January 22, 2008

Movies for Grown-Ups: The Maltese Falcon

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Written by John Huston, from the original novel by Dashiell Hammett
Directed by John Huston

So how freaky is this? Not only did I watch my first two Humphrey Bogart films ever last week, but it was entirely by coincidence that they came so close together; one arrived via Netflix, the other spied just randomly the same day at my neighborhood library. And not only are both films considered classics, and not only were they filmed just a year apart and share much of the same cast, but I managed to get to the age of 38 without knowing even the first thing about the plot of either. I'm telling you, the strange coincidences never stop! I thought it'd be fun, then, to present both reviews on the same day as well, as befitting the odd circumstances behind the entire thing to begin with.

The Maltese Falcon

The other film was 1942's Casablanca which I didn't like as much, which is why I wrote only a mini-review for it; the subject of this essay, though, 1941's The Maltese Falcon, is superlatively better in a whole variety of ways, which is why I'm doing a full write-up of it instead. And indeed, of the two films in question, it's this one that has the much better pedigree; it was not only the explosive debut film of eventual American directing legend John Huston, not only the debut as well of character actor Sydney Greenstreet, not only the film that first made Bogart a star, but also the very first film noir ever made, according to the French magazine that coined the term in the first place. It's a stupendous film, as a matter of fact, still as thrilling and entertaining as it was the day it came out, precisely because of it being so closely adapted from Dashiell Hammett's brilliant original novel; one of those films not only important for the sake of history but still a delight to watch to this day, unfortunately not something I could always say about Casablanca.

The Maltese Falcon

In fact, the historical element of it all is probably a good place to start with this tale; that it is based on a novel that was already popular and historically important in its own right, featuring a punchy and intense writing style that would eventually influence Hemingway, combined with distinctly American low-brow subjects that would eventually blossom into an entire "detective pulp" genre. Young artistic maverick John Huston, the latest in a whole line of famous artistic Huston family members, realized just how tight and special this novel was, in fact; and he also realized that if he could pull off such an adaptation below budget and under schedule, he would not only have an artistic triumph and popular hit but also a tableful of studio executives spooing in their pants in financial ecstasy. So what did he do? Not what a lot of people would be tempted to do in that situation, I think, which is to invoke their family name in order to call in a bunch of favors; Huston instead wrote out the full blocking of every scene beforehand, held a series of elaborate rehearsals before a single foot of film was shot, and otherwise got everyone ready to make a distinct and creative film in as quick and cheap a way as possible.

The Maltese Falcon

The result: not only did they finish so early that the entire cast got to secretly hide out at a nearby Los Angeles golf club for a couple of days drinking on the studio's dime (a true story according to Wikipedia, take that as you will), but they were left with one of those remarkably tight and thrilling genre actioners that made the entire studio-system B classification so famous in those years to begin with. You can easily see, quite easily see, why Huston went on to have such huge successes in Hollywood after this debut, because the finished Maltese Falcon is the best thing possible for all people concerned: a project which respectfully honors the power of the original novel, while still giving the actors enough breathing room to garner a pile of Oscar nominations, one that made a huge splash not only among critics but the general public, and all of it to boot for less money than the director had said in the first place that he needed, right at the beginning of World War II when money was getting tighter and tighter anyway. Sheesh, is it any wonder why people went so freaking crazy over this movie when it first came out?

The Maltese Falcon

Ah, but that only explains part of the story; there's also the question of what makes it still so relevant and entertaining and well-known today, versus all those other noirs from those years that have now faded into obscurity. And this gets into the whole other side of the Maltese Falcon story, of how it managed to inspire an entire genre almost on its own; because the fact is that the movie is sharp, razor-sharp, using all kinds of funky camera angles and lighting schemes that few outside of the experimental circuit had seen in film before. This was exciting and groundbreaking enough, to the American audiences who were going through a lot of dark changes as a society on the eve of a world-reaching war; now combine this with the tough-as-nails story, the machine-gun dialogue, the unflinching look into the maw of low-class desperate big-city life, the losers and junkies and queers of the dank southern San Francisco of the 1930s, and you suddenly had a formula that audiences were not only eating up, but were forming an insatiable appetite for.

