Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

#20: The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)

In many ways The Maltese Falcon arrives now full-blown, with a lot of its sure-fire elements in tow: a great cast, a great screenplay based on a great literary property, a great strategy for production design and photography (yes, Phil's kids, black and white), and a great director in John Huston, who remained as vital (and as hit and miss) right into the '80s. But none of this was so certain in its time. Huston was no sure thing in his first effort as a director (the shot earned on the basis of his work as a screenplay writer), nor was Humphrey Bogart quite yet the star he would become.

As is typical of most hard-boiled detective fiction in the classic mode—and, based on one of Dashiell Hammett's best and best-known novels, this is about as classic as it gets—the plot developments come fast and furious, quickly snarling into a mess verging on chaos, albeit calmly piloted by the private eye at the center of it, in this case Bogart's Sam Spade. For the most part The Maltese Falcon sticks close to the book, particularly its dialogue, but Huston's screenplay makes it look a lot easier than it probably is to adapt one of these stories, and it remains the standard by which to compare others.

Sam Spade and Humphrey Bogart now appear to be a Hollywood match made in heaven if ever there was one. In fact, this turned out to be one of the significant turning points of Bogart's career, helping to cement once and for all the peculiar idea that a short, somewhat oafish-looking man could convincingly play a leading-man role. The supporting cast brings it all home, particularly Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Elisha Cook Jr., who are just plain fun. A taste is in the clip at the link. Some complain that Mary Astor is too vapid for her role as the femme fatale, and I suppose I can see the point. But it had never occurred to me until I read the complaints.

Huston takes this story and its characters to a lot of places that Hollywood movies go—light-hearted banter, tough guy poses, any number of suave and debonair flirtations—but what finally sells me here is the chilly note on which it ends, when the extent to which Sam Spade looks out for himself, and himself only, becomes quite clear. The closing shot of Mary Astor behind the bars of an elevator cage, going down, says just about everything that needs to be said.

"What do you let these cheap gunmen hang around the lobby for, with their heaters bulging in their clothes?"

Phil #20: No Country for Old Men (Ethan & Joel Coen, 2007) (scroll down)
Steven #20: City of God (Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund, 2002)

I liked Fargo so much I'm probably going to have to give No Country for Old Men another chance. Just the other week I happened to run across an interesting discussion of whether or not Fargo qualifies as a comedy, with a sizeable majority chiming in, basically, "Duh, yes, no-brainer." That's one thing I know I already like about No Country for Old Men. Nobody mistakes it for a comedy. Also, I like City of God a lot too. And thus another good triple feature: three views of the criminal lifestyle.

Hoop Dreams—Steven's #43 is another one I'm glad I gave myself a second chance on. At nearly three hours it's about as long as most ballgames these days, which might have been what caught me in a bad mood the first time and left me underwhelmed. But filmmaker Steve James is really pretty amazing, gathering a vast amount of material and traveling through it deliberately, knowing he has a great story to tell. The parallel high school careers of two wannabe NBA stars from the Chicago projects has more twists and turns than most scripted narratives, and it can be as heartbreaking as it can be thrilling, as it rolls inexorably on. Both Arthur Agee and William Gates had their moments of glory before finally fading away after high school. There is something tremendously universal about it, and I have a feeling it wears well. As with a good game, the time may be long but it passes quickly.

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