Posted by Susan Doll on February 15, 2016
TCM in conjunction with Fathom Entertainment celebrates the 75th anniversary of The Maltese Falcon on February 21 and February 24, exhibiting the film at participating theaters. John Huston’s masterpiece, which shows at 2:00pm and 7:00pm on both days, will be introduced by Ben Mankiewicz in a brief filmed commentary. Check the Fathom website for more details.
Last fall, I showed The Maltese Falcon as part of a course on film noir. Though it is considered one of the earliest examples of noir, and therefore important as a foundation, I struggled with whether to show a film I had seen so many times. I thought of showing the less-familiar Stranger on the Third Floor, because it would be more interesting to me. But, I knew that the majority of the students had not seen The Maltese Falcon. As I began to pull together the course material, I grew more excited at the implications of introducing them to such an iconic film. This was their introduction not only to The Maltese Falcon but also the genre of film noir. They would be seeing it with the freshness and excitement of first-time viewers, and I had a part to play in that.
Film noir developed in the studio system during the Golden Age, and yet it defied many of the norms and conventions of that era. It was the genre that broke the rules—a big deal considering how entrenched certain norms, conventions, and formulas were during the Golden Age. For young people unfamiliar with the systems and practices of the studio system, noir’s defiance of those systems and practices would not be readily apparent.
A few students had heard of the Production Code, the self-censorship system that was part of the Hollywood industry during the studio era. But, none of them realized the Code not only controlled images of sex and violence but also prevented negative depictions of America’s social institutions and ideology. However, film noir challenged those institutions with its depiction of widespread corruption that went unchecked. Though this is not as obvious in The Maltese Falcon as it would be in later films, institutional corruption does lurk in the details of the plot: When Brigid O’Shaughnessy asks Sam Spade to keep her name out of the papers after the murder of Spade’s partner Miles Archer, a veiled conversation in Sam’s office reveals that he paid off someone (the police?) to keep her out of the limelight. In discussion, students mentioned that this detail and its implications would not have registered with them if they had watched the film on their own.
Students expressed surprise at the melancholy ending of The Maltese Falcon, in which Sam sends Brigid “up the river” for the murder of his partner. Because it was an “old movie,” they expected romance to prevail, redeeming Brigid of her sins and relieving Sam of his bitter loneliness. The typical happy ending, in which the protagonist ends up with the leading lady, was yet another rule that film noir broke. Generally, a Hollywood film ended in “the clinch,” which was industry slang for the concluding kiss, hug, or embrace that not only signified a permanent relationship for the couple (i.e. the institution of marriage) but also that other social institutions had come through to help solve the problem or meet the goal. The conclusion of The Maltese Falcon is the opposite of the clinch, signaling something is rotten in the state of Denmark. . . or at least in the state of holy matrimony.
Most of the students were familiar with the phrase hard-boiled, but they didn’t know its derivation, or what it meant in terms of a protagonist’s personality. Like a hard-boiled egg, which is hard all the way through, noir protagonists do not go soft when they are beaten down by whatever life throws their way. The students liked this archetype, particularly as depicted by Bogart as Sam Spade. They found his cynicism and his ability to verbally put other characters in their places relatable, because they are accustomed to movie anti-heroes who toss off one-liners as part of their hip personas. Their appreciation increased at the understanding that noir protagonists deviated from the heroic leading men of other genres. Unlike their heroic counterparts, noir detective figures are marginalized and alienated. There is little hope that they will change and assimilate into mainstream society. Like Sam Spade, it’s not unusual for the detective figure to be worse off at the end of the film than he was at beginning. In general, he has no money or social standing, no family or friends, only the job. Though flawed, and easily tempted by the femme fatale, he claims a personal code of honor. He is morally flexible but not morally bankrupt.
The convention of film noir that made the biggest impression on the students was the use of cigarettes (and sometimes drinking) to reveal what the protagonist really thought about another character. The noir protagonist rarely says what he thinks or feels. His attraction to the femme fatale or his trust in another character is often suggested through the offering and lighting of a cigarette. In an era when smoking has been demonized onscreen, this convention fascinated the students and became an easy one to spot and interpret.
I introduced Humphrey Bogart as the King of Noir, largely because of his identification with Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe in the genre’s early years. I explained that the genre attracted stars that did not always fit the mold of the strong, attractive leading man. Bogart was not classically handsome. Shrapnel injured his face during WWI, tearing a muscle around his mouth resulting in a grimace-like smile. But, in film noir, that was not a problem, because noir protagonists rarely had anything to smile about, and they were not expressive. They were cynical, cool, and hard-boiled. Actors tended to play these characters very tight, with minimal gestures and slight expressions. When John Huston cast Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon, it cemented the actor’s star image as the reluctant hero or the anti-hero—the alienated cynic with a tarnished code of honor. The students enjoyed the fact that they were seeing the birth of Bogart’s star image.
At the end of the semester, when asked to name their favorite noir movie, many students selected The Maltese Falcon because it was easy to recognize the conventions and archetypes. Even those students who did not name it their favorite found it useful in appreciating the tropes and conventions of the genre. I know I made the right decision to show this film.
In some ways, I have a similar agenda as the TCM-Fathom series, which brings a classic Hollywood film to the big screen every month. It’s the desire to introduce young audiences to the significance of the classics and their power to move us. One of my best students, Merari Judith Velez Ramos, said it much better than me: “I think [The Maltese Falcon] does hold up today since it has all the elements [of film noir], and it has that twist ending. What I would say to someone who says that old movies are too old-fashioned and are not interesting is that I used to be one of them. [In] taking film classes the past four years, I have come to learn that there is so much more to them. They are highly interesting and if you understand the context of the times (WWII, people’s behavior and attitudes), it will make sense, and we can see how it applies to us today; how we have evolved in our attitudes and views about life. . . . I would say I am a fan of older movies, and will continue watching them.”
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