Saturday, February 28, 2009

Paths of Glory (1957)

There are spoilers for Paths of Glory and one small spoiler for Barry Lyndon.

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay: Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou, George Macready, Wayne Morris, and Richard Anderson

Images from the 1999 MGM release.

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Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory is possibly the most affecting film experience I've ever had. I admit that I once thought everything Kubrick did was genius and each film an absolute masterpiece. I've probably gone over his readily available films more than any other director. As my experience has changed, some have grown in my mind more than others, and I no longer make blanket statements about his oeuvre. There are three of his films that I cannot decide upon which is the greatest, and if I were to make a list for the Sight & Sound poll, I could put any one of them on it. These three would be Paths of Glory, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Eyes Wide Shut.

I can only think of one other film at the moment that has as much emotional resonance as Paths of Glory, and that film is Robert Altman's Nashville. I find that film endlessly fascinating and it too, could go on my Sight & Sound list. But I'll save that for a later post.

Paths of Glory tells the story of a failed French attack on the fictional German-controlled "Ant Hill." The generals arrange a court marshall indicting three men to be executed as an example for cowardice in the face of the enemy. The film is one of the great examinations of war as well as the hierarchal structure of the military and the ideas of subordination.

The film opens with the Marseillaise, which was used in Casablanca, but here, it serves not to rally us in unity and patriotism, but to question the ideas of unity and patriotism, and to what extent they can exist selflessly. However, Paths of Glory is not opposed to the ideals of Casablanca so much as cautious of accepting declarations of patriotism. It is a warning that utilizes themes throughout much of Kubrick's work. The one that sticks out the most for me is the idea that culture does not elevate us to nobility. Paths of Glory expresses these notions throughout the chateau scenes, where the generals calmly discuss strategies like a chess game. General Mireau (George Macready) is ordered by General Broulard (Adophe Menjou) to order his men to take the strategic position known as the Ant Hill. I find these scenes particularly sinister, and Mireau's scar certainly helps.

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When I look at Mireau, I wonder where he got that scar. Was it in battle? Or did he obtain it in a more questionable manner? Perhaps he's trying to look "battle worn?" In a lesser film, I feel we would have gotten a flashback or a story telling us where he got it and why it made him the man he is today. Paths of Glory is a wisely simple film, and because of that, it's messages are strong and concise. There are few films as economical and as effective as Paths of Glory.

One of the important ideas that Paths of Glory tackles is the military hierarchy. Mireau, after all, isn't even the top of the food chain. He is ordered by General Broulard, who has even less screen time than Mireau. Of course, Broulard has his orders too, however we never see or hear about these faceless leaders.

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The scenes of the trenches have that indelible Kubrick stamp, with Mireau surveying the men and asking them all the same question: "Ready to kill more Germans?" The trenches really are a perfect allegory for war as a means of dehumanizing the enemy. I will discuss this more in the final scene, which is one of three perfect scenes I can think of in the film. Kubrick's films always feel like they belong in a different universe than ours, yet the problems faced are exactly the same, only amplified.

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War films always have a knack for instilling fear and dread, and the reconnaissance scene is chilling. In the scene, Lieutenant Roget (Wayne Morris), Corporal Philippe Paris (Ralph Meeker) and Private Lejeune scout amidst no man's land into German territory. There is a moment where a flare is shot, and to me, it was like it kicked open my mind to the horrors of war as we see the ground strewn with the bodies of men. Adding to this is Roget's cowardice, who inadvertently tosses a grenade in panic... and kills his own man, Lejeune.

And what does Roget do when he abandons Paris?

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Why, look how clean he is! It's like he just took a bath...

Flaws of superiority on the small scale, as well as the large scale are evident throughout Paths of Glory, and the film wisely does not convey a continually escalating blackguarded sense as we rise in the ranks. Just as I find excessive naivete and bliss difficult to tolerate, I cannot easily sit through films that suck out any glimmer of hope. Paths of Glory does not tag everything as horrible, which is part of the reason I'm not particularly fond of A Clockwork Orange. Then again, Ace in the Hole is one of the darkest films I've seen and it's one of my favorites.

Speaking of which, I think Paths of Glory and Ace in the Hole prove just how capable Kirk Douglas is. He's a bit like Humphrey Bogart in that regard, who was also willing to play unsympathetic sons of bitches.

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Douglas plays Colonel Dax, who isn't the top man, and it's quite evident that the further you are from the battlefield, the more of a scoundrel you are. As Dax tells Mireau:

"Patriotism is the refuge of scoundrels."

