Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Maltese Falcon

Year: 1941
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 31
Writer/Director: John Huston
Star: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet

The statue at the center of John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” is one of the most intriguing of all MacGuffins because it doesn’t seem to fit within the world around it. Sure, we can see the pornographic photographs in “The Big Sleep” or the lighter in “Strangers on a Train” fitting right into the world of noir…but a gold, jeweled bird statuette from the 1500s? Really? And yet that is part of the film’s appeal: Everything seems twisted and reality seems hopelessly lost somewhere within the knots, even when truths are finally spoken late in the second act. This film feels like the opposite of “Double Indemnity,” where the characters can’t stop themselves from speaking the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Most film scholars agree that this is the first true example of film noir, but if you consider noir to be a mood and style above all other definitions (post-war anger, man’s descent into darkness, femme fatales), then I would humbly submit 1930’s “The Bat Whispers” as the first film that exudes noir style and sensibilities.

Looking at “The Maltese Falcon” today, the movie feels like slipping on a comfortable pair of slippers. It’s reliable, interesting and enjoyable, but I wouldn’t single out any aspect of the film as being the “pinnacle” of its genre. The mystery is intriguing if ultimately lacking of a pay-off. The dialogue flashy but without the real spark or edge of Raymond Chandler’s work. The direction apt and beautiful in places, but the movie lacks the deep shadows and specters we usually expect from noir and feels more like a stage play than movie. It feels like a solid piece of craftsmanship more than a masterpiece.

The plot doesn’t really matter because it’s really about the characters, but here we go. We start off thinking Private Detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and his partner are trying to rescue a kidnapped woman from a bad man named Thursby, but that soon morphs into a desperate hunt for the bird in the title. Spade’s partner gets dead, his stomach filled with bullets and betrayal. Thursby gets even deader, and Spade becomes a suspect in both murders. The dame who hired them (Mary Astor) changes motives and her story with each subsequent reel of film. A gay con-man (Peter Lorre) and his horribly obese, well-spoken boss (Sydney Greenstreet) become involved. Everyone lies, and even when they don’t there’s no reason for us to believe them.

Bogart here plays a variation on the tough-guy routine he perfected over the course of his career. But while his characters often began gruff before revealing great feeling (“Casablanca,” “The African Queen”) or great anger (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “Conflict”), here his Sam Spade resists all character depth. This isn’t a problem for the film—Bogart’s characterization provides the viewer with an anchor amidst all the double-and-triple crosses. Interestingly, for the first reels of the film Huston ensures that we never see the moment when Spade would show any emotion, perhaps to get the viewer used to his detached nature. When Spade learns of his partner’s death, he receives the news just out of frame. When Spade looks down into the ditch at the his dead partner, we don’t cut to a close-up of Bogart’s face but instead a medium shot of his back. It is only after we see him kiss his dead partner’s wife and coldly order his secretary to alter the sign on the door do we face him head-on every time he makes a choice or reacts to a situation. His parting words and literal kiss-off of Astor is one of the best acted moments in all of Bogart’s career.

The deeper Spade delves into the case, the more interesting characters the film unearths. Lorre’s Joel Cairo is a fascinating rat of a human being, sweating constantly and always appearing to be ready to curl up in the fetal position if someone touches him. Sydney Greenstreet is fantastic as the coyly named Casper Gutman, who speaks with such eloquence he seems to have stepped out of a Roman art gallery and onto the film’s sets. His first encounter with Spade, where he compliments just about every characteristic Spade showcases while trying to slip him a drugged drink, is the best in the picture, all the more impactful because of Huston’s playful long take of the scene. These characters, like the falcon itself, seem out of place in the world of noir, and therefore all the more memorable.

Astor’s Brigid O’Shaughnessy has a very fun name, but I’m afraid her allure ends there. Her femme fatale doesn’t convince the viewer for a moment that she has the wiles, charm or sexual prowess to get away with what her character gets away with in the film. Astor seems too old for the role, not in age but in the way she dresses and carries herself around Spade, who she tries to seduce. Her lies don’t seem convincing from the start onward (in fact, Spade is quick to point out that he figured out she was lying about everything before the end of their first meeting), so every time she appears on screen and is given any sort of substantial dialogue we tune her out. It doesn’t help that Spade calls her out on her lies after one of her more out-there stories and she laughs about it, admits to lying about everything, and then continues to do it as if the conversation didn’t happen. It’s such a shame, because the emotional heft we should feel about Spade’s decision to turn her in at the finale (the aforementioned scene of Bogart’s great acting) is lost because we dislike O’Shaughnessy so much. I would have much rather we stayed with Cairo and Gutmen, who are far more interesting and speak with actual gravitas.

I try to keep a movie’s place in film history and its importance out of these articles because the point of this blog is to examine films on their own merits, but here I must break from that. This entire article all I’ve wanted to do is sum up “The Maltese Falcon” thusly: It’s a great first try. The cast and filmmakers were unconsciously creating an entire genre as they produced this movie, so of course there would be stumbling points. Bogart is a phenomenal actor and Huston is a fantastic director. Both would go on to make better movies, both together (“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “Key Largo” “The African Queen”) and separately (“Casablanca,” “Sabrina” and numerous others for Bogart, “The Asphalt Jungle,” “Heaven Knows, Mister Allison” and others for Huston), and none of that would have been possible without this film. “The Maltese Falcon” is a very good movie and a promise of better things to come from two of the most unique voices in film, and that’s nothing to sneeze at.

My Score (out of 5): ***1/2

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