Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

1941, US, directed by John Huston

I often wonder if any director - of reasonable longevity - had better career bookends than John Huston: this film began what The Dead brought to a stunning close in 1987. Admittedly, Huston had his lows, too, most notably a terrible string of films in the late 1970s and early 1980s (when I was growing up, though, it was hard not to get caught up in the footballing exploits of Escape to Victory, which played frequently on Irish and British television), but this film announced his arrival in a manner as emphatic as the same year's Citizen Kane opened the curtains on Orson Welles's directorial work.

Huston's film is the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's novel, after a 1931 version under the same name, and a 1936 re-write as Satan Met A Lady. As well as being more expansive - Huston adds 25 minutes to the running time of the earlier films - this version is more obviously hard-bitten from the off, rarely playing things for open laughs. A much more bitter variety of humour replaces the breezy, devil-may-care tone of the first film and the out-and-out farce of the second, in keeping with the deeply cynical view of greed and human self-interest on display.

The story of the falcon itself is efficiently dealt with by the inclusion of a quasi-historical background in an opening scroll, which lends the rather fanciful details a little more gravitas when the story is re-told later on. An opening montage - not unlike that from the 1931 film - then establishes the film's location, before Huston cuts to a shot that introduces Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart). Though Spade certainly isn't indifferent to the women around him, the director has little interest in re-creating the insistent ladies' men of previous films. Unlike those earlier versions of Spade, Bogart's detective is a far more sceptical man, led by his instincts but less likely to be dominated by them.

Huston restricts his characters to a small number of sets for a great deal of the film's running time, effectively creating tension from the constantly shifting loyalties created in such enclosed spaces, with mistrust the only constant. These pressures prompt the characters to behave in odd ways, becoming brittle with nerves. He shoots the characters from highly unusual perspectives, too, displaying the influence of German Expressionism: sometimes his camera is just below waist level, looking slightly up, whereas at other times the camera is almost on the floor, most obviously when shooting the rotund Sydney Greenstreet, an affable but unmistakeably ruthless leader. There's a fascination with shadows, too, whether in the early, night-time sequences but also in the play of letters across a carpet as the light shines through Sam's office window.

There's a wonderful sequence early on where Spade is informed of the death of his partner which underlines the fresh approach Huston brings to the material: Spade's voice is heard offscreen as the camera focuses on his nightstand and the window beyond, the still life contrasting with the tragic news being relayed, and the tension enhanced by the mysterious absence of the leading character. Less subtle is the portrayal of Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre); it's hard to believe the censors were entirely taken in by Huston's "downplaying" of the character's sexuality, since there's little mistaking the fact that Cairo is homosexual, signalled primarily through his emotional overreactions to slights both minor and significant, as well as the unambiguous manner in which he fondles his cane when speaking with Spade. There's a campiness to Lorre's portrayal that recalls his work in Hitchcock's 1936 Secret Agent, a less memorable tale of international mystery and rapidly shifting loyalties.

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Boston, Massachusetts, United States