In general, the higher up the officer, the bigger the bastard. I watched Robert Altman's M*A*S*H today, and there's that same criticism of hierarchy. Of course, M*A*S*H is a satirical piece, and for the most part belittles the influence of commanding officers. Paths of Glory, on the other hand, emphasizes this influence.

Colonel Dax gives me hope for humanity, and it makes it that much better that he is benevolent without being morbidly pious (unlike Frank Burns in M*A*S*H).

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Although the first half of Paths of Glory is absolutely brilliant, it pales in comparison to the second half, which has three perfect scenes. The first of these, in my mind, is the court marshall. Set in the picturesque chateau, it is the perfect place for Kubrick to convey one of his favorite ideas: that culture fails to elevate us to any real nobility. After all, Hitler himself collected artworks and once aspired to become a painter. In the establishing shot, for instance, we get the prisoners being escorted to the trial:

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Above them is this massive painting. Giant paintings and other art in the hands of cultured scoundrels are also found in A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and Eyes Wide Shut. This notion of art as being incapable of justifying our civility is one of Kubrick's ideas that resonates strongly with me, perhaps because it strikes so close to the bone. I can't help but feel guilty when I watch films like this. It's almost like I feel that watching war films and being aware of the horrors of war is enough to appreciate what millions of men lost their lives for.

There are three men who are selected to be made examples of. Each is selected a different way, none of which are "fair." However, I do not believe there is a fair way to pick any man at all, given that the order itself is unjust. The first of these men is Private Ferol (Timothy Carey), who is picked on the basis of being a "social undesirable."

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Like most people (I hope), I am adverse to any form of prejudice, and choosing a man to die simply because he's a misfit is as wrong as how Corporal Paris is picked. Lieutenant Roget picks Paris as a means for saving his own skin, which of course, parallels Mireau's own form of covering up his misdeeds. At the very heart of Paths of Glory's attack on hierarchy is protecting one's reputation first and foremost as a means of fulfilling personal interest. This is the "path to glory" that the title implies.

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So if picking a man to die out of prejudice, spite or self interest is wrong, is there anything that comes close to "fair?" I don't believe there is a definitive answer to that, but I would say no. The "fairest" is by chance, and this is how Private Arnaud is picked. I suspect most people would say being picked by chance is the fairest way... unless you are the one being picked.

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The random expendability of men in times of war is equally evident in Barry Lyndon during the small "skirmish" during which Captain Grogan dies and both armies basically march toward the other and fire randomly at the enemy.

A short digression:

Deciding on a near perfect movie is entirely subjective, though there are precious few that I'd add to the list. The one that comes to mind most frequently is Rear Window. That particular movie just doesn't get old, and actually grows in fascination. I may add Rashomon as well as La Dolce Vita because they too, seem to get better with each successive viewing. After watching Paths of Glory for probably the 6th time, I think I can add it to the list. The strange thing is that I was impressed, but not blown away by it the first time. I think it's a bit odd, but I find that the films that hold up best with multiple viewings don't necessarily have a strong impression on the first viewing. Is that just my changing experience in the world of film? I'd say my first impressions of Barry Lyndon and Dr. Strangelove, for example, were much stronger than Paths of Glory, but since then, it has risen to the top.

And back on topic:

When Howard Hawks was asked what makes a great film, he said:

"Three great scenes, no bad ones."

Paths of Glory is near perfect for me because I cannot find a single shot, much less a scene, that doesn't have some purpose or effect. Stanley Kubrick's films all have a strong visual component, which is possibly why he's so revered among filmic circles. Of course, visuals alone are not enough to make a film great, and I am wary of saying I like all his films even though I admire them. Paths of Glory, in particular, stands out in my mind as having a clear visual presentation. Such as the first trench scene with the low angle tracking shot that is characteristic of many Kubrick films.

At the end of the court marshall in particular, is a concise visual comparison between the judges for the trial and the execution squad:

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Image comparisons like these work in the purest sense of cinema. I've said before that I'm not a fan of exposition for the most part, and the visuals achieved in Paths of Glory are more poetic than any amount of verbal narration.

It's funny how viewing two films in the same day at random can draw some nice comparisons. For instance, M*A*S*H and Paths of Glory both have a "last supper" scene and while the former is amusingly stagey, the latter is decisively more raw and de-glorifies the sanctimonious air of the old story. Like M*A*S*H, I find Paths of Glory does have a very dark humor to it, although much more minimal.

There is, of course, the famous scene where Paris says:

"Tomorrow we'll be dead and that cockroach will still be alive. It'll have more contact with my wife and children than I."

