklisted–and there are a number of nice segments. The film ought to be famous as Michael Curtiz’s follow-up to Casablanca (but isn’t) and it’s probably his strongest directorial effort. There’s one particular scene, at a formal reception, which is beautifully constructed. The camera moves from each country’s representatives, both establishing their political situation as well as the particularities of the characters. It’s too bad this scene–as well as an excellent trial scene–are surrounded by such boring material.

The film plays on Turner Classic Movies from time to time and I read Warner Bros. is considering a DVD release (though I don’t know as part of what collection–no one knows Huston or Curtiz anymore).



Directed by Michael Curtiz; screenplay by Howard Koch, based on the book by Joseph E. Davies; director of photography, Bert Glennon; edited by Owen Marks; music by Max Steiner; produced by Robert Bruckner; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Walter Huston (Ambassador Joseph E. Davies), Ann Harding (Mrs. Marjorie Davies), Oskar Homolka (Maxim Litvinov, Foreign Minister), George Tobias (Freddie), Gene Lockhart (Premier Molotov), Eleanor Parker (Emlen Davies), Richard Travis (Paul), Helmut Dantine (Major Kamenev), Victor Francen (Vyshinsky, chief trial prosecutor), Henry Daniell (Minister von Ribbentrop), Barbara Everest (Mrs. Litvinov), Dudley Field Malone (Winston Churchill), Roman Bohnen (Mr. Krestinsky), Maria Palmer (Tanya Litvinov), Moroni Olsen (Colonel Faymonville), Minor Watson (Loy Henderson), Vladimir Sokoloff (Mikhail Kalinin, USSR president), Maurice Schwartz (Dr. Botkin) and Joseph E. Davies (Himself).

This film is also discussed in Sum Up | Eleanor Parker, Part 1: Dream Factory.
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