Monday, 19 November 2012

Noirvember: Even Criminals Have Dreams, or: The Maltese MacGuffin: An Essay on John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon"

Alfred Hitchcock once gave a lecture where he described the term MacGuffin: [W]e have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin'. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers." Later, in an interview with the director Francois Trauffaut, he illustrated the concept of the MacGuffin with a story:

"It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?", and the other answers, "Oh, that's a McGuffin". The first one asks "What's a McGuffin?" "Well", the other man says, "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands". The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands", and the other one answers, "Well, then that's no McGuffin!" So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all."

Basically, a MacGuffin is what drives a story forward, something that everyone wants- but doesn't really matter what that is. The most famous MacGuffin, I would argue, is the Maltese Falcon, the object at the heart of John Huston's 1941 film, The Maltese Falcon. A jewel encrusted statue of a falcon, it was made by the Knight Templars of Malta to pay tribute to Charles V of Spain, but on its voyage across sea, pirates stole it, and, like Mr. Burns' teddy bear, it has travelled around the world for more than 300 years. Private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) gets caught up with the criminals looking for it, headed by Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet). What's great about the Maltese Falcon, the object I mean, is that it transcends the usual definition of the MacGuffin, something arbritrary, and becomes important in defining the psychology of the villains of the film, particularly Gutman. The Falcon is part of the film's thematic concerns with obsession, history repeating itself, as well as fate, since it was made before any of the characters in this film were born, setting in motion of the events of the film. The idea of fate and of people being doomed from the outset is integral to the film noir universe.

The film, while shown through the perspective of Sam Spade, is at its heart the quietly tragic tale of a man obsessed with finding the Falcon, chasing a dream that's always just of out reach. As the title of this essay suggests, even criminals have dreams. Gutman tells Spade how he almost had the Falcon when a Greek dealer discovered it in a shop in 1923. Gutman went to find this dealer, only to discover he had been murdered and the Falcon stolen. "If I'd only known a few days sooner," Gutman sighs, and you can feel his disappointment and regret. For anyone who's almost had something that was still out of reach, even if it was something small, this is a painfully resonant moment.

At the end of the film, Gutman finally gets the Falcon, after it comes in by ship, but it turns out to be fake. At first he's speechless, and even more stressed out by his associate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) calling him a stupid fat idiot and crying. Gutman then tells Cairo there's no point in calling each other names and being upset. They continue on their journey in surprisingly high spirits. While re-watching the film, it struck me that maybe the chase is more rewarding than the actual prize, even if Gutman doesn't realize it. What would he do with the rest of his life if he found it? History repeats itself, with Gutman and Cairo continuing to pursue the Falcon, possibly running in to another Spade like figure. That may be Gutman's ultimate fate, in search of something he'll never have.

But for Brigid O'Shaughnessy, (Mary Astor) the hunt for the Falcon leads her to prison. Sam discovers that she killed his partner Miles Archer and decides to hand her over to the police. How we view Brigid is a complicated matter. Do we sympathize with her or are we annoyed and disgusted at her constant lying?  I feel it's a little bit of both. Sam is pretty ruthless in sending her over, telling her if she gets out in 20 years he'll be waiting and if she's hung, he'll always remember her. Any dreams she had of a better life, a life with Sam maybe, are down the drain. At the same time, Brigid's constant lies are pretty exhausting and she could've come clean earlier, or, here's a thought, not killed Miles at all. There was no real reason for her to kill him, except for trying to fram her accomplice Floyd Thursby. Sam also makes a good point when he says if he lets Brigid slide, she'll have stuff on him she'll be able to use whenever she wishes, and vice versa, which may lead to her killing Sam. That's not exactly a healthy relationship. Ultimately, the situation is tragic for both of them, since, as Sam says, maybe they do love each other. Sam watches as Brigid is taken by the police in to an elevator, creating a metaphoric image of her behind bars.

The villain I sympahize most with in the film is Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), Gutman's gun man. He's just a kid and when Sam is trying to set him up as a fall guy, you see that Wilmer is on the verge of crying. I find myself actually wanting Wilmer to knock Sam out. I think this is because if I was Wilmer, I'd be in the same situation, being patronized and bullied by someone like Sam. Sam is kind of a bully in this film, whether it'd be "riding" Wilmer or beating up Cairo due to his "effiminate" nature. Spade also doesn't seem to care that his partner got murdered, kissing his widow the first chance he gets. In many ways, Sam is the least sympathethic character in the whole film.Though at the end of the film, he does show some nobility by saying that he even though he didn't like Miles, he was his partner and he deserves justice. Ultimately, Sam, while maybe not always the nicest guy, does remind of he is the hero of the film, even though he's an anti-hero.    

This was director John Huston's first film, and what impresses me most about the film is how Huston composes his shots, allowing us to see multiple actors in a single frame and seeing their body language. While the film's visual style is subtle, it's also quite dynamic. In the first scene, we Spade and Miles over Brigid's shoulder, highlighting them as an audience for Brigid's vulnerable girl act, which they like, even though they don't know Brigid's act hides darker intentions. Cairo's introduction is jarring, in a good way, when he's immediately standing over Spade's desk after Spade's secretary calls him in. It's startling and unnerving, showing how far down the rabbit role Spade is actually going.

The climax of the film, which is mostly exposition, and taking place in Spade's apartment, is a feat of staging as well as acting. Greenstreet is marvelous at delivering exposition while giving a sense of Gutman's personality. Huston also knows how to effectively isolate his actors in different parts of the frame. They're an audience for each other.  

The Maltese Falcon, like all film noirs, is very stylized, in its look and dialouge, and like those film noirs, reveals more depth on closer inspection. It's about the moral choices that define our futures, but also about how no choice is completely moral.

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