To which Private Ferol squishes it and says: "Now you've got the edge on him."

The other one that comes to mind is where Arnaud rejects the notion of absolution and embraces his wine bottle and recites:

"This is my religion. Oh, Great Bottle, forgive me my sins, for now I lay me down to sleep. Bo-peep. May I drink of you first? Thank you. Amen."

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The second scene that I find perfect is the execution. Droning on and on about every single shot would not do it justice, I think. Each man dies in a different manner, and they make me wonder just how I will go myself. There is Ferol, who earnestly and openly doesn't want to die, and is consoled by the priest. I think it would be too easy to read this simply as "faith is for the cowardly." While I am not at all religious, I feel that the way each man deals with death is understandable. The blindfold around Ferol is as much a shield as it is an indication of fear. The term "blind faith" comes to mind, and not necessarily in a pejorative sense. Faith, to me, is simply another way of coping with problems in life.

One of the more gratifying scenes is where Colonel Dax orders Roget to oversee the execution. I wonder whether I'm entirely justified in finding that so satisfying. If a man is earnestly unwilling to kill a man, this means he's not entirely heartless. Or is he simply afraid of guilt? I do not believe the two are mutually exclusive. Yes, he may be trying to preserve his own conscience, but doesn't that indicate compassion to some degree? Roget obviously deserves more punishment than Paris, but even an inkling of respect for another human being's right to live makes it feel wrong to enjoy Roget's duty as executioner.

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Paris faces his death with a straight face, and when Roget apologizes, I again get a sort of mixed gratification from it.

Private Arnaud is unconscious and tied to a stretcher, having been knocked out the night before. For me, it is the final nail in the coffin exposing the absurdity of military punishment.

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I think Paths of Glory carries lots of similarities to Dr. Strangelove, but I feel Paths of Glory is the superior film, both thematically and emotionally. Dr. Strangelove feels decisively more apocalyptic, giving a final conclusion that we will end up in nuclear holocaust. For me, the ending of Paths of Glory is more affecting and dark, not only because it is more realistic, but because it indicates no end whatsoever to the cycles of war and the internal struggles for power.

The last scene is one of the most emotionally affecting scenes I've seen in part because it works on so many levels. It begins with a bar full of half-drunk French soldiers jeering and taunting the "latest acquisition from the enemy," a young German woman clearly terrorized. The host at the bar appropriately calls her:

"A little pearl washed ashore, by the tide of war."

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As she cries, she begins to sing, at first inaudible amongst the cacophony of male banter. As this fragile and wavering voice soars above the catcalls and whistles, the men gradually fall silent. It is in this moment that they realize this "pearl" is the so-called enemy... this human being, so fragile and scared is the one they've been fighting. They have lost sight of the humanity in the enemy, and it is this that moves them. As they slowly join in song, a silver lining appears amidst the darkness of this film. Although war is terrible and millions of people die, there is always the hope that we will not lose sight of the "enemy's" humanity.

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Thursday, February 26, 2009

Roman Holiday (1953)

Spoilers for Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Breakfast at Tiffany's and Spartacus.

Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo
Starring: Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, and Eddie Albert

Images from the 2008 Paramount Centennial Collection release.

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"I will treasure my visit here in memory as long as I live."

- Princess Ann/Anya/Smitty

Roman Holiday is a little gem of a film. It is a romantic comedy, a Roman travelogue, and an affirmation of the little things that make life worth living. It lacks the naivete of most romantic comedies, and is ready to accept reality at the cost of fantasy. At the risk of pretension, I'm fond of calling Roman Holiday a "neorealist fantasy." It is a fantasy bookended by reality just as The Purple Rose of Cairo is, and it acknowledges this reality while embracing the moment of fantasy, just as a movie goer embraces the joy of the moment in the theater.

The story has been told over and over. Audrey Hepburn is Princess Ann of an unnamed country on a goodwill tour around Europe. Tired of her confinement to formality, she decides to break free (while fighting the spell of sleeping medicine) into the city of Rome. Gregory Peck plays Joe Bradley, a newspaper man who hopes to get the scoop of a lifetime after unwillingly having a half-asleep Ann tag along home. He is aided by his photographer buddy Irving Radovich, played by Eddie Albert in what I believe is one of the better supporting performances out there. The rest is a series of adventures, laughs, romances, and goodbyes.

