14 August 2007
The Maltese Falcon revisited
Yesterday I had the pleasure of taking my son to see The Maltese Falcon on the big screen. I have seen the film at least 4 times before , but was still bristling with excitement beforehand, tinged with just a little trepidation as to how he would cope with ‘film noir’ at the tender age of 10. I’d prepared him by emphasising that it was a dialogue-driven, rather than CGI-driven film, and that it was not in colour. “What, none of it is in colour?” has asked at one point. Er, no, absolutely none. It is film noir et blanc, or at least, various shades of gris, in presentation if not in content.
Although it was late and he was weary, I am glad to report that he liked the film, giving it “less than 4 stars but more than 3 and a half”. On that basis, I think he preferred it to Shrek 3, which we are agreed was pretty awful, with untold money being spent on CGI where a decent writer may have been more useful, but less than Spiderman 3. I guess, in the balance, that should be considered a victory.
I, on the other hand, had expected to be underwhelmed by a film with which I was already so familiar. Instead, I was completely wrapped in every moment of it on the larger screen, drawn into Bogart’s every sneer and smirk, irked by Peter Lorre’s sinister simpering, beguiled by Sydney Greenstreet’s deep, yet threatening reasonableness, and almost seduced by Mary Astor’s beguiling dishonesty. Characters complex, yet without depth, each one almost psychopathic in his or her lack of emotion and sympathy. And with a sympathetic audience around me, the sheer brilliance of the writing seemed compounded. Even out of context the many of the lines seem magical:
BRIGID O’SHAUGHNESSY (MARY ASTOR): He has a wife and three children in England.
SAM SPADE (HUMPHREY BOGART): They usually do, though not always in England.
SAM SPADE: We didn’t exactly believe your story, Miss O’Shaughnessy. We believed your two hundred dollars.
BRIGID O’SHAUGHNESSY: You mean that—
SAM SPADE: I mean, you paid us more than if you’d been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it all right.
SAM SPADE: When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it!
KASPER GUTMAN (SYDNEY GREENSTREET): I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously, unless you keep in practice. Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like. I’ll tell you right out, I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.
KASPER GUTMAN: I distrust a man who says “when”. If he’s got to be careful not to drink too much, it’s because he’s not to be trusted when he does.
KASPER GUTMAN: Well, Wilmer, I’m sorry indeed to lose you, but I want you to know I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. Well, if you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon.
SAM SPADE: Yes, angel, I’m going to send you over. But chances are, you’ll get off with life. That means, if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in twenty years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.
SAM SPADE: All we’ve got is that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.
BRIGID O’SHAUGHNESSY: You know whether you love me or not.
SAM SPADE: Maybe I do. I’ll have some rotten nights after I’ve sent you over, but that’ll pass.
I looked up Falcon in my Halliwell’s when back home, and found it had 3 Academy Award nominations in 1941, but no wins. Then I remembered that another one of my favourites was released in the same year, Citizen Kane, one of the handful of films which could legitimately lay claim to being the greatest film ever. What bad luck for Falcon, I thought, then discovered that the film that had cleaned up at the 1941 Oscars was, in fact, the now very dated-looking How Green was my Valley.
But The Maltese Falcon has not dated, only matured. And as Hollywood has moved from silent film, to talkies, and somehow back again to a new age of pseudo-silent film through CGI-driven blockbusters which no longer exalt acting or screenwriting, the black bird seems to have been given new wings.