Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

"The stuff that dreams are made of" 

It was 1941, another war to end all wars was plunging the world into chaos and something in the national psyche was starting to shift. 30s Hollywood had relied heavily on escapist fare - with the exception of gangster movies and social consciousness dramas - to fill the theaters. Now a more somber mood was becoming increasingly noticeable and audiences were ready for a darker and more cynical kind of picture. Noir was just waiting to be born. It didn’t originate with The Maltese Falcon, the picture didn’t “invent” Noir (nobody did) as it was a label retrospectively applied. But entering the 40s, movies and their protagonists were off on their road to doom though it would not be before the end of the War that the Noir cycle came into full swing.

The plot is too well-known to be rehashed extensively. Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is asked by Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) to help her in her search for the priceless black statue of a falcon. He accepts and things start to go south very quickly. Spade’s partner is killed and there’s a trio of memorable crooks (Sidney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook) who also have their eyes on the bird and would do anything to get it. The plot is incredibly convoluted, but really, it doesn’t matter at all. 
The bird is a MacGuffin, the plot is irrelevant. The bird and the search for it simply propel the action along. The picture is about style, style and more style. And the decidedly less than noble state of the human condition. 

The Maltese Falcon was John Huston's directorial debut and as a director he hit his stride at once, there was no trial and error for him.
The cinematography by Arthur Edeson is stunning and already displays many stylistic elements of Noir, like anti-traditional mise-en-scène and a beautiful play of light and shadow.
Edeson put nice touches in here and there. The bars on the elevator door as Brigid descends in police custody foreshadow her fate in prison. It's a Noir image that would be used in years to come.

The role of Sam Spade went to Bogart and the rest, as they say, is history. After being in Hollywood for over a decade, mostly playing second fiddle to other stars, High Sierra (1941) made him a star. Falcon made him a legend and the tough PI became an immortal icon that launched a thousand copies.

The 20s and 30s - the Golden Age of detective fiction - had favored the well-mannered gentleman detective. Urbane, sophisticated and occasionally slightly effete, he dazzled the audience with a display of his superior intellectual powers. Hollywood also gave us the sophisticated Nick and Nora types - forever surgically attached to their painfully dry martinis - who were solving problems for their high society friends in screwball mysteries.
But these kind of drawing room puzzles became quickly obsolete in a changing world. 

Noir had always been lurking in the shadows of pulp magazines. Hollywood finally acknowledged the existence of hard-boiled literature - which had been in print for about 20 years - , finally understood that here was a vast supply of previously untapped literary talent just waiting to be exploited. Now was the right time for the disreputable private eye who solved mysteries as a profession, not for sheer cerebral fun. He chased criminals through dark and dirty back alleys, not ritzy country houses. And he didn’t mind doing the dirty work himself. 
All he had were dumpy digs, a dingy office and a loyal devoted secretary, never really acknowledged, who he could share a fifth of bourbon with over lunch and who took him for what he was. 

Many critics have noted that Falcon is not really true Noir, and they would be right. This is an early transitional Noir. This picture is a blueprint that would be reworked and adapted in years to come. It’s a pretty straightforward PI picture with occasional noirish touches. Classic Noir themes like despair and fatalism are noticeably absent. There is no sense of malaise and inescapable doom hanging over the picture. 

Over the years, many Noir conventions have become cliches, but Falcon can lay claim to putting down - at least partly - the foundations for the genre. There is the laconic rapid-fire hard-boiled dialogue. “When you're slapped you'll take it and like it” must be one of the best lines ever.

There is the flawed (anti)hero, the lone wolf, in Falcon a world-weary PI with a deeply ingrained cynicism. The Noir universe is a corrupt one where a traditional hero would seem like a fish out of water and Spade is certainly a different kind of hero. Ice-cold, mean and pretty sadistic, he's no knight in shining armor. He's not even a knight in dirty armor, like Philip Marlowe, who could never quite let go of his notions of often misplaced chivalry.

The Noir hero is alienated from society, he may be morally on the fence but he is NOT amoral. Conventional morality is not his thing, he lives by a different code, his own. This code was less borne out of true concern for his fellow men, but simply out of unsentimental pragmatism. There’s no love lost between Spade and his partner Miles Archer, Spade even has an affair with his wife, but “when a man's partner is killed, he's supposed to do something about it”. This line describes Spade's philosophy in a nutshell. It’s simply bad business to let a murderer get away. Ethical considerations don’t come into it.
With the cynical PI a hero emerged who was exactly the right man for the right times, times that were becoming increasingly bleak and would soon become bleaker still.

"When you're slapped..."
Spade seems to have several casual affairs going on with his secretary Effie, Archer’s wife and his client Brigid. But his affairs are just minor distractions to him, his world does not revolve around the next conquest. His affairs are emotionally detached as if his heart is never in it. 

