The Maltese Falcon
Our critics on John Huston's classic noir
[7 other departments featured: we snip them as they are unrelated to film noir]
“A young newcomer, John Huston, made the most interesting film of the season,” wrote Herman G. Weinberg in his News from New York column in the Spring 1942 issue of Sight and Sound, “but then a Dashiell Hammett story almost can't miss on the screen, they're so well-knit.” That was the first mention of The Maltese Falcon in our pages. Far from the last.
Later that year, Evelyn Russell was in in agreement, though neither Humphrey Bogart nor Mary Astor warranted a mention by name: “The son of a famous father--who incidentally plays a very small part in the film. for luck, perhaps--John Huston has used with effective moderation the idea of the camera seeking and emphasising some characteristic, mental or physical or both of its subject rather than its ordinary form. This approach has undoubtedly added to the strength of the very fine performance of Sidney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman, the arch-crook, and Mr. Huston has been wise enough to confine the idea to one character only. His lighting and camera work is unusual in what would normally be unnoticed sequences.
“The story is strong of itself with an unusual ending and fine acting, but it is the treatment which makes it the best thriller so far this year.”
By 1969, Huston was no longer a newcomer, and The Maltese Falcon was seen as the blazing start to a long and illustrious career. But still, it was a feat that could never be surpassed. “It is always disastrous to start your career with a masterpiece. No one will ever let you live it down, or allow that you are living up to it,” wrote John Russell Taylor in a profile of the director.
“The Maltese Falcon is, undoubtedly, a masterpiece of a sort. But the sort is puzzling, unrepeatable--even if John Huston had ever wanted to repeat it. The film's special quality comes from its extreme tightness: everything follows unhesitatingly from what has gone before, there are no gaps, no pauses, no chance to dwell on atmosphere or character as something apart from the story. The characters are the story--or vice versa--and atmosphere is understood without independent development as quite simply the space which, for the duration of the picture, they happen to inhabit. Everything is as pared down and self-defining as a Pinter play. And, since after all the film was adapted closely from a famous and very well-written book, by choosing to make the film in this way the director, almost by definition, excludes himself: he is, at most, an ironic angle of vision--rather as Bresson in Mouchette is a godlike, compassionate angle of vision.”
[So...Huston is the godfather of Bresson?]
In Autumn 1976 Robert G Porfirio identified Bogart's Sam Spade as “the least typical noir hero since he is the least vulnerable”:
“Spade is by nature an existentialist, with a strong conception of the randomness of existence. Robert Edenbaum sees Spade as representative of Hammett's 'daemonic' tough guy: ‘He is free of sentiment, of the fear of death, of the temptations of money and sex. He is what Albert Camus calls "a man without memory", free of the burden of the past. He is capable of any action, without regard to conventional morality, and thus is apparently as amoral ... as his antagonists. His refusal to submit to the trammels which limit ordinary mortals results in a godlike immunity and independence, beyond the power of his enemies ... [but] the price he pays for his power is to be cut off behind his own self-imposed masks, in an isolation that no criminal, in a community of crime, has to face.'"
[Oh, come on, Bob: "when your partner's killed, you're supposed to do something about it" strikes us as some form of "sentiment." And Spade barely escapes the temptations of Brigid O'Shaughnessy. Perhaps his "amorality" is based on the desperate need to adopt extreme measures to outwit a band of ruthless, if somewhat overcolorful criminals. (Of course, Porfirio is American, so he's more likely to be overawed by Camus and apply him in places that don't really fit.)]
It was this resistance to temptation that preoccupied Lindsay Anderson when he wrote about Astor's appearance in the film in Autumn 1990: “One can only thank God for the good fortune that caused the leading roles to be turned down by George Raft and Geraldine Fitzgerald."
“Yet even here--and I must admit that the thought only occurred to me after seeing the film three or four times--it is difficult to be sure that Sam Spade and Brigid O'Shaughnessy have actually slept together. Perhaps this is due to the relationship between Huston and Mary Astor (which she herself never mentioned); perhaps to the innate puritanism of both Astor and Bogart. The film, you may say, doesn't need it; and as it was made, it doesn't. Yet a certain unbridled sensuality should be there. It isn't; and that is another fact about Mary Astor."
[Lindsay Anderson appears not to have read Mary Astor's private diaries, which were readily available in Autumn 1990.]
As for Bogey? For some controversial words on his performance from our pages, scroll down to the bottom of this newsletter.
A critique of Humphrey Bogart's performance in The Maltese Falcon by a fellow Hollywood star--but which one?
"In The Maltese Falcon his part was uncomplicated, but too much dialogue betrayed the fact that his miserable theatrical training had left him permanently afraid of words. In short speeches he cleverly masked his fear with his tricks of mouth and voice. But when he was allotted part of the burden of exposition in this film, his eyes glazed and invisible comic strip balloons circled his dialogue."
A veritable barn-burner of a piece, highly unrepresentative of SIGHT & SOUND. Certainly not written by a Brit, a faux-existentialist American, or any other species of over-educated dimbulb.
Who is it? Let the guessing begin!