John Huston, who died last Friday, was one of Hollywood's greatest all-around professionals. Ironically, this didn't make him a favorite of some critics. Although many were quick to celebrate his hard-edged entertainments, from ``The Maltese Falcon'' and ``The Asphalt Jungle'' through ``Wise Blood'' and ``Prizzi's Honor,'' others called him more a craftsman than an artist.
Followers of the auteur theory, searching for consistent themes in film after film, found Huston's interests too diverse for easy pigeonholing - even as they complained of a pessimistic attitude that welled up too steadily from the gritty plots and crisp performances he favored. The same diversity stood between Huston and the household-name status enjoyed by such contemporaries as Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock.
The key to appreciating Huston's art is to savor the different kinds of skill, energy, and sheer love of cinema that went into his best productions. He was able to meld the classical Hollywood performances of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn with the exotic settings and peripatetic plot of ``The African Queen.'' He was also capable of shaping a dark-hued comedy like ``Beat the Devil,'' a psychological odyssey like ``The Night of the Iguana,'' and an experimental melodrama like ``Reflections in a Golden Eye,'' to name just a handful of his many achievements.
These abilities were complements to - not contradictions of - one another. And they were equally valid testimonials to the well-rounded sensibilities that lay beneath Huston's crusty manner.
Huston was an accomplished actor, making a strong impression in dramas ranging from ``The Cardinal'' to ``Winter Kills'' and ``Chinatown.'' This helps account for his skill in directing performances of Oscar calibre, most famously those of his father, Walter, in ``The Treasure of the Sierra Madre'' and his daughter, Anjelica, in ``Prizzi's Honor,'' the first in 1948 and the second in 1985.
He also had a fascination with literature that led him to film a bookshelf's worth of novels, from ``The Red Badge of Courage'' and ``Moby Dick'' to ``Under the Volcano'' and ``Wise Blood.'' Indeed, his very last project, completed shortly before his death, was literary: a dramatization of James Joyce's modern classic ``The Dead.''
Huston often sought a novelistic sweep and scope in his book-based films, which didn't always succeed: The ``Moby Dick'' film has been called the start of his decline from early greatness, and while his Malcolm Lowry adaptation was broodingly effective, his perspective on Flannery O'Connor was disappointingly superficial.
Huston's career was so long and ultimately so successful, however, that its valleys are protected by many a lofty peak.
Critics may never construct an overarching interpretation that neatly conjoins his works, and his more modest productions (like ``Sinful Davey,'' an all-but-forgotten romp) may always be as undervalued as his 1975 comeback film, ``The Man Who Would Be King,'' is overpraised. What matters is that discussions of his work will keep engaging and stimulating critics, audiences, and movie professionals as long as the films of our time are remembered.