Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Noir Time! #2: The Maltese Falcon (1941)



So I've been kind of slackin on this whole Noir Time segment. Not because I'm lazy (which I am) or intimidated to convey a proper analysis of a precious film subject to me, but because it's extremely overwhelming to pin point what to write about, which movies to chose, the order in which to expose new readers into. I could do a history, I could do a retrospective, but to me it doesn't have to be an a particular order that fits a narrative. I want it to fit my narrative, what I believe the proper level of exposure should be. That being said I'm hitting a T-ball shot with this weeks film the The Maltese Falcon, a film that many of you have probably heard of. Its cultural significance outweighs the actual content and narrative of the film in my opinion, and that's why I believe it should be one of the first film noir movies anyone sees.

This is one of those movies that film buffs of any kind have seen at one point or another. It's almost redundant getting into the nitty gritty of the story, or even summarizing the plot (an element of which I'm not fond of in the first place). I'm coming off as cynical and lethargic in this writing because personally this movie doesn't really do it for me when it comes to capturing that true noir essence. So why even talk about it? Well I do however believe it started many of the detective thriller tropes, and it came at a period of time where film movement was transitioning from classical films (1929-1941) into post-classical films (1944-1963) {approximated dates} two different film movements that were effected by the current events of the country, the evolution of film technology, and the growth of the film industry as a wholeNot only that but this was the first real film that demonstrated to a main stream audience what a detective thriller noir was capable of, albeit at a very rudimentary level.

Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart) is a detective with a partner who is tasked to follow the husband of the mysterious Brigid O'Shanaughnessy (a cliched name played by Mary Astor). When Sam's partner takes on the task he is spontaneously murdered. While Sam fights off the heat from the police suspecting his involvement, he learns that Brigid is involved in a group of wealthy thespians after an ancient priceless and elusive artifact from Malta, and are trying to get their hands on it. Each player in that game reaches out to Sam, and he orchestrates a plan that pits them against each other and inevitably having them succumb to law and order. Right off the bat this film is very fast paced. Like the talking, the dramatic moments, the Action," it all happens so fast and there is hardly a moment to pause and reflect on what exactly is going on. This keeps the viewer on their toes on the one hand, but it also forces them to pay very close attention. One missed line of dialogue or a reflection in your head muting the movie in the background can force you to miss crucial moments or plot points. The fast pace also doesn't allow the viewer to take in the ambiance and atmosphere the setting is creating to its full potential. The acting is also ham central. Humphrey Bogart is always an interesting choice for a lead considering how short stalky and crooked his teeth are, but I guess people bought into that back then. I've come to appreciate his style with other movies such as the Big sleep and Casablanca, but it still can be glaring for how charming he appears to be to the females in the film and how weird it comes off now. Oh well, it comes with the times I guess.

Alright enough shitting on this movie. Its faults come from it's datedness not from it being a bad or flawed movie. Historical context is alway key when watching a movie and sometimes they shouldn't be at fault for it. They did nail the setting perfectly. Despite what I said before about not having enough time to take in the atmosphere, the foggy streets of San Fransisco are really shady and give you a sort or eerie claustrophobic feeling when they do appear in the transitions. A feeling like your could be followed at any moment (a scene that actually occurs in the film). The "villains" are also pretty great and memorable as well. The Fat man (played by Sydney Greenstreet) kind of reminds me of a poor man's insatiable Alfred Hitchcock, but he's definitely representative of the big wealthy trust fund individuals back in the 1940's who suffered very little in the depression. Peter Lorre as the eclectic thespian is by far the most interesting character. There's just something off about him in all the right ways. Many theorize that director John Houston wanted to portray him as a homosexual, but the studio advised against it. There are, however,  plenty of innuendos that suggest this in the film (pay attention to his cane, and how he handles it, and also how they describe the fragrance of his handkerchief). This movie was at the forefront of setting other noir "tropes" (I hate that word but it's convenient for this sake), such as the main detective being essentially victorious and untouchable in every fisticuffs fight he gets into. He always seems to have the upper hand. Sam Spade is one of the least vulnerable and more flawless detectives in the noir era (he does have his vice with his dead partners wife and beef with the police, but its minor and never mounts to much). That in a way makes him one of the least interesting Detective protagonists in noir, but his name and memorability stick because he was at the start of it all.

You can tell other directors such as Billy Wilder and Howard Hawkes were deeply inspired from this movie. I see it as the ground work for the all future noir the subsequently followed. It's a must see for anyone looking to begin their enriching noir journey through out the next few decades of cinema. The maguffin (a Htichcock term I suggest you look up if your unfamiliar) of the actual falcon, while frustrating initially, is one of the most important choices in film noir. They make it seem like the film is about this prized bird and where and what it is, when in fact its more about the drama, the turmoil, and the double crossing that occurs in order to procure the artifact. All the great stuff that makes film noir its own staple. And while it's not my favorite by any means, it's one of those films you have to see in order to establish a foundation for where it all started. This can be dry or hard to follow for some so be warned, but go in it with an open mind and an understanding of the time in which it came out and I'm sure you can garner a certain appreciation for it! In the next installment, I intend to chose a lesser known noir with all of the classic traits and none of the (super) dated aspects. The 1941 release dates cripples the presentation of this movie as the war had not ended and the film industry had not become fully cynical from the post-war fallout. You'll see in the next one that things will change subtly but significantly. But for now heres a photo of the actual Maltese Falcon prop I took at the USC library with a toaster. Enjoy!