Movies We Like
John Huston’s massive career as a director spanned almost fifty years (1941-1987) and it’s full of classics and misfires, ranging from the high of his genre masterpiece, The Maltese Falcon (his first in '41), to the bizarrely unwatchable psycho-thriller, Phobia, in '80 (starring Paul Michael Glaser!?). Today he is mostly revered for his WWII docs and some of his work with Humphrey Bogart (Falcon, Key Largo, The Treasure of The Sierra Madre and The African Queen), while The Asphalt Jungle, The Misfits, Under The Volcano, Prizzi’s Honor and many more have their champions. The main body of his work is mostly made up of imperfect but ambitious exercises in different styles, Moby Dick, Freud, Reflections in The Golden Eye being just a couple of examples. But without a doubt his mostly fascinating, not perfect, but utterly unique film might be his biography of the disfigured French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge. Released in '52, it's a sorta lost classic (not to be confused with Australian director Baz Luhmann’s hyperactive exercise in ear drum damage).
Respected Puerto Rican born actor José Ferrer, fresh off his Oscar winning performance in '50 for playing Cyrano de Bergerac, takes on the role of the painter who is remembered just as well for the childhood accident that stopped his legs from growing as he is for his post-impressionism painting of the seedier side of the decadence of Paris’s colorful nightclub world of dancers, outcasts and prostitutes at the Moulin Rouge. Filmed with a colorful “Technicolor” style to match the painting of Toulouse-Lautrec (with echoing tilted angles to match other '50s visionaries like Nicholas Ray), Huston and dynamic cinematographer Oswald Morris (Sleuth, Lolita, The Spy Who Came in From The Cold, etc. etc.) use every trick in the Wellesian book to tell their story (flashbacks, shooting through mirrors, every color carefully placed) and are aided by the vivid sets and costumes by Marcel Vertès, who won two Oscars for the film.
The plot is mostly standard turn-of-the-century, tortured artist stuff. Toulouse-Lautrec suffers one humiliation after another at the hands of lower class women he tries to woo. The film starts with him already a fairly successful painter, with flashbacks to his disfiguring accident and failings in his upper-class family (Ferrer also plays his unimpressed aristocratic father). Suicidal after falling for a drunken prostitute that he paints (played by the actually French and brilliant Colette Marchand), he finds inspiration in the other characters around him, while he falls deeper into the classic alcoholic artist’s existence. Only at the back tables of the Moulin Rouge does he find an actual home and a use for new realistic colors he produces. His posters for the theater and risqué paintings are both acclaimed and deplored by art critics and fans. He does find a sort-of partner in the upper-class art patron Myriamme Hyam (Suzanne Flon, also actually French), but not the true passion he felt for the cruel prostitute he truly loved.
The beautiful Zsa Zsa Gabor pops up occasionally as a Moulin Rouge dancer and scored a second billing for her role, though it was only for ticket sales, because at the time she was a famous jet-set celebrity, and just barely credible as an actress. And watch for a pre-Hammer Christopher Lee as Hyam’s handsome would-be suitor. The script is episodic (based on a novel by Pierre La Mure) and questionable as a true story. No, the real stars here are Huston and his team of craftsmen and Ferrer in his deeply felt and physically challenging performance. Using actual and stunning Toulouse-Lautrec paintings, the film works as both an infomercial for the artist’s incredible work and for its vivid recreations of the theater’s floor shows.
Like the real-life artist, Huston shared a love of drink, art and women. And unfortunately for the director, is often more remembered for his adventurous, Hemingway-esque personal life, while the film is remembered as the other, older version of Moulin Rouge. But this really is incredible work. It may not be one of Huston’s “masterpieces” but it certainty ranks with the best of artist bios and as the perfect scale to measure the quality of your new color television.