John Huston’s career caught the literary bug, an inspiration that quickly, sometimes detrimentally, opened a Pandora’s box he couldn’t close. I mean, the dude erected his career in one fell, volcanic swoop with his debut feature, The Maltese Falcon, an adaptation of a famously convoluted and uncinematic Dashiell Hammett novel. Not to be outdone by his debut, Huston, perhaps in a fit of near-death delirium, concluded his career directing his daughter in an adaptation of that most holy of unfilmable authors: James Joyce (admittedly, Huston went for the big gun of the small gun short stories with “The Dead” from Dubliners, but reaching for something like Ulysses would have been sheer Icarus-inspired lunacy). Ironically, Huston himself was often compared to Hemingway for his no-nonsense virility and the tensile strength of his dead-on filmmaking, putting him at a stark remove from the likes of the infamously spindly, present-tense, tonally fluxional Joyce who was perhaps Hemingway’s polar opposite.
In between his first and last films, Huston got a taste of everything. He covered Stephen Crane (in a near mythical lost version of a production that was curtailed and trimmed to near Magnificent Ambersons levels of directorial discontent, although Huston, unlike Orson Welles, was not egotistical enough to abscond to a different country when things didn’t go his way). He tackled Herman Melville, the whole “First Major Masterwork of American Literature”, and dared to turn it into a splashy adventure fantasia without sacrificing its brute fatalism and meta-philosophy. He massaged the damn Bible into a film, simply called The Bible no less. He worked with Arthur Miller and adapted Tennessee Williams so that no one limit him to traditional literature. And, just for good measure amidst all this confronting great works of literature and such, he also managed to survive directing the early bits of the infamously, mythically troubled makeshift production of Casino Royale in 1967. So, you know, he ran right up against greatness and abject misery and still came out alive, if not untroubled, with Casino Royale being the bravest thing he ever did: a half-step into an outré misfire with the likes of Peter Sellers and Orson Welles, two of the great prima donnas of all cinema, desperately fuming at one another throughout production.
I suppose great writers like Billy Wilder, Woody Allen, and even Joseph Heller were involved in the shenanigans of that screenplay in some uncredited, suspicious manner, presumably trying to hide their names from public disdain against the hell they had partially wrought. So maybe Huston got to satiate himself with ticking off more writer boxes, or something. That something probably being alcohol. Either way, let no one say he didn’t have an ego – these weren’t mere penny novels, but among the proverbial masterworks in the world canon, and Huston was willing to brave them. But, at the same time, the striking versatility of the masterworks he adapted (plucking different authors seemingly at whim, or at least chomping at the bit to sign up for whatever new literary Hollywood project he could afford) suggests a slipshod path across the literary canon with no egotistical drive to fully “figure out” and thus pacify any of the artists. His films remained in the best ethos of the Hollywood machine, all workaday triumphs of punchy craft free of the occasional tyranny of auteurism, but they were also distinctly Huston works.
None more so distinctively Hustonesque than his take on one of the more unfilmable novels he ever danced with: Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. The story of an ex-veteran (of a purposefully indeterminate war) who returns home to a nondescript Georgian city to blaze a trail of street preaching in his upstart Church of Christ Without Christ, the more or less intentionally convoluted, friction-driven purgatory of that name suggests O’Connor’s habit of turning religion into ammunition for an exploration of desire and misfit attempts for forgiveness and salvation at any cost. Counter-intuitively, the main character searches for God by excising God from his life, founding a church that treats the divine entity as sacrosanct and sacrilege in one, a muddle of a belief treated as surreal by O’Connor but also doused in her empathetic spirit when the protagonist exhibits genuine desire to create or form something to bring meaning to his life. A fanatical book for a frenzied audience, O’Connor’s Southern Gothic minutiae and fire-and-brimstone prose ultimately intersperses the quasi-absurdist grotesquerie and darkness with inlaid glimmers of (possibly delusional) light, both religious and intercommunal. In doing so, she evokes a sense of discordant people combing for redemption with God in increasingly outré ways, finding warmth and the light of belief or happiness even when none is called for.
A warped variation on, and maybe perversion of, innocence, it’s a tricky novel, all told, a freshman writer’s debut from an untested hand with a perspective of an outcast misfit from an outcast misfit of a writer. Which perhaps forms the underwire for O’Connor’s masterful dialectic of self-harm, self-hatred, and self-aggrandizement, where religion and her need for it are massaged into a stoked fire of questioned belief. We aren’t sure, because she isn’t really sure, because he isn’t really sure what he, protagonist Hazel Moses, wants or what to think. All the while, vicariously, O’Connor’s own tortured relationship with religion counterpoises the insatiable desire for meaning with the skepticism and disarray of actually searching for it. The Church of Christ Without Christ begins to don a much less surrealistic veneer as the book, and the film, truck onwards and religion becomes a dialectical of personal conviction and dogmatic doctrine so contorted that impiety and fanatical devotion seemingly exist as two sides of the same coin. Embedded in Southern culture like molasses, it’s as if parsing out religion, and whether one is truly religious or not, is an almost impossible precipice or bundle of brambles for a Southerner, a jive dance where one foot can be on each side of the aisle of belief simultaneously and each foot cannot be sure which side it’s actually on.
