Monday, November 10, 2008

The Great Movies: "The Maltese Falcon"

The Maltese Falcon
John Huston, 1941

The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep are sufficiently similar that, before I started this project, I wouldn't have been able to tell you which was which. Both are about smart tough-guy private investigators who are misled and misdirected by their dodgy yet irresistible female clients. Both feature protagonists who must live in a tainted world of greed and squalor in defense of a moral code. Both are definitive movies in the film noir tradition, movies that did much to define the archetype of the hard-boiled detective in the cinematic.

I loved The Big Sleep. I expected to love The Maltese Falcon. But I didn't.

As a detective story, Maltese Falcon is certainly the more coherent of the two. The Big Sleep is notoriously indifferent to its own plot; key scenes that were necessary to understand what was going on were left on the cutting room floor. Falcon, by contrast, is rather at pains to clear up who did what, and why. Oddly, though, this turns out to be completely unsatisfying. The mysterious and randomness of Sleep made played into the dominant mood of the movie, and left you with an impression of heroes trying to carve out stability amidst chaos. The exposition of actions and motives in Falcon, though, is just kind of tedious.

As a relationship story, Maltese Falcon is nowhere near as compelling as the later movie. The Bogart and Bacall characters in The Big Sleep move us because of the plausibility of their attraction for each other; they are both highly intelligent, sensitive people stuck in social environments where their intellect is not valued. You understand why they are falling for each other -- they are just damned excited to have found someone worth talking to.

The characters in The Maltese Falcon, by contrast, are mean, cold, and superficial. Bogart's Sam Spade is unconcerned when his partner gets plugged in the first reel, when his partner's new widow throws herself at him, and ultimately when he turns his sniveling supposed love interest over to the police. He's an interesting enough study in self-absorption, and preaches a fine sermon at the end about his personal code of ethics, but the idea of him really shooting off sparks with anyone comes off as pretty unlikely.

The Falcon itself is a classic example of an item that exists only to set the plot of a movie in motion. It is a random thing that, because people covet it, it causes them to act badly. We might expect that this would be used by the movie to make some sort of point, if only the observation that the coveting of material things can lead to unhappiness. But nah. It's just there to drive events, with all of the subtlety and sophistication of a Hardy Boys novel.

Plot: Dame in distress comes to detective's office with a simple request. Next thing you know, the case gets more complicated. Everybody is looking for the Maltese Falcon, but where could it possibly be? Eventually it shows up, although in a manner so absurdly improbable it might as well have been borne into the scene by a flight of angels.

Visuals: Probably more interesting than I would give them credit for. Reading about the movie after watching it, I saw references to some cinematographic tricks that I hadn't noticed.

Dialogue: There's some cracking wise, but not with the same panache we've seen in other noir movies.

Prognosis: Well, it's your quintessential old movie. If you like old movies, it's a good 'un. If you don't like old movies, you'll probably join me in thinking that its reputation has got a bit ahead of its reality.


Jenners said...

Don't really have anything to say about the Maltese Falcon so I'll just use this comment to say thank you to you for being so attentive to my own blog and ensuring that no post in uncommented upon. It warms my heart and I think you. I would like to return the favor and be the first to give your comment fix on this post!!!! You rock!

Jenners said...

Perhaps I should reread comments before I post them as I saw several typos in my previous comment....damn...hate when that happens.

Rex Parker said...

Wow, I disagree completely. It's true that the Sam/Brigid thing is off - actually, NONE of the women in this thing are compelling (and, not surprisingly, NONE of them are what you would picture had you only read the book). Effie is particularly miscast. But all the patter, all the dialogue, and Wilmer and Cairo in particular, are phenomenal. Indispensable.

The movie is the quintessential film noir, not the quintessential "old movie." That assertion is just cruel. The falcon is a McGuffin, of course, famously. Here, as in the novel, it's not really the point.

Why are there so many horses in this movie (check out the background of nearly every interior)? Pictures ... a statue on the mantle ... it's weird.


Michael5000 said...

YES!!! An opposing opinion on a movie review! My cup runneth over.

Rex definitely has the majority opinion on 'Falcon; what you say here is what I expected I'd be writing.

I did enjoy the character of Cairo; Wilmer felt kind of hammy to me, though.

My favorite moments in the movie are when the Sam Spade character grins inappropriately, at times when he has just pretended to be all worked up. It shows up how cool and in-control his character is, but also how shallow. And maybe it's that shallowness that defeats the movie for me: none of the characters care much about what's going on, so why should I?

Anonymous said...

I love the scene with the two cops. And the scene with Greenstreet, Bogart and Lorre is classic. I agree with Rex Parker re. "quintessential film noire". Best movie you have reviewed since "Blow Up".

And, I like the idea, during filming those many scenes where someone is wrapping or unwrapping the damn statue, of the director saying "that's a wrap" with a straight face.

fingerstothebone said...

Wow, it's great to know that you're Not An Idiot! Congratulations!

Nichim said...

I think this is the first movie that you've reviewed that I've actually seen. I thought it was okay. It is old enough to satisfy my "not realistic" requirement, but as it doesn't have any time travel, slapstick, aliens or girl ninjas, I didn't pay that much attention. But keep up the reviews. I might learn to appreciate film yet!

Michael5000 said...

@fingers: Glad to know it's plausible!

@nichim: Will do. I think the BEST way to cultivate an appriciation for film would be to read reviews here on the L&TM5K.

fingerstothebone said...

And the Good Prince wants to know if they'll be issuing Not An Idiot badge?

Michael5000 said...

@fingers: Not sure. I think I might have the distinct honor of being the first ever Not an Idiot.

Anonymous said...

You know, you see someone proudly wearing a Not an Idiot badge, it kinda makes you wonder.

fingerstothebone said...

But he's not just any Not an Idiot, he's the very FIRST Not an Idiot. Surely that's a distinction that's worthy of a badge, or something?

Anonymous said...

I've seen it a few times way back. I remember not being sure who to root for, and some tediousness, but over all when viewing with the others I had on hand at the time, (Casablanca, Key Largo) it was a nice add.

There were some good lines but not good enough for me to remember them still. I sort of want to see it again now.