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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Director: John Huston
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet

Never again would noir be so simple or unfettered, and rarely would it reach such brilliant heights. Earlier films sowed the seeds of noir, but this is where the elements of the genre really crystallized, emerging in its defining form and establishing tropes that would become crucial to the films - especially the detective films - that followed. But when you watch it, it isn’t just a matter of experiencing a cinematic landmark; it’s also a matter of being greatly entertained. As the man said, it’s the stuff that dreams are made of.

Humphrey Bogart stars as the iconic Sam Spade, a private detective who becomes enmeshed in the search for the Maltese Falcon by the original femme fatale, Mary Astor, playing Brigid O’Shaughnessey. In the course of his search he encounters Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), and Gutman’s henchman Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.), all of whom want to get their hands on the Falcon and are willing to do anything to get it.

Prior to this The Maltese Falcon had been made twice, in 1931 with the same title and in 1936 as Satan Met A Lady. The first version is a passably entertaining pre-code film notable for what it managed to get away with that the Huston/Bogart version couldn’t. The other version is more or less a parody, a ridiculous comedy starring Bette Davis. This version takes what works from the first two, puts its own hard-boiled spin on it and creates something that seems new even after you’ve seen the others. This is the film that made Bogart a bona fide star and it’s easy to see why. Here he plays a lovable scoundrel, an unsentimental tough-guy who can tell Brigid “I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.” As Brigid, Astor is like a ball of fire burning beneath an icy exterior, setting the standard for bad girls to follow. She and Bogart have great chemistry, both as lovers and antagonists, so that we’re never quite sure where they really stand with each other or who currently has the upper hand on whom.

Mixed in with Bogart and Astor are two of the eras great character actors, Greenstreet and the incomparable Lorre. Greenstreet with his huge (literally and figuratively) presence that is so affably threatening and his particular way of reading a line like “By Gad, sir, you are a character. There’s never telling what you’ll say or do next, except that it’s bound to be something astonishing;” and Lorre, who always looked like he was up to something, always trying to pull something over, and who supplies most of the film’s gay subtext (there are some undertones to the relationship between Gutman and Wilmer, but not nearly so developed as what we get with Cairo). Cairo is pretty much openly coded as gay, dressed in his effete way with his phallic cane and his gardenia scented handkerchiefs. And of course there’s the underlying sadomasochism of his relationship with Spade, who informs him, “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.”

The inter-play of the actors in all their combinations is a joy to behold. My favourite is the first scene between Spade and Cairo when Cairo pulls a gun and finds himself disarmed by Spade. They proceed to have a relatively calm conversation and come to an understanding, at which point Spade gives Cairo back the gun, and Cairo sticks him up again. Bogart and Lorre play off each other very well as Cairo consistently attempts to make Spade take him seriously, and Spade just swats him down at every turn.

The Maltese Falcon is the prototype for detective noir, but differs from those that would follow in many key ways. Its story is relatively straight forward (especially compared to Bogart’s other great detective film The Big Sleep), its hero turns on the woman he loves where it’s more common to find the hero undone by a woman he knows is bad but can’t tear himself away from, and ends not only with the hero coming out alive but unaffected enough to provide the film’s final quip (in Out of the Past, Robert Mithcum gets to quip but loses his life, in Chinatown Jack Nicholson is alive but at a loss for words). This is a very uncluttered film that had the benefit of being able to create itself, rather than be created by the accumulated essentials of an established genre. It is also a ridiculously watchable film that rewards with each and every viewing.

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