film: Huston: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

The-Maltese-FalconIf you didn’t know, I studied film during my first year in college, and finding myself, after one year, too emotionally unstable to continue its pursuit, I switched to studying something else. I didn’t watch another film until 2007–and this was it. Watching it, I suddenly understood many things I hadn’t as an artsy film student trying to “get” Godard’s À bout de souffle, and so I decided I’d watch the classics so I could understand French New Wave. And then I figured, well, I might as well just take things from the beginning since the popular medium began less than a century ago, and that explains why I’m watching all these silents. It’s not because I have a passion for silent film…I’m actually more fond of Bergman and Godard. So…here we have the beginnings of this project.

Okay, so now I’ve seen the whole film. Though not necessarily in the correct order, I’ve seen it, and I’ve begun to pick up on what the defining traits of Sam Spade are–though, if I mean Humphrey Bogart, then I will know after having seen Casablanca. I was prepared this time around to not understand the characters because they speak too quickly, so I kept subtitles on, and I had the pleasure of being able to rewind and watch bits multiple times (Sam Spade pulls the guy’s jacket down over his arms, and grabs the guns from his pocket–how’d he do that?) Now I’ve seen detective films from three different decades: Fantomas, in which Juve doesn’t really have much charisma, so we find ourselves cheering for Fantomas, as heartless as he is, just hoping that his victims will end up alright as often as possible. Nick Charles [The Thin Man], he’s got the charisma, and he’s got the smarts. Juve tends to have things go smoothly, Nick Charles would take a smooth ending and find a reason why it’s entirely wrong, and sneak off to make things more exciting. But for all his quips, and however quick he is in punching out his wife when he determines she’s in the line of fire of the gun he’s about to provoke, he’s still drunk for the whole movie, and always seems but hairs breadth away from being badly damaged. But Sam Spade, he seems like he invented smart one-liners, and he’s so easy with them that he condemns others for using them poorly. Everyone’s against him, and he himself is fallible and a bit immoral, coldly working for money and sex, threatening and extorting and earning our support all the while. He reads people, he reads situations, and one wonders if he’s acting, ever. So, now it’s clear where Godard builds his Michel–who uses Bogart’s character to no good, and begs the question, is there a normative morality? One character modeled on the other, yet with tragic results, despite romantic plots. Perhaps that’s the division between Hollywood and Godard, or of movies and life, or an observation that Sam Spade is only himself when in his home environment, when he knows the tricks of getting through locked buildings and the DA’s by name. Would Sam Spade kill a cop? Perhaps, but he wouldn’t hide afterwards.

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