The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston)
This is such a work of immaculate Hollywood professionalism that it can be daunting to realize it was director John Huston’s first film, a remarkable feat given its enduring success and influence. What we have here exists on three distinct planes: the very inception of film noir as genre and series of tropes (yet, cunningly, Huston’s edgy and mischievous staging has prevented the movie from dating itself); the elevation of popcorn-film perfection to high art; and the selling to an American audience of sheer nihilism. That last feat belongs, inevitably, to Dashiel Hammett more than to John Huston, whose screenplay credit is somewhat cloudy since he films Hammett’s novel nearly verbatim (deleting the naughty bits). Maltese had been adapted into a film by Warner Bros. twice before, but neither time did the book’s hardened pessimism about human nature and its inevitably bleak conclusion make it to the screen. Huston forced it there, and it’s this uncompromising darkness that makes the film feel so morbidly modern — for better or for worse.
Huston’s secret weapon is not his meticulous storyboarding of the film, which provided for a number of camera setups and techniques far more advanced than was then typical at the big movie studios, certainly at scrappy Warner Bros. that even skimped on its wardrobe department, but his lead actor, Humphrey Bogart. Bogart invents his own ideal of human nature, wrung out from the darkest corners of Hammett’s prose. Since Bogart often played to a persona, we think of him as fulfilling a certain cinematic obligation as this all-knowing mensch. But the persona begins as something hardened and altogether menacing, hence the beginning of noir: the galvanizingly cool headed, cold-around-the-heart antihero. He keeps other people distant, juggles myriad problems and situations, and always knows what’s going on. Three decades hence, director Huston would appear in a film, Chinatown, whose explicit purpose was to knock this iconography down — by then, it was a stereotype. So why does its invention remain so powerful and persuasive?
Two reasons. First is Bogart himself as wunderkind private detective Sam Spade; though he seldom got to prove it, he was capable of a lot more than he’s remembered for doing, and he falls into this sort-of-good-guy persona so effortlessly that we trust him immediately, even when he’s clearly being a dick to widows and secretaries and clients and cops alike. Huston often shoots from behind him so that we see what he sees, and we feel what he feels to a remarkable extent, given that not one of us in the audience could be truly capable of the superhuman managerial brilliance and flawless psychoanalysis he exemplifies every instant of his time onscreen (which is the entire film save one scene early on). Secondly, there’s the more abstract matter of how and why Bogart is able to present the idea of a guy who is always in control of his situation so effortlessly. Hammett and Huston, accidentally or not, hit on what would become a key element in the ’40s and ’50s of not just noir and detective stories but mystery films in general: the implication of a history, a routine.
There’s an extent to which, as important as the story is to a film like this or The Big Sleep, the world of that film is what attracts us, and one of the things that can rivet us so deeply to such a story is the sense that it’s just one of many, that if we dug deeper we could find any number of equally riveting anecdotes burned into the faces of the people we see on the screen. A cycle of inevitability, you could call it, and it’s a cornerstone of the hard noir as opposed to the fairy tale noir or “wrong man” story Alfred Hitchcock might have exemplified. The point of Hitchcock’s texts was that they were happening to people like you and me and that the film we were being shown was the most exciting event of his central character’s life. The Maltese Falcon is an example of the opposite phenomenon, whereby we’re permitted a tourist pass to an intriguing universe quite apart from our own — something extraordinary, revolving around an extraordinary human. And a noir like this lives or dies by how empathetic it allows us to be with its ambiguous hero, whether he’s in the end a nice and fair individual or not. Sam Spade probably isn’t, but we’re with him every second, and so The Maltese Falcon — ingeniously directed despite technical hiccups, flawlessly conceived and written — is not just the first noir but in a classical sense one of the most “perfect.”
Bogart unabashedly steals the film, even from a cast as full of oversized personalities as this, an act that would secure his career for the remainder of his life. Without him, there’s no film, which is saying something in a movie that contains Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, both full of bluster and menace. Others might well have written these characters as innocuous archetypes in the Thin Man mold and the story could still have worked. But there’s that word again, cynicism. Mary Astor provides the blank, busted heart of it in her artificial begging for mercy and forgiveness throughout the film; we think she’s acting for the movies, but she’s acting for everyone — and Sam Spade sees through it, driving a stake through the heart of prior, gentler convention about how detective novels translated to film were supposed to work. In a manner that predicts the work of Billy Wilder, we have here a film of no kindness. It’s ruthlessly violent, as much so as any modern film, if less explicitly. Its humanities are buried things we’re tasked with finding. Because it’s more than just Astor; everyone is play-acting, everyone thinking they’re aware of the entirety of what’s happening and expecting to deceive others. Huston and Hammett’s world is a nasty one. So why do we want so much to go there?
The Falcon itself is the MacGuffin; it’s explained more than once what it is and why it’s desired, but having seen the film at least four times I don’t think I can tell you the first thing about what justification and exposition is provided. When Bogart paraphrases The Tempest at the end, calling it “the stuff dreams are made of,” that’s all we need to know. For all the clean and tidy sets, what Huston depicts is human squalor, and the elegant dream of a Way Out manifested in some physical form. He senses the way that hope can drive even the most elementally despairing of all of us. But he also senses, like Hammett, the futility in the search, a search bound to come up in endless exchanges of fake for reality, of life for death, of illusion for illusion. The Falcon laughs at these characters. We either join the Falcon or the characters — and neither prospect speaks too kindly of us. But if there’s any succinct way to “explain” film noir beyond its visual stylistics, that’s probably it. The stuff dreams are made of, the stuff nightmares chase us into.
[This embodies some very minor elements of a review I posted elsewhere in 2004.]