2016 is 75 years on from 1941, one of the finest years ever in cinema. Let’s dredge up a little history for the week in honor of that cabal of films.
An ice-cold film, and a stone-cold masterpiece; beneath John Huston’s ostensibly congenial and cordial conversation piece beats the pitch-black heart of an interior-trapped world opening its eyes to the search for meaning, even if nobody knows what they’re looking for. The Maltese Falcon’s place in film history is enshrined in the decades of films that have imbibed in its reverberations throughout time. Often cited as the first noir, which may or may not be true, the film was more importantly the introduction to fame for Humphrey Bogart and the first film of legendary director John Huston. A duo that would light a fire and blaze a trail though cinema for a little while, their masterpiece was still seven years away as of The Maltese Falcon’s release in 1941. But if the knuckle-dusted and iron-clad The Maltese Falcon lacks the monumental quality of the hot-headed, thousand-shades-of-grey tall tale from across the border, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, then their debut doesn’t stand exclusively on its reputation either. Nearly silent though its craft may be, The Maltese Falcon is a film where each person is a potential swindler, each step a walking threat of the world collapsing around you, and each shot a last will and testament.
Ensnared in its own legends, the actual film is a sinister concrete slab of take-charge ambition, but compared to something like Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, being shot in the same city at the same time, Huston’s film is almost timid. There’s a seething brutality under every line and in every expression, but the film almost willfully decries our initial assumption that it will underline and direct ever movement. Instead, the story – which is essentially a Macguffin, with detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) one of many lions on the prowl for an irrelevant, intentionally arbitrary statue bearing the film’s name – plays out in an almost laid-back, conversational series of character-piece strokes. Welles’ world-conquering ambition is nowhere to be found, replaced instead with a private, closet-tantrum of style that is left dormant and below the surface. Fear exists at a subterranean level, with the careful, caustic reservation in every person’s movement hiding a wellspring of mortal disquiet that seeps into the nominally steadfast film in slivers and shards that corrode your every hope of humanity ever establishing a connection with itself. Conversations are nominally buttoned-up in hospitable ribbons, but every seemingly good-natured utterance hides a knife or seven beneath its warm-hearted grace.
In most modern thrillers like, say, The Sixth Sense, revelations are hidden simply for the mechanical machinations of revealing them to audiences who rejoice in tricksy, over-determined subtlety for the sake of subtlety. Meaning is deprived simply for the Pavlovian thrill of depriving it and then having it answered for us. In John Huston’s discreet adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s prose, however, the tangled web of revelation is an act of malice-stricken constant-conflict-renegotiating. Rather than delaying for the sake of it, the film pivots into a world squeezed-dry of a heart, the camera corroborating a perpetual-motion play of revelation that speaks to the nearly Lovecraftian sense of a world beyond what we can initially see and the human craving to reach beyond the veil. Each revelation is no longer a thing to exclaim at, but a further descent into a maelstrom of malevolence and desire; all we know in the end is that we know nothing, and that we’re doomed to try to know more.
What we don’t know isn’t simply something to be solved, as in The Sixth Sense, but an act of humbling self-exploration as the film actively acclimatizes itself to the fact that all truths are halved and all statements dubious, to the fact that our desire to puncture the shells around other people will always be threatened by the shells we erect ourselves. The very artifice of the falcon itself, a fated ark of the covenant that everyone kills for even though it’s nothing more than a “dingus”, suggests an almost abstract collective spidery human curiosity, a search for meaning in a toxic netherworld that humanizes the most demonic corners of the clandestine death shroud around Spade’s detached, metallurgically precise midnight-cool visage. Revelation is, rather than a solution that pacifies our worries with its closure, instead a fundamentally temporal state, a temporary knowledge that exists to be undercut by whatever comes next. Revelation can’t be delayed because it is never final, never truly revelation. The pulse for revelation becomes a fetid amoral swamp that burrows into humanity’s need to pursue whatever crosses its way; the quest for an answer becomes the “stuff that dreams are made of”, and in the end, the stuff that hell is made of. The finale isn’t an exclamation of epiphany, but a “just another day” shrug and a resignation to the fact that the whole experience was hollow, and we all end up right back where we started.
Maltese is a chatty film, ghouls and specters ricocheting around Spade’s obelisk-like petrified forest, with the gumshoe placing himself at a hushed but not misanthropic remove from everyone around him so as to avoid the tantrum of being sucked into the toxic vortex of animalistic want and need circling around him. They’re all vultures, from Syndney Greenstreet’s jolly malevolent giant to Peter Lorre’s knee-jerk exchanges between effete passivity and cackling terror to goon Wilmer’s worried brio. Even Mary Astor’s vicious wellspring of need is in on the hunt and playing Spade in a constantly recalibrating and expanding springboard of shifting allegiance, a tango between animosity and amicability that is disarming in its understanding of continued revelation as a vortex for our temporal states, always shifting, always craving, always redrawing ourselves to fit the needs of the situation. Revelation isn’t an exultant exclamation point that a film rushes toward with messianic clarity and confidence, as with The Sixth Sense, but a lurching, arrhythmic window into the human process of discovering the world around us, a process that doesn’t conclude but always pivots between tense, tenuous states of understanding.
