Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Drunk on Foolish Pleasures: The Maltese Falcon

by JB
Is John Huston’s 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon the first film noir?

Yes, Virginia, it is.

Though clearly indebted to the Dashiell Hammett source novel, The Maltese Falcon represents the first appearance of all the components of classic film noir. Falcon had been filmed twice before: in 1931, before the Production Code deemed that version too spicy for general consumption; and in 1936, as Satan Met A Lady. The latter version was so radically rewritten that it ended up as a light romantic comedy. The kind with murders!

This was John Huston’s first film as director. (His father, Walter Huston, makes an unbilled cameo appearance offered as a “good luck charm” to his son—try to spot him next time you watch the film!) Apparently, Huston so wanted to be a good director that he meticulously planned the film, writing an adaptation crammed with detail so the actors could do their jobs without a lot of fuss and feathers. He even storyboarded every scene for the crew (a rarity at the time.) Huston figured that he would be asked back to direct as long as he didn’t go over budget or over schedule.
The Plot in Brief: Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) visits a detective agency because she wants to have a man tailed—she’s afraid the man, Floyd Thursby, is about to lure her dear sister away from hearth and home. Private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) doubts her story, but is more than willing to take her retainer and assign his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) to the job. Then all hell breaks loose: Archer and Thursby both turn up shot dead, and the police suspect Spade. Spade tracks down Wonderly, who is not who she seems to be. Soon Spade meets a few more unusual characters: the gardenia-scented Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), the inexperienced hired gun Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and the corpulent Kaspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), who everyone refers to as “The Fat Man” and everyone seems to fear. All of these desperate players are hunting for the titular falcon, a priceless, jewel-encrusted relic from the 16th century. The movie is a little bit like Antiques Roadshow—if everyone on that show was psychotic and packing .38s.

Between Hammett’s terrific crime novel as source material, Huston’s lean, intuitive direction, and Bogart’s career-making performance as Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon stands as the first American film to define noir, a full five or six years before the genre took off after World War II. Here we find all the hallmarks of the genre: the cynical, bruised hero; the lying femme fatale; the other shady, desperate characters looking for a break; and, foremost, the pervasive sense of futility and hopelessness that underlies the entire enterprise.
In reading about the film, I have noticed that most critics assume that, because justice is served at the conclusion, the ending is somehow happy. Clearly, though, the final reality the film creates is far from sunshine and birthday cake. Three people are dead, two lovers have been spurned, four people go to jail, a boat has been destroyed by fire, the hero is left alone and lonely, and (most importantly) the entire action of the film has been for naught. Though some characters get what they deserve, no characters ever get what they want. It is not for nothing that, at the end of the film, Bogart famously describes the falcon as “the stuff that dreams are made of.”

Indeed—broken dreams.

It is in Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of the hard-boiled Sam Spade that we find another hallmark of film noir: the protagonist who skirts the line between hero and villain, between sincerity and irony. He is a unique addition to American film and indicative of the peculiar “ironic schizophrenia” of the modern age—we are both in our lives and outside our lives, commenting on them. Why else would film noirs be so dependent upon incessant voice-over narration?
Bogart embodies this self-aware modern hero; he works in the shadowed edges of the action, playing one character against another. He is able to be whatever is required of him: detective, broker, tough guy, lover, rogue. Yet the role he seems to relish most is that of commentator—listen to the sly, understated way he undercuts the actions of others with his dialogue:

(referring to the falcon, multiple times)
“Your little dingus…”

(referring to a male cop and his male boss)
“You brought your boyfriend over here…”

(referring to Mary Astor’s playacting, multiple times)
“You’re good… you’re very good.”

(referring to the fact that he will not be tricked by a dame, multiple times)
“I won’t play the sap for you.”

Director Huston highlights the fact that it is Bogart’s film (Bogart is in every scene, save one) in several subtle ways, including the film’s then-groundbreaking use of optical wipes as a transitioning device. When Huston uses the vertical wipe, I noticed that, more often than not, he uses Bogart’s body in motion as a starting point. That is, the wipe will “follow” Bogart from screen right to screen left, almost implying that Bogart’s power and charisma is so great, it is somehow influencing or controlling the mechanics of the film itself. Not only do we follow Bogart on his dark adventure, but the film literally follows him as well.

As important as Bogart is to the film as a whole, he almost has the film stolen right from under him by the great Sydney Greenstreet. It’s difficult to believe that The Maltese Falcon was Greenstreet’s first film—at age 61! Sydney Greenstreet is how I imagine that I will look and sound in about ten years. Do you hear me, Hollywood?
Greenstreet’s performance is one for the ages; he’s so funny, yet so menacing. It is Greenstreet who is given the job of explaining the falcon’s history to Bogart; later in the film, he delivers a monologue that describes a long section of the film’s action—a series of critical events that have occurred off-screen. In a lesser director’s film, we can easily imagine the camera cutting away to show the events, though this would undercut the film’s focus on Spade’s dynamic influence and strong POV, since he wasn’t there when the events occurred. Yet Huston is so sure of Greenstreet’s ability to hold our attention that he choreographs the camera to complement Greenstreet’s meandering tale.

That decision seems stage bound, but it works. Huston has a strong directorial perspective that he transfers onto film to become the intense, controlling perspective of protagonist Sam Spade. As the film progresses—and as if stealing the falcon itself wasn’t enough—Greenstreet’s character, in his uniqueness and evil energy, almost manages to steal our protagonist’s perspective (the male gaze, if you will) along with it. In the end, Sam wrenches it back.

As a first-time director, maybe Huston didn’t know that his unique methods were creating a new genre of film, or maybe that was his intention all along. Either way, I find his treatment of perspective to be a brilliant way for Huston to underscore what would become a defining theme of film noir: in our modern age, the truth is infinitely malleable. There is no objective truth, only versions of the truth. Story (not plot, but each character’s perspective of it) is everything—story and style.

You know… the stuff dreams are made of.

1 comment:

  1. I'm so glad you called attention to Sydney Greenstreet's performance, because he makes this movie for me. Bogey's terrific and John Huston is one of my all-time favorites, but Greenstreet is the secret weapon that pushes this movie over the edge into greatness. He's so jovial, patient, and calm even though he has obsessed over the Falcon for years. It's a good-natured level of obsession that bleeds menacing better than anything. It's such a fantastic movie because you get to watch at least three people become legends during the course of 100 minutes, Huston included. Great column!