Spade has nothing in common with a later Noir archetype, the gullible chump. Throughout the film he manages to maintain his independence. Spade may be in love with the dame - or something thereabouts - but he won’t play the sucker for her. He maintains a cold self-possession, even when he appears to have lost control over a situation. He might stumble but he does not fall. He is no Jeff Bailey who allowed himself to be destroyed by his obsession with a woman. Spade is not a man caught in a web outside his control, he sorts out his problem and leaves, and that’s why he’s the last man standing at the end. 
The belief that maybe Brigid loves him and maybe he loves her doesn't stand a chance against the fact that he can't trust her. Love doesn't conquer all. That's Noir.

Brigid represents that other famous archetype of Noir, the femme fatale. She is the quintessential calculating and duplicitous dame. Her middle name could be Pinocchio. She uses sex as a means to an end. But again, in Falcon there is a difference to later Noirs. Brigid is ultimately incapable of controlling Spade and the manner of her defeat separates her from other deadly dames of Noir. She does not only not win in the end, she has to live out the rest of her days behind bars. 

The supporting cast has gone down into movie history: Greenstreet, Lorre and Cook have all become famous in their own right and Greenstreet (in his first role) almost walks away with the movie. Cunning, sophisticated, erudite and dangerous he is a man who has devoted his whole life to the quest for a bird. Gardenia-scented Lorre is at his sniveling and shifty best, and Elisha Cook plays his signature role, the weasel loser. The audience has to feel sorry for him though when he realizes just how expendable he is to Greenstreet. 

The gang's all here
The film to me has only one weakness, Mary Astor. She was only 35 at the time but looked older and very matronly. Brigid is supposed to be an irresistible femme fatale who no man can resist. I found her seductive powers hard to believe as the book called for a woman every man would "sacrifice his life for”. Bebe Daniels in the 1931 version blows her out of the water.

Astor’s performance is spot on. Astor was a fine actress and here she is a good actress playing a bad one, that is Brigid who is fake all through. It’s a performance within a performance. Brigid reeks of insincerity and Astor captures that well. 
She portrays the character as written by Hammett with the right mixture of phony innocence and naiveté paired with cunning and duplicity. There is something of the Victorian heroine in her performance. She uses the oldest tricks in the book. Her little girl act - helpless, flustered, pathetic to evoke pity -  is well played and she can shed tears on demand. I love the scene in which she gives Cairo a kicking, she shows the true nature underneath her put-upon airs.

But while she had the right personality for the role, unfortunately she didn't have the looks. A different actress would have elevated this movie to a 10/10. For me, Joan Bennett would have been the perfect choice.

There is a philosophical core to the movie that on the surface seems to be nothing more than a detective story. For all characters the search for the bird gives their lives a meaning. That is why Gutman and Cairo are not too distraught in the end when the bird turns out to be a fake. The black bird is a promise which they can continue to pursue because the search is what matters. It is a quest for the Holy Grail - itself the most famous MacGuffin in history. And that by design can only end in failure.


  1. Re Mary Astor. She was fine in Meet Me In St. Louis and Little Woman, but you are completely correct, and not just that she's matronly, but flat out unappealing. Now I know about her private life, but look at the guy, she went nuts for; George S. Kaufman someone so unattractive she seemed like Marilyn Monroe. Well, it's Warner Brothers and they made Bette Davis appear attractive, so why not try a little cinemagic with this person. The next year they put them both in a picture with George Brent (very good) and nuts though it is, sparks flew.

    1. Hi again, as I said, apparently I'm not notified of new comments anymore, so I just check sporadically. Yes, Mary Astor at that time was a strange choice. I saw her in several 30s movies and liked her, especially Dodsworth. There was a time when she was lovely. Really, so many beautiful actresses to choose from and they chose her 7-10 years too late.

      As for Bette, I thought she was sexy if not beautiful in the 30s. Later she somehow made the audience believe she was attractive though she really wasn't. Go figure. Sheer force of personality. She could make me believe it. The only actress who never could was Katharine Hepburn. Never got her appeal.

    2. In light of this conversation I ran The Maltese falcon blu and Mary Astor got to me. So, Mea Culpa.

    3. No, not exactly, but I do get her onscreen appeal, at least in this film.

  2. Really good stuff. Two thoughts. Bette Davis has been quoted, and wish I could remember just where, that she was proud of her career, and that she had to do it without benefit of good looks . That does not mean she though herself ugly, just not Greer Garson or Virginia May. Well, you know. Katharine Hepburn was a business friend of my father, not the entertainment industry, but construction supplies. My father ran a lumber yard. She came in one day in the sixties, picked out the thing she needed, and while he was writing up the bill, no credit cads at that time, he looked up and recognized her. She put her hand to her mouth and , sssh. And they bonded. he thought her cute as can be, and made many more purchases. She pretty attractive in The Philadelphia Story, Holiday and bringing Up Baby. By the late forties, not so much, and by the time she was being presented in color, not at all, but when you judge by duration of career, and Four Academy Awards, it has to be one of the best, if not the best careers anyone has had.

    1. Nice story about Hepburn. You're right she looked good especially in Bringing Up Baby which - that is my guess - she mostly had to thank her cinematographer for. Her career was indeed exceptional. She's still one of my least favorite actresses. If I like some of her movies it is in spite of her, not because of her.