Archive for 1941

The Maltese Falcon

Posted in Crime, Drama, Film Noir, Mystery with tags on March 4, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo maltese_zpsesvbe4as.jpg photo starrating-5stars.jpgSan Francisco, 1941. A gorgeous but distraught woman named Miss Wonderly (Mary Astor) enters the detective agency of Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan). She says she’s looking for her missing sister. Apparently the woman ran off with a man named Floyd Thursby. Something about Miss Wonderly’s story doesn’t quite ring true. Is that even her real name? But the monetary compensation is so good, why challenge a solid paycheck?  After Archer and Thursby are found murdered, Spade realizes circumstances are a lot risker than he had originally presumed. That Spade was having an affair with Archer’s wife Iva (Gladys George) doesn’t help the situation. That’s merely the beginning of his problems.

For many historians, The Maltese Falcon is considered the first major film noir, a cinematic term primarily used to describe those stylish Hollywood crime dramas of the early 1940s to the late 1950s, roughly the decade after World War II. The strict definition of what makes a film noir can be a bit abstract. It’s more of mood or a point-of-view than an easily definable category. The lesser known 1940 picture Stranger on the Third Floor actually predated this film. However director John Huston’s masterpiece presented the detective drama in a more definitive way. It in fact was the third adaptation of the 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammett. The first released in 1931 and the 2nd titled Satan Met a Lady in 1936. That one starred Warren William and Bette Davis. The exalted reputation of the 1941 interpretation trumps them both making this arguably one of the greatest remakes ever made.  It set the bar extremely high for later classics of the genre like Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep and The Third Man.

The Maltese Falcon is highlighted by a character study of contrasting personality types. People wrestle with greed, deception, and loyalty. Humphrey Bogart is conflicted by darker desires. He’s more of an antihero as the lead.  Cynical and hard-hearted – he doesn’t seem overly troubled by his partner’s death, removing his fellow associate’s name on the business door while the body is still warm. Nevertheless Bogart exemplifies cool collected style as the self-assured gumshoe.  Mary Astor is captivating as the requisite femme fatale. She initially appears fragile, but looks can be deceiving.

Then there’s a colorful trio of shady individuals. 61 year old stage actor Sidney Greenstreet surprisingly making his feature debut here as “The Fat Man”. He was Oscar nominated for his supporting role. Yet Peter Lorre is just as iconic as the effete Joel Cairo. Joel is no match for Spade. “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it,” Spade rebukes him. Elisha Cook, Jr. is the lightest heavy of the three. He provides some much appreciated comedic relief. At times, the set-bound action almost resembles a play. The movie is talky to say the least. Scenes are inundated with words, overstuffed even. But oh what dialogue! John Huston’s Oscar nominated screenplay is so meticulously composed, you’ll marvel at its construction.  It demands repeat viewings to take it all in, but it only gets better with age.

A whole review and I haven’t even answered the titular question. What is the Maltese Falcon anyway?

Why it’s “the stuff that dreams are made of” of course.

02-24-16

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Citizen Kane

Posted in Drama, Mystery with tags on June 16, 2012 by Mark Hobin

The Citizen Kane: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition that I received free from Warner Bros. is the most lovingly assembled Blu-ray package I‘ve seen. The box is a fold-out digipak with the Blu-ray disc and then two DVDs that contain The Battle over Citizen Kane and RKO 281. The former is a nice 1995 two-hour Oscar-nominated documentary that chronicles the struggle between Welles and William Randolph Hearst who claimed Citizen Kane was but a thinly veiled and slanderous account of his own life. RKO 281 is a 1999 HBO drama covering much of the same territory. Physical reproductions in the slipcase include the 20-page souvenir program issued at the 1941 opening; five postcards reflecting the various posters; and 10 memos between RKO and Welles related to the movie. Additionally, there’s a 48-page, mini hardback book packed with lots of behind-the-scenes info. All of this a supplement to the pristine black and white transfer that makes the picture look perfect. This is a beautifully done presentation befitting of the “greatest film ever made.”

It’s rather intriguing to learn that despite the hallowed status this magnum opus holds, this production was extremely controversial. Orson Welles’ assertion that “Citizen Kane is the story of a wholly fictitious character” is ludicrous. It’s abundantly clear that that main inspiration for Charles Foster Kane was media mogul William Randolph Hearst. This film à clef is an unmistakably vicious attack on his life. Hearst was a force to be reckoned with in the news world. So angry was the publishing tycoon with the film that he prohibited mention of it in any of his newspapers. Movie studio RKO also had problems getting exhibitors to show the film as many feared retaliation from the newspaper magnate.

The parallels are undeniable. Yet I’m willing to assert that whether inadvertently or on purpose, there’s a lot of Orson Welles own personality in the depiction as well. It’s one of the reasons why I think he’s so believable as the lead. Personally I would think the part that might have infuriated Hearst the most was the character of Susan Alexander, his mistress and second wife in the film, as played by Dorothy Comingore. Susan is portrayed as a shrill, talentless airhead. The obvious real life parallel is that of Marion Davies who was his mistress, a woman he never actually married. Already an accomplished silent film star even before she had met Hearst, many film historians ironically view his involvement in Davies’ career as more of an interference than a help. Hearst’s threats definitely hindered Citizen Kane’s box office performance and it wasn’t until its re-release in 1956 that it finally turned a profit for RKO. In the face of these setbacks, the film was an immediate critical success and earned 9 nominations at the Academy Awards. It won only for Best Original Screenplay losing to How Green Was My Valley for Best Picture. Over time however, the film’s reputation grew into what is often referred to as the greatest film ever made.

We begin the tale of Charles Foster Kane at the moment of his death as he utters his last words “Rosebud.” A newsreel reporter takes charge of finding out the meaning of the statement made on his deathbed. The narrative then proceeds as a series of flashbacks as he interviews various people that knew the man when he was alive. Each person recounts a different part of Kane’s existence as they knew him, essentially becoming a new narrator, with their stories overlapping. It’s an effective and entertaining way to tell the tale. It may seem common today, but Kane’s dependence on the technique was something of an anomaly for the time. Another favorite of mine is the breakfast montage, whereby the disintegration of Kane and his wife’s relationship over the years is distilled into a sequence of back and forth exchanges and costume changes. It’s amusing as it is clever. Much has been written about the incredible number of innovations contained in one film. It’s advances in cinematography, music, and makeup have been acknowledged on countless occasions, so no need to repeat those distinctions again, other than to acknowledge they are indeed impressive.

Citizen Kane remains a fascinating reflection on the megalomania obsessions of a man. While it is an undeniably well made film, it’s dark message doesn’t really inspire the kind of repeated viewings that other early classics of this era engender like Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz. I first saw Citizen Kane 25 years ago. I guess the clearest way to explain my appreciation for Welles masterpiece is that although I certainly respect the technical craft and storytelling techniques that Welles employed, I could wait another 25 years before I watch this again.