Friday, August 19, 2011

Retro Review- The Maltese Falcon (1941, John Huston)

The Maltese Falcon is often cited as the movie that started the film noir era of the American film industry. An era full of crime stories that were so clearly defined by standards that included cynical characters and dark motivations for one's actions (among a variety of other characteristics). I'm a fan of the period, but The Maltese Falcon was even then a surprisingly complex film for me to digest. So much is going on with its characters and plot that your interest as the viewer never ends until Sam's last memorable line.

The story is that of private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) who sends his investigator partner to tail a man who ran off with the sister of a worrying femme fatale (Mary Astor) that is Sam's new client. When his partner is killed, Sam is thrust into a game of cat-and-mouse, shifting alliances, and double crosses all centered around recovering an expensive artifact called The Falcon. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet star as two men who are both separately competing for the statue and they both try to buy Sam's loyalty... but Sam has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Spade is a really rough guy on the outside, but a truly innovative man on the inside. The question of whose interests he is looking out for constantly looms over the audience, but one look at Bogart's suave demeanor and you know that Sam already has a plan to get out of any sticky situation. A lot of the joy of watching The Maltese Falcon includes not knowing the diverse set of characters who themselves have numerous eccentricities, so I won't say much other than it is another well-cast classic that lives up to its hype. I mean, this was the film that put Bogart on the map. To think that we wouldn't have the memorable Rick Blaine from Casablanca if he hadn't been Sam Spade... Bogart has created such a distinctive niche for himself in American film history.

As for a technical aspect I noticed, I loved the slightly low camera angles. They wouldn't be awkward but I read online that they would always be on enough of a slant that you saw the ceiling above the characters giving everyone such a dominating look as they moved across the also brilliantly designed sets. That being said, the one thing that I'm amazed the most about, above the acting and visuals, is that all of this complexity was captured by a first-time director.

This is perhaps the most accomplishing directorial debut aside from Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men. John Huston is such a great writer-director who was said to be so detail oriented when it came to planning a scene and with films like the ones I'm going to list, that commitment really shows. The Treasure of Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The Asphalt Jungle, The African Queen, Moby Dick, The Unforgiven, The Misfits, The Night of the Iguana, Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Man Who Would Be King, Under the Volcano, Prizzi's Honor, and The Dead. Huston practically died in the directing chair and to think that major stars turned down The Maltese Falcon because they didn't want to work with a first-timer.

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