Friday, January 13, 2012

Director's Spotlight #3.1: John Huston's The Maltese Falcon

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. January’s director is master craftsman and storyteller John Huston. First up, Huston’s masterful debut, The Maltese Falcon.

Grade: 97 (A)

In a time of directors celebrating American goodness (Frank Capra) and Manifest Destiny (John Ford), John Huston was a true iconoclast. Huston’s subversive genre films showed a dark undercurrent to America, capitalism, and “heroic” journeys. Heroes banded together on noble but doomed quests; only the cool-headed survived, and often at a price. While it should be noted that Capra and Ford were more than willing to go dark when it was required, their films maintained a generally optimistic tone. Their aesthetics darkened a bit after World War II; Huston’s jaded sensibility is evident from the opening of his brilliant debut film, The Maltese Falcon, a movie about the ugly side of capitalism.

1941, San Francisco: Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is one cool cucumber. A private detective, he’s an outsider who knows all the angles of the system and is too much of a player to get played. So when he’s approached with a none-too-convincing story by the seemingly prim and proper “Ruth Wonderly” (Mary Astor), he suspects something’s up. He’s right: his partner is shot while tailing Wonderly’s man, himself murdered shortly thereafter. Now Spade has to find out the why of it all, and he gets mixed up in a plot involving Wonderly (real name Brigid O’Shaughnessy), the effeminate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), the blustery and dangerous Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), and their pursuit of the Maltese Falcon, an ancient artifact worth untold riches.

The Maltese Falcon is one of the earliest examples of a film noir, and Huston sets the precedent for what would define the genre for decades to come: detective-driven whodunit plots, heavy use of shadows to match the shady characters, low camera angles (used the same year as Citizen Kane), colorful dialogue and seedy characters for a crime filled world. Huston loved Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled look at America so much that the film’s screenplay is more or less taken directly from the original novel.

What distinguishes the film as “Huston’s movie”, then? Along with being an early example of noir, the film is an assured directorial debut that shows what would come to define Huston’s films for forty-five years: a lean, economical structure. There are no wasted scenes in The Maltese Falcon; every scene, even the most exposition heavy ones, is briskly paced and full of life. Huston’s precision leads to a quick moving, 100-minute film and ultra-specific character relationships: it’s clear who everyone is, how they know each other, what they think of each other, what their motivations are, and what they’ll stoop to in order to get what they want. This might sound simple enough, but noirs take place in dense worlds with intricate plotting, and an assured, tight control is needed to keep everything from flying off the rails. Huston is more than capable, and his wry sense of humor only adds to the fun.

Spade is the first of the many outsiders Huston would focus on, and one of the best. It cannot be stressed enough how perfectly cast Humphrey Bogart is in the role. This wasn’t the first filmthat made Bogart a name-actor (Raoul Walsh’s heist-film High Sierra did that), but here’s where Bogart the icon was born. Sly, suave, and more than a little cynical, Bogart’s Spade is a man who knows he’s the smartest guy in the room, and who knows when to push and when to pull. He takes no shit, he doesn’t waste time, he loves to drink. He’s the perfect Huston protagonist.

When he finds out his partner was killed, he gets right to finding out who did it. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t like the man. He was his partner, and he’s “supposed to do something about it.” He’s never a jerk for no reason, but he won’t hesitate when he needs to be one. When he slaps someone, they’ll “take it and like it”. He’s a player who lets others think that they’re playing him. Perhaps Bogart’s best scene is in a meeting with Gutman, in which Spade blows up at Gutman and gives him an ultimatum. It looks like he’s finally lost his cool. He exits the room, walks down the hall…and starts laughing. He’s got it all under control.

Bogart isn’t the only person who’s perfectly cast. Everyone is perfectly cast. Ward Bond andB Barton MacLane’s regular-guy cops are square, straight-laced, and not nearly as cool as Spade. At first glance, Astor seems a bit too theatrical for the femme fatale character, but then she’s a character who’s always lying about something, and never too convincingly. Her stagey qualities give her an otherworldly quality that’s easy to fall for…if not for the fact that she’s obviously never straight with anyone. Greenstreet, meanwhile, is big, blustery, and larger than life. His girth takes up most of the frame, and his laugh can knock a house over.

Lorre always specialized in playing weasels and creeps (see: M, Casablanca), so he’s perfectly cast as Cairo. Here, however, he’s more effeminate than usual, and he’s no match for the alpha-male that Bogart is. Hammett’s novel made it explicit that Cairo was also homosexual; Hays Code era filmmaking prohibited this, but Huston and Lorre were sly enough to sneak it in without overplaying it. It’s not the only thing Huston manages to sneak in there: Bogart’s drinking pushes the limits without ever being overwrought, and the allusions to adultery are masterful as well.

The hunt for the titular falcon is the first of Huston’s many doomed quests. A classic macguffin, the falcon is little more than a device to set off everyone’s greed. Everyone will double cross or even kill each other for a buck; only Spade has a noble motive. Everyone else is in it for the money, and he’s the only one that can stay cool long enough to stay in the game. It’s an ugly world, and the revelation that (SPOILER ALERT) they’ve been killing each other for a fake only makes it uglier.

Of course, there’s something else doomed in Huston’s world: love. Sam loves Brigid, but she’s a liar, a thief, and a murderer, and he’s too smart to “play the sap”. He’s sacrificing love for integrity, the only thing that keeps a man alive in Huston’s world. It’s a matter of principle: she’s done some horrible things, and he has to send her up the river. It’s Huston’s final, subversive slap in a tale where no one gets what they want. There’s no happy ending here, and the good guys suffer just as much as the bad. The film’s justly famous final line is the perfect kiss-off; when asked what the falcon is, Spade responds: “The stuff that dreams are made of.”

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