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John Huston: "It's as bad to be ahead of your time as behind it."

HOLLYWOOD - John Huston has come up for the day from Puerto Vallarta, the sleepy little Mexican beach town he converted into a tourist industry by filming "Night of the Iguana" there. He plans to speak with his agent and his business manager; a major Huston film is scheduled for Christmas release, and there are the Huston finances to be scrutinized and new projects to be considered. At 69, he is tall and courtly and exudes a personal charisma that I've rarely felt before; there seem to be special rewards in being John Huston.

His agent is Paul Kohner, the best known in Hollywood, whose small but exclusive client list ranges from Charles Bronson to Ingmar Bergman. Huston is a special client; he was Kohner's first, and they sealed the deal with a handshake, not a contract. Kohner has some ideas he's been mulling over for Huston. Maybe he'd like to direct Robert Mitchum in a film of Hemingway's Across the River and into the Trees. Or there are a few other interesting screenplays that have come in....

Huston emerges from Kohner's office, occupies a nearby conference room, lights an omnipresent cigar and dispenses coffee.

"I can't seriously think about anything else until this one is finished with," he says. "When you're still involved in a movie, it engages so much of your attention that you can't give other projects a fair shake. And this one is a big one."

This one is Huston's most expensive project since "The Bible" -- an epic based on Kipling's "The Man Who Would Be King." It was shot on location in Morocco, and it stars Sean Connery and Michael Caine as two limey ex-soldiers who determine to find a valley beyond civilization and set themselves up as rulers there. Huston has been working on the project off and on for 20 years. His original screenplay is based in part on four earlier scripts. He scouted locations from Nepal to Afghanistan, and he even got so far as announcing it twice. His original choices for the leading men were Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable.

"If it wasn't one damned thing, it was another," he said. "This movie was postponed or shelved so many times I almost gave up on it myself. First Bogey died; that was a blow. Then, later on, we had a deal with a studio and the studio pulled out. When I was making 'The Misfits' with Gable, he said, 'John, for Christ's sakes, this time let's DO it.' And then of course Clark was dead...

"And it's not the sort of project you can make when the movie industry's in one of its perennial convulsions. It has to be made in a time like now, when business is booming. It's a project for high rollers; there's no way to do it on a shoestring. But I love the story, and I've loved Kipling since I was a boy. I can still reel off his old doggerel and verse."

"The Man Who Would Be King" will be the principal Christmas release from Allied Artists, a distributor that has specialized recently in a few blockbusters rather than a lot of smaller films; "Cabaret" was theirs. It represents something of a risk because of its high budget, but then epics seem to be popular again and "The Wind and the Lion" is doing good business.

For Huston, too, the project represents some high rolling. His last picture which was both a critical and a box office success was "Night of the Iguana," in 1964. Since then he's had two critical hits ("Reflections in a Golden Eye" and "Fat City") and one financial success ("The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean"), but it's been a decade since he put both together.

That seems strange for the man once proclaimed as Hollywood's most promising filmmaker. James Agee wrote a famous article in Life magazine in 1950 in which he all but canonized Huston as the best living director. The names of other directors who would someday be proposed for that title - unfamiliar name; like Bergman and Fellini - were at the time faint echoes from over the horizon.

In the years since, Huston's critical reputation has had some setbacks. And yet this curious fact remains: Ask people to name the greatest directors, and they come up with a short list, largely European. Ask them instead to name their favorite movies, and somehow they'll find that in a list of 10, three or four are likely to have been made by John Huston. If directors sometimes fall from fashion, good movies never do. Last Friday, for example, the Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, opened with two Huston classics, "The African Queen" and "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."

Both films have played for years on the 16-mm. circuit and in Bogart festivals and on television, and yet the Biograph did capacity business and will hold them over an extra week. The fact that the theater had obtained sparkling new prints helped but the audiences were principally there because the films were two of the greatest entertainments ever made.

And then there are the other Huston landmarks: "The Maltese Falcon," "Key Largo," "The Asphalt Jungle," "Beat the Devil," "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison," "Night of the Iguana," and the two that are likely to be film buff favorites in due time, "Reflections in a Golden Eye" and "Fat City." Something about the good Huston films gives them a resiliency; even when they don't do well on their first release, they have a way of backing into the lists of classics.

I mentioned that to Huston, who drew on his cigar and nodded reflectively and said, not without a certain sardonic edge: "Of course it's about as bad to be ahead of your time as behind it. It's always nice when pictures are revived years later, it gives you the satisfaction of seeing them finally accepted, and God knows 'Beat the Devil' and 'The Asphalt Jungle' were no great shakes their first time around. But as far as the, ah, material rewards are concerned, it's better to have a success from the first." Another sip of coffee. "I hope they like the new one," he said. "If they like the others, I think they will."

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