But what matters is Huston, and the film, a striking, mostly forgotten out-of-the-way tall tale, much like the great breadth of O’Connor’s writing during her short lifespan. A stylistic semi-chameleon, each of Huston’s literary adaptations bears its own style (and not inherently the style of the famous author the film is paired with). But perhaps ironically, the closest in Huston’s oeuvre to this tale of comic anarchy is a self-adaptation, or self-commentary: Beat the Devil, a sort of brazen noir satire, a rereading of Huston’s own classic works of genre fiction that were already enshrined in the modernist canon. Like that film, and like O’Connor’s writing, Wise Blood is bursting with digressions and tangents that walk in and saunter out without nominally forwarding the thrust of the film only to be wrapped up in the peculiar mixture of comic and cosmic Huston has wrought. The parade of stray cats and wandering souls evokes the chaos of life so blissfully beautiful in O’Connor’s writing, as do another-planet lines wherein hair is compared to “ham gravy” slithering off of someone’s head. The messiness of the screenplay by O’Connor superfans the Fitzgerald family (writers all and family friends of O’Connor herself) stimulates awareness of the madness and menace of searching for meaning even by perverting it. The frequent incisions of new one-or-two scene characters also awakens our awareness of other outcasts in life, simultaneously loosening Moses’ lone grip on the film’s world (and thus his audience) while suggesting that Moses isn’t so alone after all.
Within, rather than some lugubrious, reined-in bid at literary realism or maturation, Huston opts for a herky-jerky, spasmodic dialectic of tones, from the livid dreams (where Huston himself appears) of a Southern outcast being verbally assaulted by his also-outcast father to wacky swigs of countrified humanism. The tones aren’t mutually exclusive binaries either; the interior and the exterior, revelry and reverie, flighty curiosity and brooding determination all comingle and all swirl around the moonshine brew of the divinely strange and the all-too-drab that stokes the contradictions of and massages the confusion of life itself.
A short-fuse work with a tantrum-like temper swiveling from blissful to deranged to reticent by the moment, the obvious cop-out (and point of egress from the film for those who won’t let it wash over them) is to write it all off as preamble to a consistent tone the film never finds. You could grouse about Huston ping ponging between adaptations of Twentieth Century Greatest Hits in literature and theater (or dating back to the 1850s, to be accurate) without inherently improving them or even significantly wrangling them into his own versions of the tale. But this film’s success is all Huston’s own, with his famed location shooting, here in an impromptu, almost slipshod shoot, scrawling out a particularly disheveled, disfigured Macon, Georgia, a slurry of ‘70s and ’40s signifiers, and laying the ground work for a film of wild-horse madness liberated from the tyranny of A-picture status and the need to appease the masses.
This is guerilla, DIY filmmaking that shifts seemingly without an underlying structural integrity into gangly ghoulishness on the drop of a dime (a descriptor that also applies to Brad Dourif’s fantastically askew disarray of a performance as Moses). Huston’s famously agonizing, discomfiting mood shifts perish the thought that he wasn’t the prime interpreter for the madcap, deranged, farcical elegance of O’Connor’s worldview of gargoyle fear in friction with blithe happiness. She was a writer empathetic to but worried by miscreants, and Huston was her fallen comrade in strangeness.
Or, perhaps, it wasn’t Huston’s vacillating moods that furnished Wise Blood’s fascinating cognitive dissonances so much as the obvious asymmetry of a devout atheist of a director and an abidingly religious family of screenwriters (the Fitzgeralds, one of whom would later write The Passion of the Christ), all in the throes of miscommunication about the meaning of their Frankenstein creation stapled from too many authors to ensure any sort of stability. The tension allows for a sort of accidental synergy of dialectical contrast, where the friction between their perspectives creates a film where the only stable channel is instability, like a work ricocheting for meaning and finding no meaning not inlaid with other ones, no meaning it can adopt for more than a scene at a time without staging a walkabout to locate others. Moses is clearly lost, grotesquely so, but the soft-focus cinematography always reveals a casual empathy for him and his internal desire for validation, worship, or spirituality in any order, an outcast miscreant searching for a community of followers much as Huston did. A little masochistic, even sociopathic, it may be, but Wise Blood is, like the book, a work of disobedient fascination; it doesn’t leap to mind as a lost masterpiece, but it’s the rare film that manages to be good even when it isn’t.