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The stuff noir was made of: revisiting ‘The Maltese Falcon’

As the first classic period of the gangster film wound down, Warner Bros. and other studios sought more variations on that dynamic genre. There had been prison films, and movies that told gangster stories from the side of law enforcement. When Hollywood found ways to bring the hard-boiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain to the screen, the industry had found its solution.

Here once again was the urban man of action, blasting his foes, romancing dames and wise cracking with the cops, in a package that had unique appeal. There may not be a straight line from the gangster film to film noir, but surely the detective film and its variations represented one of the main links between the two genres.

Humphrey Bogart played a vital role in this connection, beginning with his portrayal of Sam Spade in the most famous adaptation of Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” (1941). The film’s mordant attitudes helped establish the touchstones of films noir.

Most readers of this blog will be more than familiar with this one, but for those who are not: A treacherous woman involves two San Francisco private eyes in a deadly quest for a highly valuable falcon statuette, which is also sought by a corpulent sophisticate, his murderous henchman, and another oddball. When one of the detectives is killed, his partner tries to figure out which of the fortune hunters is responsible.

After revisiting “Falcon” last week for the first time in a few years, several things occurred to me.

I had forgotten, somehow, how little regard Spade has for his partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan). Of course he’s having an affair with the man’s wife (Gladys George), but I didn’t remember that he shows nothing like grief at the news of his murder. He doesn’t want to get a close view of the body when the police find it; when Det. Polhaus (Ward Bond) says Archer “must have had his good points,” Spade’s answer is, “I guess so.” He moves very quickly to take Archer’s name off the windows and door of the office they shared. Director John Huston doesn’t overemphasize any of this, but it is clear enough to bring some perspective to what happens at the end.

From the time Spade and Archer happily accept Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s money, Bogart lets us see why this guy likes being a private detective. It’s clear from his laughter the second time Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) gets the drop on him; when he begins a sexual relationship with Brigid; when he plays games with Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet). These people may be greedy and homicidal, but they’re fascinating. They’re strange. And their worldview isn’t that far removed from his own.

 

Mary Astor uses her feminine wiles on Humphrey Bogart in “The Maltese Falcon” (Warner Bros., 1941)

Mary Astors performance as Brigid just impresses me more with each viewing. In one of the first scenes, she speaks very quickly, relaying the details of what’s supposed to be a very distressing situation as if rehearsed — and yet, does so entirely in character, to show us Brigid in all her calculating deadliness. This also includes all the damsel-in-distress signals that Spade and Archer see through immediately. Brigid is someone who knows that she can either fool people or be so basically charming that they’re willing to help even if they’re not fooled. Yet she is also pathologically unable to stop herself from using subterfuge, or from being greedy, etc.

She’s very sexy in the scene when, as Spade tells her about running into Joel Cairo, she walks to the fireplace and stokes the fire, making sure he gets a good view of her behind. Spade is bemused, but aroused too.

We get clues about her proclivity for violence when she attacks Cairo. If Spade had put it all together by then but had any lingering doubts about her ability to pull the trigger on Miles, they’re eliminated here. Huston holds back by having most of this action takes place off camera, so that all we see is the police neutralizing her. Despite the blood on Joel’s face, we are left to wonder if he isn’t exaggerating to some degree, or perhaps he’s the supreme wimp of all time.

When Spade falls in love with her but turns her over to the police anyway, knowing she could face the death penalty, it isn’t about loyalty to Archer, as he tries to declare at first. He admits the real issue is that he an’t trust her, and can’t be sure she won’t kill him later. Part of why this works is that Astor is so appealing that her behavior doesn’t make us hate her, so we can see that Spade has had to make a difficult choice.

I find it baffling that after this portrayal, Astor went from the ultimate femme fatale to the mother in “Meet Me In St. Louis” in just three years. Her looks hadn’t deteriorated at all, whatever problems she may have had with alcohol by this point. She was 38 in 1944. Joan Crawford was exactly the same age, playing desirable leading ladies throughout the ’40s, while following “St. Louis”  Astor played motherly figures in “Fiesta,” “Desert Fury” and other films during the decade.

The late British film historian Leslie Halliwell liked to write about how the films of the Golden Age offered plenty of satisfaction for intellectuals, without sacrificing entertainment (a sense of proportion that he thought was lacking in films of the ’70s and ’80s). “Falcon” is one of the movies he’s talking about; the dialogue for Gutman is smart from beginning to end, delivered with perfect glee and menace by Greenstreet.

Here is a glutton, a man whose greed trumps all other values, but he’s a man of sophistication and cunning, who has developed myriad ways of determining who will be an ally and who he must view as an adversary within a few moments. Is the man cautious about alcohol consumption? Can’t trust him. Is he taciturn? Another red flag — doesn’t know when to talk, might give someone too much information when he does.

Spade passes both of Gutman’s early litmus tests, and others, later. Remarkable man. Gutman likes him. And yet, Spade ends up handing him to the cops on a silver platter. It is one of the enduring tenets of the crime film: To be smart, even brilliant, is a formidable asset to a crook, but there are just too many variables to consider at any given time, and one of them will trip you up.

– David B. Wilkerson

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2 Responses to The stuff noir was made of: revisiting ‘The Maltese Falcon’

  1. Bogart Fan says:

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