The Maltese Falcon

In fact, I think this is something worth specially noting about The Maltese Falcon, both the original novel and adapted script; that once you strip away all the stereotypical build-up that has followed in its wake, all the endless series of tough-talking trench-coated private eyes in drab offices waiting for dames with gams that don't quit, you'll find that the original story that inspired so many of these cliches is instead a simple yet inventive little thriller, containing more CSI-style procedural elements than you would guess for the book that basically inspired film noir. After all, the original novel was mostly based off Hammett's actual time as a Pinkerton private investigator in his own youth, back when such young toughs were virtually defining the profession for the first time; the book he ended up writing paints not only the melodramatic action tale that we're now all familiar with, but also is important for revealing practical tips from the day-to-day life of a private eye (how to shake tails, how to get into places where you really shouldn't be), not to mention displaying a wide-eyed realism about the sometimes unglamorous realities of such an environment, something I think lost in all the cartoonish stereotypes that have since built up on top of it. (For example, both the novel and the movie go out of their way to demonstrate that even a cowardly weasel with a gun is still a cowardly weasel, and that in the real world a person can easily yank their weapon away from them while they're not paying full attention, something Bogart's character does multiple times to multiple people throughout the story and that you just know is something Hammett learned while actually on the job.)

The Maltese Falcon

At the same time, though, this movie also has just one of those great genre hooks at its core, one of those ideas that is just so outrageous as to become believable; the idea that in the 1500s, the Knights Templar chapter in Malta decided to honor the king of Spain with an insanely expensive golden idol (the falcon of the story's title), lost over the centuries of history but always still existing, passing from one private collector to the next and gaining almost a mythical stature by now. This is how our private-eye hero, Sam Spade, gets involved; he and his partner get hired by an attractive woman to go tail a man on false pretenses, while in reality it turns out that both she and the man (and a third partner, played by the exquisite creep Peter Lorre) were the last to actually see the legendary jewel-encrusted bird, after being hired by an equally creepy madman (Greenstreet) to steal it from the current owner over in eastern Europe somewhere. Money-lust over the idol finally actually being in the US has turned the four against each other; all of them in one way or another are trying to use Spade as a pawn in the pursuit of sole ownership of the falcon, a fact that Spade eventually catches onto and uses as a way of getting them to all fatally screw themselves over.

The Maltese Falcon

Put all of the elements together in exactly the right combination, as is done here, and you have a movie that can make careers and set box-office records; get just some of the details even slightly wrong, and you instead end up with the dozens and dozens of hacky film noirs and detective movies that have come since, most of which have gone on to rightful obscurity. You can easily see why this went on to be so influential in the first place, especially if you're familiar with any amount of 1930s cinema at all, simply because this looks and feels so electrically different from so many other films of that time; and you can easily see why the American public took to it so strongly too, at a time when the winds of war were in the air and roughly half the planet was being ruled by angry, genocidal fascist dictators. (And of course, you can also see why the American public so quickly gave up on noirs starting just a few years after WWII as well, in that the war was over and people wanted to put all the icky morally-ambiguous darkness behind them, and instead embrace the squeaky-clean suburban Modernist future of Leave It to Beaver and the like.)

The Maltese Falcon

This is an astoundingly great movie that I highly recommend you see at some point, an artistic gift that just keeps giving. The Maltese Falcon is as great now as it's ever been, and I encourage you to check it out if you are any kind of noir fan at all.

Out of 10:
Writing: 9.1
Acting: 8.8
Directing: 9.6
Cinematography: 9.5
Overall: 9.3

Random notes:
--The ultimate irony of this film, of course, is that Warner Brothers had actually made a fine version of the movie already, ten years previous; in the ensuing period, though, the infamous Hays Code went into effect, and the original version was banned for containing "lewd" content. The current DVD version, in fact, finally contains both versions, as well as a light comedic version that was shot in those same years.

--It would literally be impossible to include deleted scenes on this particular DVD; the movie was so tightly planned, not a single second of the initial cut was eventually edited out for theatrical release.

--Unlike so many other famous props from those years, Warner still proudly owns the original falcon created for this production, and it still occupies a prominent position in their museum.

--The tiny part of the murdered sea captain was played by Walter Huston, John's famous actor dad, specifically to wish him good luck on his first film. Walter was forced to promise studio head Jack Warner that he wouldn't retroactively ask for any pay for the cameo, in order to gain permission to do it in the first place.

--And despite the common misconception, Bogart never actually wears a trench coat in this film; that's Casablanca you're thinking of.

Best viewed: While leaning back, pushing your chin into your chest, and doing your best Sydney Greenstreet impression. "Hmm hmm, yes, yes. I do love talking, with a man who loves talking, yes yes, indeed indeed, talking with a man, who loves talking is, a great love indeed, yes yes, hmm hmm."

Next on my queue list: Oh boy, more '70s science-fiction: The Man Who Fell to Earth, to be precise, featuring the very first film role of David Bowie's career, the trippy story of a space alien from a desert planet who has come to Earth to save his family from dehydration-based death. Oh, how I do love the '70s science-fiction, I tells ya!

Read even more about The Maltese Falcon: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 5:16 PM, January 22, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |