John Huston’s face was a road map of Hollywood. His baritone voice took the long way around vowels and lingered on every consonant. His stride, gracefully simian, was bent toward a resolute wind. Yet, despite his occasional acceptance of ambulatory support from a wheelchair and an intermittent whiff of oxygen — no more signature cigar, it was immediately evident to anyone in his presence that this was a man to contend with, a robust force of nature. I could have depicted a friendlier mien, I suppose; I certainly exposed frames of a happier Huston. But this one is my favorite, the commemoration of a poker game. It was also published with his 1987 obituary in Rolling Stone.
Six years earlier, my agent, Eliane Laffont at Sygma Photos, came up with a plum assignment for me, to shoot publicity stills on the set of a Huston film called “Victory,” on location in Budapest, Hungary. It starred Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Max von Sydow, and Brazilian soccer legend Pelé. My photographs would be used to promote the movie in magazines throughout the world.
Sygma arranged full access on the set, for me and, this time, French photographer Christian Simonpietri, to shoot whatever we wanted, including setting up our own shots with the actors. Movie producers encouraged this practice because they could count on getting press coverage, thanks to the relationships Sygma cultivated with international magazine editors who paid top dollar for this kind of star-studded content. Sometimes, too, we were paid directly by a movie studio, if our pictures were intended for use in commercial advertising campaigns. Sygma would always take a commission; but in such cases I was hired by the studio as a “Special Unit Stills Photographer” and became an adjunct member of the film crew. I could still syndicate my pictures through Sygma, in addition to collecting a fee from the producers.
The movie “Victory” is a fictional story of a prisoner-of-war camp, a stalag in Germany during World War II, where Nazi officers recognize several Allied inmates who had played pro football (soccer) before the war. The Nazis hatch a propaganda plan, to stage a match pitting the Allies against a team of German all-stars — rigged with ringers, of course. But the good guys see a chance to escape.
Incidentally, because the set designers festooned a football stadium and its environs with swastikas, in the heart of a Communist capital during the Cold War, it wasn’t surprising to see expressions of horror on the faces of passersby and extras hired for crowd scenes, whose firsthand memories of the Nazi occupation of Budapest were still vivid, despite Hungary having earlier been an Axis ally.
The plummiest part of this gig, aside from the privilege of photographing John Huston and his cast in a faraway land, was my compensation package. I got to fly royal class on Lufthansa from Los Angeles to Frankfurt, Germany on the first leg of my commute — a notch above first class. That meant riding in the “bubble” atop a 747 jetliner with a private chef and pretty nearly a bed to sleep in, plus tons of what we would now call swag. But the final leg from Frankfurt to Budapest meant transferring to a hinky Aeroflot rattletrap, a Soviet-era flying coffin with wings that couldn’t accommodate a Hobbit if he tried to stand upright in the head. Ah! But did I mention my per diem?
Simonpietri and I were each given a daily cash allowance for personal spending; something in the neighborhood of twenty bucks. But transposed into the local currency, Hungarian forints, it meant a knock on our respective hotel room doors each morning, before first call on set, by a man delivering a bag of money.
Simonpietri and I hardly knew what to do with all this cash. The Socialist Workers’ Party wouldn’t allow us to convert forints to dollars, or any other Western currency, and take it home with us. We had to spend as much as we could while in country. We bought lots of souvenir tchotchkes. We hired a driver. We were already staying in one of the poshest hotels. But we pooled our cash each night to dine at restaurants favored by the Communist apparatchiks, finding it easy to afford Russian beluga caviar and French champagne every night. The savory scent of Havana cigars wafted through the air of ostentation. Women? Yes.
I remember, too, how much Michael Caine enjoyed smoking Cohibas and Montecristos on breaks between filming scenes. Illegal in the States, I could buy them at my hotel in Budapest. Anyway, it was an opportunity for me to shoot the fragrant breeze with the man I always think of as “Alfie” incarnate and, alternatively, “The Man Who Would Be King.” Not to imply we got chummy, but we smoked like chimneys. I was just the young guy poking a camera into everyone’s face. It was pretty cool, though, to hang outn with a cinema legend who loved cigars as much as I do.
Before I arrived in country, I had my mind set on making a portrait of John Huston; something personal and apart from my responsibility to cover the movie production itself. But during my first week on location, I hadn’t found an opportunity, or, perhaps, hadn’t yet worked up the nerve, to ask him to sit privately for me. Then, one evening, as Simonpietri and I were starting a meal in one of the chichi eateries we discovered, Huston arrived with his entourage in tow. With barely a nod of recognition, they walked past our table and sat in the back of the restaurant. Feeling full of myself, or full of champagne, I asked our waiter to send a couple of bottles of Dom Perignon to Huston’s table with my compliments.
Simonpietri and I were still engaged in chitchat over coffee and desert, no doubt plotting new ways to spend our forints, when Huston and his party began to make their way out through the dining room, having finished their dinner. But the man himself lagged behind and ambled over to our table. He laid his palm down flat, leaned in close to my face, and spoke in that sui generis orotund cadence, “Nice gesture son. Poker tomorrow at 3:00.” And he left.
It was the cast’s and crew’s day off. Huston had a regular posse of poker players. As much as I was there, I felt like an outsider looking in. The pots piled high. Literally. They were truly impressive, well, except for the fact that we were betting with Monopoly money. I have no talent for poker; so it didn’t matter how much of that confetti I lost. But Huston told everyone who held a hand, “It’s not poker, unless somebody gets hurt.” He wore a big grin, not the poker face I chose to portray on Plus-X. But I believe he meant it. I was the fatted calf in what might not otherwise have been, but for the provenance of the currency, a genial game.
After I got my ass whooped at cards, Huston agreed to sit for me during a break in the action the next day. I erected my own small studio, with my Hasselblad on a tripod, electronic strobes, a soft box, and a painted canvas backdrop adjacent to the interior scene being filmed on a soundstage. I made it convenient for him to walk a few steps and sit down in front of my camera. Unlike most film directors, Huston also acted. Like many actors he was uncomfortable posing, sitting still in front of a camera shooting film one frame at a time because there’s little acting to do. He losened up when I asked him things like what it was like to direct Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen, or Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits, and two of my favorite character actors, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre, in The Maltese Falcon. I wish I had had a tape recorder running. It’s hard to remember what subjects say while you’re photographing them because, well, I’m concentrating on doing my job.
Back to Bag O’ Money. That’s what we called our windfall. At the end of our tour of duty in Budapest, Simonpietri and I still had what was now a ridiculous surfeit of forints. Like I said, we couldn’t take it with us. Not that we were about to be dead or dying, but there was no way we could spend our consolidated funds before we were booked to fly home. By this time, stacks of banknotes had accumulated in a large cardboard box. As a last magnanimous gesture of living large, we gave our driver a rather large tip. The whole lot of it.
Gaby — I think was his name — cried. It was more than a year’s wages. He hadn’t even bought a lottery ticket. A friend of mine once said, “You have a better chance of winning the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket.” It worked for Gaby.
Gaby tried to thank us by offering his prized collection of Beatles records. Please understand how hard to get and, therefore, how valuable a collection of Beatles vinyl was back in the USSR, or Budapest as the case may be! But we got out of Dodge before he could bestow us.
Years later, living in Sausalito, California, I started what I had hoped would become a regular card game at my house for a close circle of friends. Maybe the reason it didn’t catch on was that I made it my business to sit at the card table in front of a thirty- by forty-inch, black-and-white print of my John Huston portrait from Budapest — even bigger framed— relentlessly staring over my shoulders at my guests. And, of course, I made a point of quoting his opinion about playing poker.
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