The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The Maltese Falcon was shot almost exclusively on sets, which permitted a high degree of control and technique. John Huston's first solo effort as director (and Humphrey Bogart's first starring role) was a model of planning and economy, with every shot predetermined. Recognizing that little needed to be done to Hammett's novel to turn it into a screenplay, Huston changed only the exterior scenes and added telephone calls and spinning tires as transitions between interior sets.

While the novel evokes San Francisco, the movie's setting is minor; as Bruce Crowther notes, the novel could have taken place in any harbor city. 12 But a technological conception of San Francisco becomes important in the movie. The movie opens with a wide shot of the Bay Bridge, which appears nowhere in the book and was only completed after Hammett wrote his novel. A montage of San Francisco scenes follows, then the bridge again and a reverse zoom that leaves us in the offices of Spade and Archer, who are thus connected to this icon, which remains visible in their windows during most office scenes. The opening of the novel gives viewers a different kind of architecture – that of Sam Spade's "bony" V-shaped jaw, nostrils, nose and eyebrows, which make an Art Moderne design.

The shots of the bridge were an allusion to new bridges in general, specifically the Golden Gate Bridge. Completed only four years before the movie, that famous bridge celebrates a particular kind of technology. Like Hoover Dam and the California Aqueduct, all massive and geographically transforming, it is located in California and viewed popularly as part of the New Deal remedy for the Depression.

Following Brigid's visit to Spade's office, Huston created a celebrated sequence. A telephone rings in a darkened room and Spade, answering but never visible, hears of his partner's death. His responses seem like a "voice over" (when someone not present explains a scene to the audience), but since he is present, the technique suggets that he is somehow absent. The camera remains focussed on the base of the phone, behind which a curtain blows languidly over a window opening on city lights and night sounds. In the novel Hammett communicated the same sense of Spade's ambiguous feelings about his partner in a famous passage detailing his technique for rolling a cigarette. Huston took Hammett's hint, making technique stand as a metaphor for character.

Spade takes a cab to Stockton and Bush Streets, where Archer's body lies at the bottom of a slope. By alternating high angle shots (down on Archer) with low angle shots (Spade looking up to where Archer was shot), Huston establishes the urban equivalent of the Western's box canyon. On three sides buildings rise up, while the far end is enclosed by a hill, trees, and distant buildings. The setting is surprising, initially because of the trees and natural elements, but also because of Spade's unease in nature. Hammett's novel described police hunting under a billboard at this scene.

Huston shot most of the middle of the movie on beautifully lighted sets that could have served any musical. The scenes between Bogart and Mary Astor (Brigid O'Shaughnessy) employ conventional camera angles and three-point lighting. What is unusual is the number of telephone calls (a dozen) and the tightly framed shots of this object. Telephones not only deliver more information than in the novel, but become transitions to cut from scene to scene. They are used figuratively: because a call is made, something happens.

In the movie's final scenes at Spade's apartment, Huston laid great emphasis on Gutman as the symbolic father, eliminating the novel's sexually abused daughter. Forced to choose either Cairo or Wilmer as fall guy, Gutman tells Spade that he "feels toward Wilmer exactly as if he were my own son." Hammett had elected the homosexual Wilmer as the scapegoat, but Huston cast aside sexuality and even kinship as motivations. Gutman says to Wilmer, "I couldn't be fonder of you if you were my own son. But if you lose a son it's possible to get another. There's only one Maltese falcon." His other "son," Cairo, rages at Gutman for being an "imbecile" and "incompetent" when the falcon turns out to be a fake. Our sympathy must rest with Spade, but he is hardly a romantic. Contrast his performance here with that in High Sierra: he resists the allure of travel, a beautiful woman, quick gains, and phony philanthropy, to conserve society as it is. He shows the enormous cost of just getting through life with some honesty and integrity.

The only problem with the novel as a movie script would seem to be the question of Spade's honesty with Brigid, hidden by the third person "objective" point of view in the novel, as Robert Edenbaum pointed out. Huston took much of Spade's "objective" complexity and transferred it through technique to the camera. Film scholar David Bordwell points out that Huston abandoned Spade's point-of-view early by showing the death of Miles Archer, but "declines to show the killer (we see only a gloved hand)." 13

The movie knows whodunit, suggesting that whatever off-screen force affects him affects us too. It accomplishes this by misdirection. The opening titles that scroll over the falcon suggest that its value is established fact, but in the novel the tale of pedigree is delayed until later. The novel's statuette is unseen until finally unwrapped, and it dupes the crooks, not Spade. The movie's statue, coming first, dupes us too.

Murder, My Sweet (Dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1944) was the first of two attempts to film Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely. It starred Dick Powell as Marlowe and Claire Trevor as Velma. Powell had made his name in Busby Berkeley's musicals, so screenwriter John Paxton gave him a flashback structure that allowed extensive voice-over narration imitating Chandler's style. As a result Powell is more convincing to modern audiences than he was to those of the 1940s. But he "lacks Spade's self conscience and mastery of others," writes Palmer, so the movie becomes "an imitation of The Maltese Falcon."17 The plot is even more confusing than the novel's, which it generally follows. Stylistic touches, such as the opening shots of the police interrogating the blind-folded Marlowe and the montage of swirling, surreal vistas that he experiences on being mugged, create a threatened, almost powerless Marlowe, whose "disavowal of male power" is made complete by his romantic coupling with Anne Riordan at the movie's end. 18 Not how Chandler wrote it, but a central movie in film noir, which stresses powerlessness.

The film was remade again in 1975 with Robert Michum and released as Farewell, My Lovely. This version also has its partisans, who cite the older, world-weary Mitchum as truer to Chandler's characterization.

  17 R. Barton Palmer, Hollywood's Dark Cinema: The American Film Noir (New York: Twayne, 1994), 73. 18 Palmer, 81.

 

 
 
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