James Naremore

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1149

[Huston made from The Maltese Falcon] one of the classics of dark cinema, a film important not only for its fidelity, but because it bears his own distinctive signature.

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The very choice of Falcon was consistent with the personality Huston would convey in nearly all his subsequent work—perhaps Falcon even determined that personality to some degree. Notice how neatly it fits into the Huston canon; most of his good films—Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, We Were Strangers, The Asphalt Jungle, The Roots of Heaven, Beat the Devil, The Misfits, Fat City—have depended on simple visual symbolism and sharp contrasts of character. They are all quasiallegorical adventures about groups of exotic, eccentric people, and, as several commentators have observed, they usually end on a note of great, ironic failure. Even The African Queen, which isolates two completely different character types, is barely an exception to these rules; it merely has a smaller cast and a more optimistic comedy, an act of God intervening to save the protagonists. It would be a more typical film if it ended about fifteen minutes earlier, at the point where Bogart and Hepburn collapse with exhaustion as the camera rises above high grass to show the open sea only a few feet away. Ultimately, however, Huston is less interested in success or failure than in the moments of truth that an adventurous quest leads up to. As a result, the point in his version of Falcon is not the bird itself, nor the fact that it ends up being a phony. Huston wants to show the greed, the treachery, and sometimes the loyalty of his characters. The focus at the end of the picture is on Sam Spade's curious integrity, and on Sidney Greenstreet as he taps a bowler hat on his head and gaily wanders off in search of the real bird.

Huston's films have also shown his admiration for a male world, though he is sometimes more ambivalent towards that world than a director like Hawks. Raymond Durgnat has rightly pointed out that "Treasure of Sierra Madre and The Misfits are 'tragic critiques' of the Hawksian ideal, respecting it, fairly, but going beyond their tough conformism to a profounder humanism."… Falcon is hardly an example of profound humanism, but Huston does seem more conscious than Hammett of the male myth which underlies the novel. The film is more emphatic, more stylized than the book, and it shows us very clearly that the underworld characters are foils for Spade's masculinity. A single room tells us that Spade scorns luxury; he is not effeminate like Cairo and he has no soft belly like Gutman. This contrast is elaborated by other details: Spade does not need to carry a gun, but the "boy" Wilmur—whose very name sounds prissy—ludicrously brandishes two big forty-fives in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to assert manhood. More important, Spade's professional ethics, his willingness to turn in a woman he loves out of loyalty to a dead partner he never liked much anyway, is at bottom a victory for the "male" ethic. It is true that in the past he cuckolded Archer (mostly, we suspect, at the insistence of Archer's wife), but his behavior as we actually see it is fundamentally different from Brigid O'Shaunnessy or Mrs. Archer. As in most private-eye stories, the women in Huston's film are fickle and dangerous killers, and they have to be rejected or sent off to prison at the end if the hero wishes to survive. The Maltese Falcon is one of the purest examples of this classic form; significantly, the one trustworthy female in the movie is Effie Perine, whom Spade treats like a little sister. She sits on his desk and rolls his cigarettes, and at one point he calls her a "good man."

But if Falcon is typical of Huston's themes, it is also the finest achievement of his visual style. In this respect we can see most clearly the difference between his work and Hammett's. Hammett's art is essentially straightforward and deadpan, but Huston, contrary to his reputation, is a highly energetic and expressive storyteller who likes to make comments through his images. (pp. 241-43)

In the good Huston films, nearly everything—the actor's movements, the camera set-ups, the editing—works to create a somewhat stylized quality. Huston's camera never retards or works against the power of a script by utterly meaningless bravura, and usually he generates such interest that we don't care to analyze his technique. But clearly he does not eschew rhetoric, and the effect he produces on the screen seldom looks truly spontaneous…. Actually, Huston is somewhat less rigid in his late films, such as Freud, where he lets the camera slide a little here and there to catch an actor who has strayed out of the frame. In a movie like Falcon, however, the actors are used like models—an unusual attribute, coming as it does from a director who has always been happy to let the characters find their own way.

I bring out these qualities of Huston's work not because they are defects but because they help define a temperament. L. B. Mayer believed that Huston was a realist because The Asphalt Jungle was filled with seamy detail and a morbid sense of humor. Actually, Huston's world is no more ultimately real than that of Hawks or Minnelli. His best films have had tough, even grimy settings, and he has always rigorously excluded Hollywood romance; but he cannot avoid what Agee called a "romanticism about danger," and he loves to point a moral. Chiefly with his camera style, he loads male adventure stories with allegorical significance, and many of his pictures, despite their superficial realism, are like existentialist morality plays. Even his filming of Moby Dick forsakes Melville's visionary manner and turns the novel into a typical Huston movie—a cautionary tale about a group of odd characters engaged in a quest. It is no surprise that the last line of The Maltese Falcon, Bogart's corny remark about the black bird ("the stuff that dreams are made of"), is Huston's invention. But the same quality of mind that put that blemish on the film is responsible for much of what is good about it, namely the sheer liveliness of the images, the way they give Hammett's fairly straight crime novel the air of dark comedy…. [Against] this, and somehow enhancing it, is the overt drama of Huston's camera. The film is just stylized enough to present the private eye story as it has to be presented—as a male myth rather than as a slice of life; and Huston's wit is just sly enough to humanize the film without destroying the power of its melodrama. (pp. 248-49)

James Naremore, "John Huston and 'The Maltese Falcon'," in Literature/Film Quarterly (© copyright 1973 Salisbury State College), Vol. 1, No. 3, July, 1973, pp. 239-49.

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