Wednesday, August 17, 2011
Thoughts on "The Maltese Falcon"
This is my reaction paper from a college film noir class. Originally written in 2003.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) directed by John Huston is a true film noir classic and my personal favorite. If you haven’t seen it in a while, you‘ll find yourself wondering for the first few minutes, “What’s so great about this movie again? This writing is kind of bad.” Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) says she was recommended to Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) by her hotel. What kind of a crummy hotel would recommend her to this guy? Plus, Spade delivers the corniest line in the movie during this first scene when he coaxes O‘Shaughnessy to talk, “Why don’t you tell me about it?” Thankfully things pick up quickly, Spade’s partner Archer comes inside and can’t hide how attracted he is to O’Shaughnessy. It is interesting to note that O’Shaughnessy never takes her eyes off of Spade and doesn’t even seem to see Archer. In the next scene Archer is shot and killed without warning and it is in that second that you remember what’s so great about this movie. Unlike typical Hollywood fluff, the tone of this film is as dark as real life is sometimes. Also, this isn’t one of those films where you can get popcorn and soda and not miss anything. This is one of those films that you can watch over and over again and still not understand.
The Maltese Falcon is a movie of lies. Sometimes I don’t think any of the main characters said one true thing throughout this whole movie. O’Shaughnessy sums it up nicely when Spade asks her, “Is there any truth in that?” She replies, “Some, not much.” If you listen and watch closely, Astor and Bogart seem to say their lines differently when they’re lying to each other. There is a hollow ring to them, like they‘re sure the other person doesn‘t believe a word of it. Spade even says as much when he tells Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), “I took it for granted that she was lying.” In fact the lies are so thick that we never really learn the truth about a great many things. For instance, who murdered the much mentioned, but never seen Floyd Thursby and Captain Jacobi, whose other scene seems to have been mysteriously cut from the movie? Gutman offers a very long explanation which slowly becomes less and less believable. He says, “Wilmer shot Jacobi as he was coming down the fire escape. Shot him more than once. Jacobi was too tough to fall or drop the falcon. He climbed down the rest of the way, knocked Wilmer over, and ran off."
It’s also a film about obsession. Gutman, Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), and O’Shaugnessy are willing to go to any lengths for the falcon. Nowhere is this more evident than when Gutman betrays Wilmer, who he claimed was like a son to him. He offers Wilmer this chilling explanation, “Well, if you lose a son, it's possible to get another. There's only one Maltese Falcon.”
Sam Spade seems to be nearly infallible. Much like James Bond, Spade is never seen out of his element. This is most evident when during a scuffle with Cairo in his office, Spade manages to keep his cigarette in his mouth at all times. Spade always knows exactly what to do or say, and his orders are always followed without question. Even the cops are like putty in his hands. Who else could ask a cop, “what’s your boyfriend trying to say,” and not get run in? To Spade, being a private eye is like a stage performance. Spade plays a man who thinks only of money, but in his final exchanges with O’Shaugnessy he hints to his true nature, “Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be. That sort of reputation might be good business, bringing high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy.” Spade, in essence is again just like Bond, a man who does not exist outside of his job, which is his one true passion. The only times Spade smiles is when he catches someone lying or knows he’s fooled someone.
It’s no secret that Spade didn’t like his partner Archer much. He doesn’t react at all when he finds out he’s been killed. He just goes through the motions, his greatest concern is keeping his distance from Archer’s widow Iva. The detail that Spade and Iva had an affair is an interesting one. We are left to wonder what happened. The one thing we can be sure of is that to Spade it is long forgotten. He says, “Don’t be silly, I wish I’d never laid eyes on her.” Everything continues to point to Spade not caring about his partner’s murder. He immediately changes “Spade and Archer,” the name of his business, to “Samuel Spade.” However, at the end of the movie Spade reveals that all along he was acting for his dead partner. He says, “When a man's partner's killed, he's supposed to do something about it. It doesn't make any difference what you thought of him, he was your partner, and you're supposed to do something about it. And it happens we're in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it's - it's bad business to let the killer get away with it. Bad all around. Bad for every detective everywhere.” Here, Spade has given two very different motivations. Did Spade act because of his sense of duty to his partner or did he act to preserve his business and the reputation of detectives at large? We can’t know for sure.
Did Spade have any real feelings for O’Shaugnessy? In the end it doesn’t matter because Spade knows that he could never really trust her. She tries to argue that if his love was true that he could forget everything else. Spade looks at the situation logically and sees that their are too many strikes against her and decides that no matter how he feels, he’d be an idiot to believe anything she says.