Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Ten Statements About....THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)

One of the greatest movie P.I.'s of all time...
"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. And it happens we're in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it's-it's bad business to let the killer get away with it, bad all around, bad for every detective everywhere."
1) Humphrey Bogart could not have done this film with anywhere near the effectiveness that he shows here without climbing his way up through Warner Brothers' ranks as a heavy. Since John Huston's script maintains Sam Spade's rather fluid attitude towards morality, Bogart needed to be able to show a shadier side to make his manipulation of events believable.

2) I really enjoy how Mary Astor's Brigid never, ever says she kind and good and pure--hell, even when she's 'playing schoolgirl,' she is always telling Sam that she's Very Bad News. And you know what? She's Very Right.

3) You know one little touch that I thought was genius? The working relationship between Lee Patrick's Effie and Sam. Huston's script makes it rather clear that Effie is one Damn Smart Customer, and Sam relies on her intelligence and intuition--Hell, it's almost as if Effie is an unofficial partner in the firm.

Two of these people are supposed to be dangerous...
the other one is.
4) Another brilliant touch--when you come down to it, Sydney Greenstreet's Caspar Guttman and Peter Lorre's Joel Cairo are children in men's bodies; if we didn't know it by the third act, the way their interactions disintegrate into schoolyard accusations when they realize they've been had makes it clear. But the fact that they're distinctive and 'scary' individuals, it further obscures the fact that we met real villain in the very first scene.

5) Of all the 'villains,' the one I was taken the most by in this viewing was Peter Lorre. Remember, this was Lorre before he became a parody of himself, and he's actually pretty scary for all his feigned civility. There's something unnerving about how reasonably he orders Sam around while waving his gun, and his body language is strange and off-putting in all the right ways.

6) One of the reasons I bemoan the death of black and white is how being deprived of a color pallete allowed good directors to find other ways to convey emotion and characterization. Some of Huston's choices, like showing Sam and his partner separated by their name plate, or choosing to only show the phone when Sam receives news of Archer's death, are more engaging because they're unusual.

7) You know, I don't think this film could have been made now simply because we never, ever get a sense of whether Sam is on the up and up or not. If made now, the script would make Sam much more heroic and wouldn't mince words on how virtuous he is. Huston is able to get away with a moral ambiguity--Hell, the reason Sam gives up Brigid is because, if we're to believe him, it's bad for business to let Archer's death go unpunished--because the audience is willing to accept shades of grey.

"Look, Guttman...I'll bet you the Falcon isn't filled
with peanut butter creme!"
8) But what we do get is that Sam, whether heroic or villainous, is very good at his job. Simple things like sending Brigid into the next room to get him money long enough for him to check the labels on her clothes and try to confirm her story makes it clear how clever he is.

9) Compare Sam's instincts to Archer, who comes off in his one brief scene as, well, a bit of a goof. It's clear that Sam's partner is motivated for taking the case because he likes Brigid's look (and her money). It's his behavior that makes me wonder if Sam lets him take on the case on purpose--not because he wanted him dead, but because Sam doesn't trust her even at this early point in the story.

10) And The Falcon of the title is the ultimate MacGuffin. Even though we're told this is the item around which the story revolves, it's nothing but a feint. The story is about Archer's murder, not a hunt for a statue. And the only statue we do find is a replica; we never learn if the original even exists except in the mind of these two children in adult's bodies.

Overall...a key, essential film that drives home what a movie star is thanks to Bogart's performance. It may not be the first film noir, but it certainly is one of the movies that laid down much of the blueprint for this wonderful genre.

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