The Maltese Falcon (USA, 1941, John Huston)
Not as astounding as Citizen Kane from the same year but still groundbreaking, this is famously ground zero for noir. The shadowy staging, the obtuse camera angles, the constant potential for violence, the hard-boiled banter, the suspect morals of the good guy himself too long in touch with criminals and always rubbing shoulders with every manner of corrupt client - it's all here in spades, Sam Spades, that is. Well, I'd seen it before, remembered it true enough, and I wasn't so taken with it this time. Who knows, maybe the real item simply cannot withstand all of the immitations after all these years, what with so many of them being parodic at this point.
Beyond this, two negative aspects are standing out for me. The first is a pet peeve of mine in general but strikes me as particularly bothersome in the context of a plot-heavy mystery such as this. The bird is a McGuffin. It's such a McGuffin, it would be funny if it were an ironic joke; but it's not, so it's not. I ain't a big fan of mystery at the best of times. So I resent it when the telos of the action turns out to be nothing more than a smokescreen for characters to bump into each other in order to make speechs, lock lips and smack heads. To be honest, most of the comings and goings in the story really did feel to me to be so much contrived bumping. I stopped paying attention to the commotion of it all and the explanatory dialogue in the end was for me interesting only as the most emotionally intense revelation of character,
This bring me to what I consider to be the main flaw of the 41 film. It would be nice to blame Mary Astor for turning in a sexually tepid performance but the fault runs deeper. The character is written wrong. She never sets out to seduce Spade in any sort of overt way. There is no alluring heat coming off the woman. It's all damsel in distress when it should be dame in dis dress I want to undress. That the character's overwrought helplessness is a phoney act intended to manipulate Spade does not excuse her failure to be an enticing babe at the same time. Since the film's dramatic climax has to do with Spade finally prioritizing his code of ethics over his supposed desire for this woman, it is quite frustrating that this woman was never truly desirable. There's no funky friction between the two, so it really feels forced when the big showdown happens; with both of them taking about their sincere passion for the other, of which we have seen nil. In short, you could never rename the 41 Falcon, "Dangerous Female," and it sorta sucks because of this.
I appreciate your critiques of the film, but you have to give the film a lotta credit for the way Huston pretty much created the prototype for the film noir here. True, it all boils down to pretty much nothing, but the riveting execution of the story and the stylistic flourishes along the way really do it for me. The gritty Hammet dialogue, the expressive lighting, the world weary performance by Bogie (one of his first "good guy" roles--Casablanca was one year away) are enough for me. I really dig this film.
I had some fun with this review (again, back in the day, when I wrote for Apollo Guide). I reckon after everything that had been written about the film, there wasn't much I was gonna add.
Spade, it’s time to spill the beans. Talk now, or I’ll forever hold your piece.
Hey, that’s pretty funny, even for you Lieutenant.
I’ve had about enough of you. Private dicks like you turn my stomach. Think you can flaunt the law, make your own rules. It stops here and now. Either you fill in the blanks, or I’ll fill them in for you.
How come you’re getting all the good lines? Here’s the deal. The guy you want is this little hood named Wilmer. Always with the threats, this guy. I’m telling ya, the cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter. He offed Thursby and Captain Jacobi. All for this bird.
You mean all this killin’ is over a broad?
Where did you go to school, Lieutenant? I’d ask for my money back. Nah, not a dame. The falcon. Worth a cool million.
What about the Fat Man, Gutman? What’s his part in all this?
Big shot. Likes the sound of his own voice—always spouting off bout how he’s a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk, or some other sorta gibberish.
And what about the dame?
Miss O'Shaughnessy? She’s good…REAL good. Now, I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble, but she’s three sticks of dynamite with a short fuse.
Whattya mean, Spade?
Just that she ain’t as innocent as she pretends to be. Just listen to the way she talks, all pinched up and hurt-like, as if you’re breaking her heart just by being there. It's chiefly her eyes, I think, and that throb she gets in her voice when she says things like, 'Be generous, Mr. Spade.'
You ain’t so bad yourself, Spade. You’ve got a smooth way of explaining everything.
Whattya want me to do, learn to stutter?
Get a load of the funny guy, boys. Keep crackin’ wise, Spade. We’ve got places for smart alecks – it’s called San Quentin.
You birds, always cracking foxy. You make me sick. If you had the skinny on me, you’d be showing me your back, not looking in my eye. Why don’t you ask your boyfriend over there the score? Tell him Tom: Spade 1, cops 0.
(Lieutenant grabs Spade, hits him)
Is that the best you’ve got, Lieutenant?
When you're slapped, you'll take it and like it!
Huston! He’s stepping all over my lines again. Somebody get me Hal Wallis.
All right keep your shirt on. Spade, is this the best YOU can do?
Don't worry about my story's goofiness. A sensible one would have me in the cooler. The really important thing is I get to have almost all the best lines. That, and Huston has hired this real beauty, Arthur Edison, who shoots me so the shadows cross my face at just the right angle to pick up on my sneer and make me look sinister and cool as a cucumber.
So then what’s the point of it all?
The point? It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.
See you in hell, Spade
Not if I see you first, copper.
Yeah, me too. I reckoned after everything that had been written about the film, there wasn't much I was gonna add. So I took advantage of the fact that I've read pretty much nothing of what's been written about the film and just called it like I felt it.
Truth is, Bogie has never figured that large for me. I am facinated that he became the mega-star that he did. I think part of the reason why I like The African Queen so much is that he finally puts in a performance with more layers. The rom-com of it allows his character to clown around, be vulnerable and change his mind. But hey, I acknowledged in my review that The Maltese Falcon pioneered cultural forms that we just take for granted today and maybe I'm just jaded about it in a stupid way.
Here's the trailer for your edification. Again, not quite as groundbreaking as the trailer for Kane, but a damned interesting advertisement nonetheless.