Saturday, October 5, 2013


(October 1941, U.S.)

Back in the "day", whatever and whenever that may actually qualify from your perspective, no one was as tough on screen as the great Humphrey Bogart. Even when he displayed great tenderness of love as with Ingrid Bergman in CASABLANCA (1942), he was still tough as nails. Thus, in the great tradition of classic film noir detectives, there was no one greater. THE MALTESE FALCON was also the first film of director John Huston (Angelica's father!).

The story follows a San Francisco private detective by the name of Sam Spade (Bogart) and his dealings with three unscrupulous adventurers, all of whom are competing to obtain a jewel-encrusted black falcon statuette known as the Maltese Falcon. Like many detective stories of the time, we not only meet "the man" himself, but the prospective client, in this case an attractive woman known as Brigid O'Shaughnessy (played by Mary Astor) who will not only set up the adventure of the film, but in most cases, will prove to be the main source of trouble. Mary Astor, whom I know very little about as an actress, is hardly Veronica Lake, Lana Turner or Rita Hayworth in terms of raw femme fatale sex appeal. While somewhat attractive, her character is mousy, insecure and never attempts to use any sexual enticement to further lure the hero detective into danger. What she does possess is a desperation and a rather persistent ability to make up lies and fiction throughout the entire film to ultimately try and get what she wants, which in this case, is the same thing everyone is after; the Maltese Falcon, which by the way, looks like this...

Sam Spade is no fool, though. From the moment he meets Brigid, he knows she's a bold-faced liar. However, business is business which means he'll gladly take her money and is also professionally compelled to see the mysterious assignment to the end in order to find out who killed his partner. There's actually an interesting piece of dialogue regarding Spade's partner that goes something like this, "When a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you're supposed to do something about it." An interesting moral code, I must say. Even as the mystery of the black bird and its value continue to unfold throughout the film, we see a clear picture of the good and evil on both sides of it. Along with Brigid, there are additional players who are just as dangerous and perhaps more violent in their methods. Also from CASABLANCA, this film features Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet (the "Fat Man") as members of the group who want the falcon for themselves. Unlike the ruthless and mindless thugs of many other film noir examples, these two are rather charming in their delivery of persuasions against Spade. And although Sam wants to get to the bottom things like any other detective, he always knows how to maintain his own charm and level-headedness so as not to become too corrupted. Remember, good or bad, right or wrong, Bogart has to maintain hero status for his audience.

To watch a lot of film noir is also to engulf yourself in a whole lot of film cliché, particularly when it turns out that the femme fatale is the guilty one all along. By the film's end, we learn that Brigid is responsible for killing Spade's partner and ultimately trying to set up Spade as a victim, as well. Cliché also demands that the hero detective figure all of this out by the end and sacrifice his own personal love for the femme fatale in order to see that justice is served. Love, though, is a pretty strong word in this film, in my opinion. Spade clearly wants to screw this woman from the very beginning, and that's to be expected. However, he sees right through his compulsive lying and deceptions from the very beginning so I find it incredibly hard to believe that he could actually love a woman like this. But like I said, cliché demands some sort of love interest between detective hero and dangerous dame in a story like this, so there you have it. Love exists, but it ultimately doesn't triumph in the end.

As a piece of truly wonderful cinematography, THE MALTESE FALCON features low-key lighting and unusually arresting camera angles, sometimes low to the ground, that reveal the ceilings of rooms, which can be utilized to dictate and emphasize the nature of the characters and their actions. Some of the most technically striking scenes involve Greenstreet's character, Kasper Gutman, especially a scene where he explains the history of the Falcon to Spade, purposely drawing out his story so that the knockout drops he's slipped into Spade's drink will take effect when necessary. Very nearly as visually evocative are the scenes involving Mary Astor, almost all of which suggest prison. In one scene she wears striped pajamas, the furniture in the room is striped, and the slivers of light coming through the blinds suggest cell bars, as do the bars on the elevator cage at the end of the film when she takes her slow ride downward with the police, apparently on her way to prison and eventually execution. Consider all of this while you consider that it was John Huston's directorial debut and you can surely appreciate the extensive film career he had following this.

By the way, I have to say that I've been accused more than once of constantly citing ongoing clichés in films. Unfortunately, like it or not, clichés exist in film in a rather repetitive and redundant state. If they didn't, then there would likely be a whole lot more original stories on screen. But that just doesn't happen much anymore. So in other words, if the cliché fits, then spank the hell out of it (I made that up!)!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Sam Spade: "I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I'm gonna send you over. The chances are you'll get off with life. That means if you're a good girl, you'll be out in twenty years. I'll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I'll always remember you."

Yes, that's just how Humphrey Bogart was meant to talk to a dame!

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