Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Maltese Falcon

Hot on the heels of Return of the Jedi, here's another movie that you've probably seen even if you haven't seen it. How many times has a Humphrey Bogart character showed up in a movie, talking in that distinctive manner? How many dames have shown up at a private detective's office, clearly up to no good? How many times have venetian blinds shown up prominently in black and white movies? I won't claim to be an expert on film noir - I haven't seen this movie until now, so that much is very obvious - but the performances and style are pretty clearly influential.

So what is it that makes the Maltese Falcon a classic? Well, when we start, it's not immediately obvious. Mary Astor appears Humphrey Bogart's detective agency, saying that her sister has been kidnapped, or at least persuaded to run away with a man, and she wants her found. Bogart's slightly creepy partner is more than willing to shadow him, because he wants to get into Mary Astor's...skirt. It seems like a pretty simple case, and then Bogart's partner gets shot. At this point, we know that there's something bigger going on. Then creepy, creepy Peter Lorre shows up. Then you REALLY know this shit just got real.

The trouble with mysteries is you really don't want to give up very much of the storyline, because the mystery is part of what draws you in. This is especially true of the Maltese Falcon, since it thrives on the audience, and the characters, not completely knowing what's going on. From the moment the first shots are fired, you know that there's something going on that you're not being told, and the desire of you and all the characters to find out the full story drives the story.

The great thing about this film is that you can never quite tell anyone's motivations until around the last scene. Yes, you can tell Peter Lorre is up to no good - he's Peter Lorre - but the lead characters are deliciously morally ambiguous. Is Bogart a greedy lech, is he up to no good, or is he secretly a good guy? Is Mary Astor really in love with him, or using him to get herself out of a bind? You can never quite tell if characters are telling the truth, and can never completely trust anyone on the screen.

The great part is, in spite of not being able to trust the characters, you can't help but like them. Bogart manages to be witty, clever, and charming, even as you can sense that his character is about 75% asshole. You can't just help but like the guy, yeah he's banging at least 2/3rds of the female cast and seems driven mostly by cash, but hell, he's so interesting to watch and has an obvious good side, so you can forgive his foibles. Astor is a bit more whiny, and her lies are often so obvious you wonder why Bogart bothers, but the lies make her more interesting to watch, and the mystery underneath them keeps you interested.

Yeah, the Maltese Falcon is a classic, a lesson in how to tell a mystery. It's one of those movies that should be required viewing for anyone who wants to make a film. It's more than just that though, that it has stood up until now even after being widely copied and aging 70 years says a lot about just how good it is. No matter how much time passes and how many films come and go, it's stuff like this that will stick around forever. A movie that's just good, if good in a way that amateur film critics on the internet have great trouble thinking up a satisfactory conclusion when they write about it.

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