what i watched last week
as the republicans choose their presidential candidate

#18: the maltese falcon (john huston, 1941)

(This is the 33rd of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

John Huston, who also wrote the screenplay, realized from the start that Dashiell Hammett’s novel, with its terse style and realistic dialogue, was as perfect a screenplay as any novel could be. Huston allows Sam Spade to emerge, as he does in the book, as a self-interested hero with more than a little of the sadist in him.

What is missing from this film version is the critique of Spade that Hammett offers. Hammett uses the third-person to allow the reader to “see” Spade; the reader is encouraged to evaluate Spade rather than identify with him. Huston changes this perspective by shooting the movie largely from Spade’s point of view: while in the novel, Hammett’s description of Spade as he beats Joel Cairo is oddly distancing, as if the reader were interrupting Spade as he slept, the movie, with Bogart’s face showing clear enjoyment as he roughs up Cairo, allows the audience to feel superior to Cairo and to join Spade in his pleasure. The audience’s identification with Spade turns actions that would otherwise seem cruel into positive actions.

Though noteworthy for its seeming faithfulness to the novel, Huston’s movie does eliminate a final scene that is remarkable for what it shows about the movie’s desire to remake Spade’s image. Hammett leaves the reader with a hero who, for all his seeming victories, has lost more than he has won, someone who has alienated his best friend and sent his true lover to jail, someone who will return to a sleazy affair he had never enjoyed. It is a downbeat ending in line with Hammett’s cynical mistrust of heroic individualism. Huston omits this final scene, with its implications of failure, ending his movie instead with the barred elevator doors closing on Brigid O’Shaughnessy and Sam Spade walking down the steps, the faux falcon (“the stuff dreams are made of”) in his hands. Spade has lost his lover, but he has solved the case and avenged his partner. By dispensing with Hammett’s final chapter, Huston is able to maintain the aura of invincibility that Bogart/Spade has carried with him throughout the movie, in direct opposition to Hammett’s more despairing conclusion.

Jeff, who had this one at #20, disagrees, saying we learn from the ending “the extent to which Sam Spade looks out for himself, and himself only … The closing shot of Mary Astor behind the bars of an elevator cage, going down, says just about everything that needs to be said.” But the novel’s final scene, with Effie distancing herself from Sam at last, and Spade returning with self-loathing to Iva Archer, says more than Huston offers.

 

Just a couple of commenters for this one, perhaps because it had only recently appeared on another list. One interesting point was that Bogart and Astor didn’t generate any real heat, which took away from the ending.

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