May 13, 2011

#31: The Maltese Falcon

It was a dark and stormy night...

Okay, it just goes to show that I'm a product of the 90s when I say that the next film on the list reminded me of a Tracer Bullet story (thanks, Calvin). John Huston's 1941 thriller The Maltese Falcon represents a film genre so far undervalued on this list -- film noir -- so while I'm not sure I agree that it's a brilliant film, it does perfectly personify the tropes of Hollywood crime drama that became so popular throughout the middle of the century, and which still heavily influence modern cinema.

Company: all on my own, like our antihero and our antiheroine.

Cuisine: chips and queso and a whiskey Diet.

The stories in this genre usually follow a certain number of rules: a cynical detective (here played by, who else, Humphrey Bogart) takes the case of a distressed damsel with a secret (played effectively by anyone, it seems, since little is required besides beauty, but here played well by Mary Astor) and solves it in moody lighting accompanied by alternately swoony and murky violins. The case usually has elements of deceit, long-kept secrets, ancient artifacts, or humongous booby trap boulders chasing you down. Okay, well, that last one is really just in Raiders of the Lost Ark (influenced, too, by film noir).

Here, in a screenplay based on Dashiell Hammett's novel of the same name (that had already inspired two films), Sam Spade (Bogart) is a hard-boiled copper with a cocked fedora and a cocky attitude. When his partner Archer, assigned to trail a man in question, is murdered, he forges on alone. It's telling that in the moment he learns of Archer's death, Spade hardly reacts, barely even emotionally registering that this has happened: we get the sense that this has happened before, and considering how swiftly he gets Archer's name taken off the window decals, Spade is probably used to it. One of the hazards of the trade. But there's no time for nonsense, and Huston believes it, too, as we're whisked immediately into this story.

Don't look now, Spade, but you're being trailed yourself.

Spade is an old pro at these sorts of cases, and he's a prototype: self-assured, clever, resourceful and attentive to detail. There's not much guesswork to be made here. This kind of film, although this was one of the first of its ilk in America, was made over and over again in the 1940s and 1950s, the way romantic comedies are churned out of Hollywood now, but in the same way that we know the guy and the girl will end up together at the end of those movies, we know here just what to expect ... and yet we're on the edge of our seats anyway. A man is following him! What is he up to? Who does he work for? I bet it's some fat cat, out to hurt/extort a dame!

"I'm so tired of lying, not knowing what's a lie and what's the truth."

Lookit! A dame!

Lookit! A fat cat (Oscar nominee Sydney Greenstreet)! Ooh, and don't forget a creepy villain with a whispery weirdo voice and whites-all-the-way-around eyes (who else? Peter Lorre)! All the elements are lining up! Add on top of that the low-key direction and high-contrast black-and-white style, and the audiences will start lining up!

I mention all these partially because The Maltese Falcon feels like a movie you've seen before, even if you haven't, because it's so purely noir, and that seems like the reason it's on this list rather than its quality. It represents an entire generation of moviegoers who grew up listening to these detective stories on the radio or reading comic books under the covers at night, hoping that Tracer Bullet would solve the case. Those people who grew up watching these movies are probably a big part of the reason why there's ten editions of Law and Order and three editions of CSI: Crime Investigation. An audience loves an exciting problem, stock characters and a quick, clean wrap-up. I don't mean to belittle this genre at all -- I love all those things too! -- but I mean to point out that sometimes you don't need to reinvent the wheel to make a classic story. That might be what I take away from this genre (which I should see more of, by the way).

Oooh, so creepy! Love it!

My legitimate complaint about this entry into the film noir genre is that in the climax of the film, where everything is explained... everything is explained. Nothing is visually created for us. So much of the story has to be summarized by characters summarizing it onscreen -- couldn't we see all this unfolding? Or maybe that would have given too much of it away? It does feel anticlimactic to me -- the title treasure is unwrapped, it looks just like you expect it to, and then you're told that it's a fake? So what happened to the real one? Well, let me explain it to y-zzzzzzz...

Now of course, this is one of the earliest films noir (?), and opened the door for the genre to define itself over many years and through many scholarly debates and inspired blogs like this one (ha), so it can't be blamed if it's not the pinnacle of the category. But it's John Huston, and it's Humphrey Bogart, so it's here. I'm not 100% entranced by it, but I'm intrigued enough to explore.

Wow. This entry's maybe half the length of the one for The Godfather Part II. Fitting, maybe, since the movie itself is about half as long too. Ah well. It's time for another cine-smackdown, and then -- more Brando, please! Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was the book you read in high school, even though maybe you should have just watched Apocalypse Now instead.

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