Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Oscar Noir - The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is running a series called Oscar Noir this summer, screening Oscar nominated 1940s films “from Hollywood’s Dark Side.” They kicked things off last week with the film that first brought notoriety to the notorious Film Noir genre, John Huston's 1941 take on The Maltese Falcon.

Huston was just a lowly company screenwriter when he went into production on The Maltese Falcon, the film that would be his directorial debut. He’d been working for Warner Brothers, shelling out the likes of Jezebel (1938) and High Sierra (1941) before earning enough leverage to negotiate a director’s gig into his contract. Warner’s figured he’d earned that, but they weren’t too pleased with his choice of picture – based on a classic novel by respected writer Dashiell Hammett, Falcon had already been adapted for the silver screen twice, and had produced less than stellar results.

Huston was adamant, arguing that the previous renditions lapsed in their understanding of what Hammett’s novel was, and how it should be made. The studio begrudgingly supported him, but they wanted George Raft to play Sam Spade, the archetypical hard-boiled detective and the star of Falcon’s show. Huston didn’t want Raft. He wanted Humphrey Bogart, who’d impressed Huston with his work on High Sierra. But Huston had exhausted his influence – this was a fight he couldn’t win.

So the offer went out to Raft. Raft wanted no part of it. He wanted to do an “important picture.” He did Manpower (1941) instead.

Huston again pitched Bogart. Again the studio balked, considering Henry Fonda, Fredric March, Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson as alternatives. When none of them worked out, Bogart got the gig.

Bogart wasn’t the final piece to this puzzle, but his involvement encapsulates the near nonexistence of a pinnacle picture in an explosively creative cinematic era. Like so many great films, The Maltese Falcon almost never came together, and on multiple levels. Its existence is a testament to both Huston’s will and, if you believe in such things, the film’s iconic destiny.

Nearly 70 years after going into production, The Maltese Falcon is an exemplary work; a case study for first-time filmmakers, a time capsule of fantastic performances, and the criterion for its Film Noir genre. The Noir detective. The Femme Fatale. The twisty, schemey mysteries and dark, poisonous themes and portrayals of humanity’s uglier side. It’s all here, and although Falcon wasn’t the first to put it altogether, it is arguably the classiest and most important.

Spade, like most hard-boiled detectives, does good by playing dirty. Bogart plays him as a man with devilish charm, manipulative and fallible. He sleeps with his partner’s wife, manipulates via both intimidation and weakness, and always looks out for numero uno. He can be a cold-hearted bastard but he’s guided by a sense of right – a code, albeit Noir-tinted.

Bogart’s performance is both timeless and masterful, and the rest of the film follows suit. Huston’s screenplay sticks close to the source and establishes an effortless and surprisingly comedic flow.

Like the majority of the genre to follow, Falcon is more drama than action, dark and knowing and fueled by intrigue. The mystery that belies the surface narrative is the inquisition into the hearts of men (and women, and womanly men, but mostly men), the secrets and truths that drive and define them. That’s the real pull of mystery in Falcon, and in noir. The falcon itself is a macguffin, an object that puts the story into motion, gives reason for the shenanigans, but holds no real value to the story. The falcon could be anything or nothing, but is never as important as the story it creates.

A few weeks ago I retro-reviewed the original Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and was struck by how poorly it held up. Nightmare was both worn by time and, most importantly, exposed by time. As a complete film, I’m not sure it was ever as good as it’s credited as being.

The Maltese Falcon represents the antonym of such a film. It feels both dated and timeless, and has aged gracefully. Quality rarely (if ever) gets old.  Huston’s product was the complete package in 1941, and remains so now.  Shot for $381,000, it was low budget and used limited locations, yet it looks, sounds and feels perfect. And Bogart isn’t the only acting gem here – Peter Lorre is hilariously and fantastically weird, and Sydney Greenstreet’s desperately controlled presence is tangible.

The Maltese Falcon is the kind of film that makes you remember just how great Hollywood has been, and that kind of film you wish you’d see more of today. And make no mistake – these days are every bit as dark and intriguing as they were then. Bogart and his crew fit right in.

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