And windows are both necessary and necessarily minimal in this fearlessly interior world where the slightest whiff of the outside (the initial killing, for instance) is presented in tympanic, punchy shots that suggest a fever dream of disconnected moments more than a cohesive, complete-able exterior realm. Comfort, then, is in the interior world, but so is mortality. The vise-grip of Huston’s film is the parade of rooms and offices that, on one hand, reflect internal shields we erect to keep the world at bay and, on the other, form glass menageries and hot-houses that jeopardize our insular selves. There’s a lot of talk in The Maltese Falcon, but in this film talk is tension and terror, each word throbbing with false determination erected by people who have everything to hide. Transpiring in a world of dynamic verbal viscosity, each word and intonation shift becomes a vorpal blade into the heart of a world where allegiances are tenuous and a human’s only true friend is their own body. And even then, the kinship is tentative and fraught with peril at best. The world of The Maltese Falcon is a world in which you can double-cross your own self.
Cinematographer Arthur Edison rescinds the grandstanding, mountain-climbing rococo style of Gregg Toland’s work on Citizen Kane, swapping out for filigrees of claustrophobic framing and shards of lighting that fluctuate in harmony with shifting power dynamics. Shuttling between irritable interior realms, Maltese is tense with cabin fever, always uncovering corners of space in search of an escape route in the form of human contact. Edison’s silently perfect lensing catalyzes the serpentine, dexterous interplay of people opened-up in their search for connection with others and simultaneously foreclosed by the lecherous animal jabs they each throw each other’s way. The open framing and typically wide, full-room shots afford space for people to saunter in and out of the frame as alliances alter themselves; the always composite, fluxional, multi-layered nature of human connection is both clarified and jeopardized with every passing scene. Even the totemic, uncomfortable close-ups – room for individual characters to breathe, alone, until their lined-visages almost douse the screen in sweat – are disturbed by lingering, termite-like humans in the background ready to burrow into the frame, foreclosing the possibility of real insularity in a world of fire ants and evoking the duality of people who exist in the same room, but never actually on the same plane of thought.
As Spade punches out of his mouth, “I think we’d be better off all around if we put our cards out on the table”, and as Lorre’s character Joel Cairo nearly whispers, “No I do not think it would be better. You see Mr. Spade, if you know more than I do, then I shall profit”. The world is stricken with sharks, and befriending one might mean becoming one yourself, or realizing that you can’t become what you already are. Lines of dialogue steaming through closeted, cramped rooms like they’re trying to punch their way out, the characters recite like they’re in a haze as their various put-on costumes and identities are tested. They snarl and snivel and smirk at one another as they feel out each other, challenging each other’s volition, playing around with their masculine identities now trapped in an interpersonal battleground.
And then they recant and recede into their preprogrammed, suited-up codes and dazes when the need to justify their actions arises, like a lion’s den where the lions can’t decide between zippered-mouth poker faces and chest-thumping with supercilious, tell-all smiles. Even the pursuit of the Falcon fits the bill – Greenstreet’s Kasper Gutman’s words about it circle it like they are passionately rubbing it erotically, like he’s thought about it with vigor for every day of his life. But, at the same time, it’s never more than a vague philosophy, an abstract idea of an object to search for simply to search for something with an almost zombified precognitive need, as if it has colonized his thoughts and is now infecting everyone with an almost unconscious, uncontrollable thirst for the hunt.
The film’s currency is epitomized in the self-destroying brutality of people constructing, questioning, and troubling their public identities on an hourly rate, renegotiating their positions with others, and themselves, by the minute. The facades and monologues we adopt and prepare for each other become a gateway into the way we negotiate the world; beyond that, these facades, ever interruptible and corruptible both by others and by our own minds, clarify our deeply dubious existences in that world by reminding us that we are deeply unstable creatures in a deeply unknown land.
Shocking considering the sublimated-expressionism tendencies of the future noir genre as it would emerge by the end of the decade, the visual craft in The Maltese Falcon is so streamlined and suave as to almost be invisible. Much like the sophisticated fronts adopted by men like Spade, the film is slick and casual on the surface but deeply effortful and guided below. There’s a certain feeling-things-out vibe implicit in the film, a poised self-control bordering on timidity that suggests a prudence on the film’s part, an inability to move beyond itself, a fear over its shoulders and a frightful chill in its step. At some level, this suggests a certain moderation and self-control that denies this film the ambition of many future noirs, from the apocalyptic atom-age nuclear explosion of Kiss Me Deadly to the tough-talking, muck-raking Sweet Smell of Success to the final mainstream film from Orson Welles, Touch of Evil, with its self-hating, baroque charisma. In comparison, The Maltese Falcon is not a rash film; it’s damn near an ascetic one, and the droll self-control, for all it sacrifices certain gleeful eccentricities found in later films of the genre, also suggests a sincere reflection of a world between Depression and war where severe shrewdness may have felt like the only way to survive at all.
With vultures on all sides, or at least the thought of vultures on all sides colonizing everyone’s minds, there may have been nothing to do but spend every step exercising the insular, self-centered thought that your well-being was exclusively the confrontation between your inner-distance from the world and the pocket identities you try on to save face around others. In comparison to something like the nihilistic elan of Kiss Me Deadly, The Maltese Falcon carries with it the hope that it can be a nuclear deterrent if only it watches its every movement, and waits with baited breath in hope that playing the social-but-asocial game will eventually find it an answer. But it sure isn’t counting on it.