Sunday, April 24, 2016

AFI Top 100: #31 "The Maltese Falcon"

Humphrey Bogart & Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Another theatrical screening opportunity lining right up with our scheduled AFI movie night? What are the chances of that happening, not once, but twice?? Ecstatic as can be, I wrangled some friends to join me at the 75th Anniversary screening event of AFI's #31 movie, The Maltese Falcon, at our local theater. The crowd may not have been as large as the one for our screening of Jaws last summer, but it was certainly as passionate. This iconic film noir—the first, but not last, on our list—stars by fifth grade crush, the greatest actor to ever grace the silver screen, Humphrey Bogart, in the role that made him the Master of Detective Noirs: Sam Spade.

Set in foggy San Francisco, Sam Spade (Bogart) and his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), run the aptly named detective agency, Spade & Archer. Their newest case, having been hired by the mysterious Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor), may look like a cut-and-dry missing persons case—that is until a series of dangerous men come out of the woodwork, and Miss Wonderly is revealed to be Bridget O'Shaughnessy, with the case now becoming one of murder. Now entrenched in a confusing web of intrigue, Spade is confronted by the weaselly but eccentric, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), only to find his movements being tracked by the rotund Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), all of whom appear to be looking for the same thing: the true location of a mysterious artifact, the bejeweled Maltese Falcon. But all is not as it appears.

In my junior year of high school, I read this book in a Literature and Film class. Yes, my public high school was awesome, we actually had a class for that. Author Dashiell Hammett's direct involvement with the script while working closely (albeit dramatically) with writer/director John Huston pays off in its almost perfect scene-for-scene adaptation of his popular novel. I reveled in the descriptions of the characters come to life, brief but direct with specifics so detailed you couldn't help but imagine them. And you absolutely imagine them like this. The film takes no time at all to establish each and every one of these characters, yet you know exactly who they are during every first meeting. The tip of a hat, the flip of a cane, the incredulous chuckle... single moments paint the clearest picture of who these people are. You may not know what it is they want, but you certainly know what they'd do to get it.

Now, the motivations are a mess, and that's all the fun. None of it makes a lot of sense, to us or to Spade, and watching Bogart's eye-rolling laughter whenever the insanity around him gets a bit too much endears him to us wholly. Everyone else is in their own private melodramas, intertwined but separate from one another, and Spade is there to furrow his brow and smirk at the shenanigans from the outside. Watching him call Astor's Miss O'Shaughnessy on her scenery chewing theatrics, at least once a scene, might be the perpetual highlight of the film. Peter Lorre, likewise, portrays the Joel Cairo described in the novel with startling precision, flamboyantly toying with his cane, a suggestion that he's not only trying to unnerve Spade—he may actually be flirting with him.

Bogart is so slick, he rides the line between good and evil with ease. In this instance, he's certainly on the side of "good," but he's not interested in making the cops' job easier for them. It's what makes him such a great private eye character, perpetually throughout his career. Illegalities don't ruffle his feathers, but he's hardly about to let the bad guys get away with it. In many ways, he's almost too good at getting the best of them, like when he shows up Kasper Gutman's muscle man, Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), who can't seem to get the hang of tailing him, with Spade's seasoned years dwarfing the guy like he was nothing but a child playing dress up with a plastic gun. Bogart was always the coolest guy in the room, and that was never more true than when he played Sam Spade.

The Maltese Falcon features the best elements of a 'whodunit,' wherein everyone—eventually—finds themselves in the same room, together despite their hatred. Tensions high, our hero breaks it all down, finally sharing with us everything he's pieced together. It may not be the smoothest, most shocking reveal in the world, but it's the side players and their indignation that elevates the scene beyond the expected. What delights me the most is watching just how severely the 'bad guys' despise each other, with no derision left over for Spade. And as a result, we follow suit. Spade is hardly a good person. He's a womanizer, and doesn't even treat them all that well, as it is. But in this case, this moment, we're on his side.

Visually, Huston incorporates the ominous shadows, draped strategically across our characters' faces, or framing their figures in the smoky alleyways where danger lurks. He clearly understood the dynamic visualization of eerie noir, gray detectives (in a noir, nothing is merely black and white), and the tribulations of pursuing one's greed. Noir author, Hammett, practically created the concept in his popular series of novels, which is why Falcon, in all its simplicity and melodrama, may well represent the genre best.

There are many film noir classics out there more sophisticated than this (just wait for our discussion of #29 on the list), but there are none like The Maltese Falcon that has its noir-trope ducks all in a row. The style is overt and exaggerated, and the cinematic compositions helped establish the genre of film noir throughout the remainder of the decade. Bogart is iconic in many roles (a handful of which we're watching on this countdown, but Sam Spade and he are one in the same. The mystery of the Maltese Falcon is simply the cherry on top of seeing this guy in action.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Warner Bros.]

Check back next time for #30 on the list, Apocalypse Now — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

1 comment:

  1. I love seeing all these old videos. Makes me remember a simpler time. I just had all of my grandparents old film reels digitized by ScanDigital. I love not having to worry about those films deteriorating.


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