Sunday, 27 November 2011

John Huston's 'Maltese Falcon', 1941...

Fig. 1 The Maltese Falcon poster.


The Maltese Falcon is the pinnacle of what a film noir movie should be. Filled with as much suspense as it is stunning visuals, this film is a great example of creating atmosphere with a redressed back-lot and some choice lighting.
Fig. 2  Image from The Maltese Falcon.
Before discussing the film, it is important to understand the genre and style in which it is filmed.  Film Noir movies are crime dramas, usually with a detective as the protagonist, they are considered a genre of film on their own due to their consistent themes and visuals. Mark Bould divulges that "The term 'film noir' is said to derive from the Série noire, the title of a series of crime novels edited by Marcel Duchamel for French publisher Gallimard, starting in 1945." (Bould, 2005:15) The narratives in these novels, much like the films,  are detective thrillers revolving around hard-boiled investigators.  These gritty themes are captured through theatre-like sets that come alive through the use of deep shadows cast across faces and walls, the traditional black and white film creates even bolder visuals.  Since the emergence of film noir as a genre there have been many interpretations of its style and themes, these are known as 'neo-noirs'. Andrew Spicer explains that 'neo-noir' is "the preferred term for film noir's made after the 'classical' period (1940-59)." (Spicer, 2002:130) These neo-noir's (basically meaning new noir films) can be very successful explorations of the genre as new technology in film and production allows for much grander potential than with the previous films, while still keeping the traditional imagery and narrative techniques.  Bould expresses that "the neo-noir film is the collapsing wavefront, stitching itself into a narrative trajectory and webbing itself into an intertext. Open and closed, looking forward and back, inward and outward, it is perpetually in bardo." (Bould, 2005:107)  This interprets the neo-noir films as obvious descendants of the genre, borrowing their themes and techniques to make something new but not entirely separate. Though some may view this as a negative trait, the constant borrowing or re-living of another section of films, it can also be interpreted as film-makers preventing a stunning and unusual style from being forgotten and lost.
Fig. 3 Sam Spade.
Whether these neo-noir films are an innovation or a rip-off, it is with one of the founding films of the genre can the themes can really be investigated.  The Maltese Falcon, based on a book by Dashiell Hammett, previously adapted twice for film, is perhaps best known for its iconic characters. There are particular archetypes associated with the film noir genre, the protagonist as gritty private detective, the dark and mysterious love interest as femme fatale and the cunning and untrustworthy villain. Philip Kiszely goes on to construe that "The Huston Falcon established...a major character archetype and an immediately recognisable aesthetic style. High contrast/low key lighting replaced the bright and objective cinematography of the 1930s, reflecting the altogether deeper and often darker psychological motivations of the characters in a profitable cycle" (Kiszely, 2006:84) It is this use of the psychological aspects of their characters that makes film noir, and The Maltese Falcon in particular, so powerful when compared to what came before. In this film, the audience follows the smart and savvy private detective, Sam Spade. The features that make Spade so interesting are the things missing when compared to detectives in previous crime thrillers.  Bould believes that "Whereas previous fictional detectives...were little more than perfectly functioning ratiocination devices, Hammett's [Sam Spade included]...were flawed characters. This difference...was manifest in the films' emphasis on character psychology rather than the investigation and retrospective reconstruction of particular crimes.  In these film noirs...the crime film was psychologised by first-person narration and closely-observed facial expressions, gestures and dialogue." (Bould, 2005:15) This interpretation shows that Spade has become more than just a vessel for what is right and wrong, he has become a character with his own views, no longer seeing what is right and wrong in black and white. He sees the world in his own way, the camera focusing on his face as he sits to think about his next move allows the audience to read his expressions and body language in a much more convincing way.  Kiszley went on to say that "Spade's cynicism is irredeemable, and he remains, from his introduction in the office of Spade and Archer to the particularly bitter end, a Hammett private eye in the aloof and unsentimental tradition of the Continental Op." (Kiszely, 2006:84)  The most important and powerful feature of the protagonist in a film noir is their ability to be flawed.  They are far from virtuous and honest and as Kiszley mentioned, Spade has traits that are far from redeemable, but it is these flaws in a character that make the character.  Of course, when paired alongside the dark and dirty set this leads to a wonderful concoction of ruthless crime and uncertain loyalties.  What more could you ask for in a detective thriller?

List of Illustrations

Figure 1. The Maltese Falcon (1941) The Maltese Falcon Poster. At: (Accessed on: 27.11.11)

Figure 2.  The Maltese Falcon (1941) Image from The Maltese Falcon. At: (Accessed on: 27.11.11)

Figure 3. The Maltese Falcon (1941) Sam Spade. At: (Accessed on: 27.11.11)


Bould, Mark (2005) Film noir: from Berlin to Sin City. UK: Wallflower Press

Kiszely, Philip (2006) Hollywood through private eyes: the screen adaptation of the "hard-boiled" Private detective novel in the studio era. Switzerland: Peter Lang.

Spicer, Andrew (2002) Film noir. UK: Pearson Education Limited.

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