Saturday, November 29, 2008

the maltese falcon, by john huston

[Note: the following post contains some discussion of the resolution and closing scenes of the film.]

So last week, when Film Club looked at It Happened One Night, I presented a pair of screenshots and did a quick little analysis of the power dynamic reflected between the man and the woman depicted therein. This week, we watched The Maltese Falcon (1941), and if you wanted to play the same game, you could... try doing a read on this image:

It doesn't take a degree in semiotics to figure out which one appears to be in charge here. And yet the gender politics of Falcon are more complicated than this image might initially suggest.

The woman who Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) is haranguing here is Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), and she's a prime example of that quintessential noir figure, the femme fatale. The question of whether the noir fatales are progressive is a thorny one, but one thing that can be said in the affirmative is that O'Shaughnessy certainly possesses a certain autonomy, with goals that are, for lack of a better word, self-directed. (Specifically, she's one of a number of people in search of a priceless figurine, the falcon of the title.)

Now, to be sure, there's certain degree of self-directedness in last week's female lead, Ellie Andrews—the plot of It Happened One Night is set into motion by her active resistance of her father's wishes for her—but a lot of the "comedy" of that film actually involves the breaking-down of her will in a variety of humiliating and debasing ways. The Maltese Falcon also ultimately punishes O'Shaughnessy—she's shipped off to prison for her role in one of the film's murders—but it's hard to know, exactly, how to read that fact. If I were to read the film from a feminist perspective, I would argue that the film is built around the notion of masculine authority, and the presence of a sufficiently headstrong woman unsettles that authority—it is only once that "uncontrollable feminine" is safely contained that the film's equilibrium is restored, and the narrative can draw to a close.

It's a tempting read, and yet there's a way in which the film's ending seems more bittersweet, or even downright bleak, rather than triumphant. Part of this is complicated by the (improbable) romance that erupts between Spade and O'Shaughnessy:

...and part of it is complicated by the fact that the film and Spade both always seem to maintain a respect for this headstrong woman, even when she's at her most manipulative and dishonest. In fact, you could make the argument that the film respects her because she's manipulative and dishonest. (On more than one occasion, Spade catches her in some sort of lie, and he replies (ungrudgingly) "You're good.")

In order to really buy this as a read, however, one has to understand that, in the moral universe of The Maltese Falcon, the people with the greatest claim to authority are the people who are the most proficient in their ability to control and manipulate the truth. O'Shaughnessy lies, hedges, and omits key information throughout the entire film, but Spade himself does the same, and at least as frequently. Viewed through this lens, the film's narrative can be understood as being "about" various characters attempting to establish their version of the film's narrative as dominant. Half the fun as an audience member is attempting to keep on top of the ever-shifting narrative, which means managing an incessant flow of reversals, revisions, and reveals.

Spade and O'Shaughnessy, of course, are both experts here, as is Spade's "girl Friday," Effie Perine (Lee Patrick), another tough-headed female character held in high regard by the film. The process of watching them managing and responding to this flow of information is a delight—and we're listening as well as watching, given that so much of the information is deployed verbally, through dense, nearly impenetrably rapid patter. (This is a continuation, most likely, of the sound-enabled motion picture industry of this era being "drunk on speech"—and yet these characters also feel utterly contemporary in their way: they are, essentially, prototypes for the knowledge-workers and data-managers of our own current 21st century.)

Returning to the gender issue, however, it does have to be said that in the end Spade emerges as the one highest in this hierarchy—both Effie and Bridget, ultimately, are subordinated to his mastery (Effie is in Spade's employ, and Bridget's eventually loses control of the narrative and goes down in flames). Part of the reason that Spade maintains his enduring appeal as a character, of course, is because of his ability to think so effectively on his feet: to fast-talk his way through even the most dire circumstances until he works his way back into control. (Full disclosure: as a male viewer, it's hard for me not to want to be Spade, and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only man who has had this experience.)

And yet our director, John Huston, makes this process of identification a little more complicated than it might be in the hands of a less-ambitious director. Specifically, the film is full of little hints that Spade is kind of a creepy guy. At one point he grabs Effie's wrist and squeezes it, unconsciously, until she has to protest "Sam—you're hurting me."

And the film's closing moments don't exactly show Sam as the most noble fellow, either. This is compounded by the fact that he delivers much of his final monologue with a glassy, faraway look in his eye that makes him look sinister, almost sociopathic:

In a way, what Huston is doing in this film is sort of the reverse of what Hitchcock does in Psycho (Film Club XXXIX). In Psycho, we're introduced to a person who is obviously creepy and later forced into unsettling identification with him; here in The Maltese Falcon we're introduced to a character who's easy to identify with and only as the film proceeds are we made to question just exactly what we've gotten ourselves into by doing so. Genius stuff.

For next week, we'll stick with Bogart, noir, and unstable narratives: we'll be looking at 1946's The Big Sleep, directed by Howard Hawks from a William Faulkner screenplay.

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