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What makes the film great for me is the ending. More so than the wonderful sights of Rome, the delightful and lighthearted comedy, or the terrific cast. All these things are very endearing, but what elevates the film to something grand is the ending. If Roman Holiday had went with a phony, romantic, Hollywood Happy Ending, it could've been pretty mediocre. Not to say the ending is at all bleak, as I find it very uplifting and an affirmation of human virtuosity. I like to think of Roman Holiday as a light-weight Casablanca, because both end on a poignant, bittersweet note. In that regard, I'm inclined to think of romantic films as I would chocolates. When you're young and naive, you prefer the ending where Joe and Ann end up together. It's extra sweet, like a cheap, mass-produced chocolate loaded with sugar, and it feels right when you're watching it, but the taste is fleeting. The ending to Roman Holiday is more like dark chocolate.

I'm not averse to happy endings. I just feel that most movies tack on the happy ending as a way of pleasing the widest audience and selling the most tickets, which is one of my reservations about the recent Slumdog Millionaire. In fact, I'm more turned off by excessively bleak endings. Kurosawa's Ran, for instance, is a masterpiece and I'm in awe of it, but watch it every day for a week and see how you feel.

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What makes Roman Holiday work for me is that it straddles the line between reality and fantasy in a way that is not at all phony or cheap. There is a scene when Ann is at a ball, and as she greets the guests, we cut to shots of her stepping out of her shoes from beneath her skirt. Or the touching scene where Ann recites her schedule for the next day with the Countess, and as she says her thank yous and no thank yous, she breaks down from the madcap absurdity. It's little details like these that make Roman Holiday special.

Roman Holiday was shot on location (partly why I want to call it a neorealist fantasy), and for me, it's the straight direction from William Wyler that makes it work. I've read people complaining that the vespa ride was not exciting enough, but for me, it works better from a more objective standpoint rather than have the camera whizzing around in what Billy Wilder would call: "fancy schmancy shots." It's this simple shooting style that gives Roman Holiday a restraint and control that anchors it to reality while not limiting its entertainment value.

In a way, I feel a bit like William Wyler felt about his range of shooting locations, in that I have a tough time deciding which screenshots to show, since the locations are all so warm and inviting. Joe's apartment, for instance, doesn't feel like a set, but an actual apartment.

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The casting of Roman Holiday is impeccable. The film seems to garner the most attention for Audrey Hepburn's breakout role, but we mustn't forget how well Gregory Peck works as well. He's a much more passive and identifiable actor than Cary Grant, who was originally considered for the role. With all due respect to Mr. Grant, I cannot see him as Joe Bradley. Gregory Peck seems more grounded and reserved, and while a big movie star, he can cede the center of attention more easily.

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It helps that Audrey Hepburn's star power is already evident this early in her career, and Gregory Peck requested that she receive equal billing. Standup guy, right? Peck's comedic style is subtle. Almost bashful, really, and I think this only helps Roman Holiday. For me, subtle nuances in acting go a lot further and give the performance a genuine feeling of reality more so than overacting, although there are certainly some excellent performances of that type (think George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove).

The film is commonly known as Audrey Hepburn's first lead role, or Audrey Hepburn's Oscar winning role, and while I think the film is great for much more than just her performance, I really can't deny it. Girl's got talent, what can I say? Of course, I'm wary of checking out films just because it has a certain actor in it. I can appreciate a bad Hitchcock movie more than I can appreciate a bad Audrey Hepburn movie. Sabrina is one I found extremely disappointing for an Audrey Hepburn film, a William Holden film, a Humphrey Bogart film, and a Billy Wilder film. Cram too many "Oscar winners" into the trailer and you'll sell tickets, but that doesn't make a good movie. But at least Sabrina is tolerable and even enjoyable if you can forgive its many, many shortcomings. Breakfast at Tiffany's, on the other hand, is often cited as Hepburn's signature role, but after seeing it recently, I can honestly say it's mediocre at best, and intolerable at worst. But I digress.

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What cements Hepburn's appeal in my mind is her effervescence. There is something especially genuine about her in Roman Holiday. Watching her in the film makes me want to go outside to the bus stop and hug complete strangers. Perhaps this was Wyler's strategy. After all, it is a well-known story of how he filmed her naturally without her knowledge that led to her being cast for the part.

It's interesting how Hepburn spends almost half of the film asleep. When you think about it, the tour around Rome is maybe 30 minutes long. I'm almost inclined to compare it to Hitchcock's idea of suspense. I was waiting for the Roman tour for quite some time, but by delaying it, the scenes are that much better. The scenes are short, yes, but they are valuable little treasures. Describing them all would be pointless, so I'll select a few. For me, the moment where the film shifts gears is when Ann sheds off her shell in a snazzy new 'do.

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Prior to this, her hair seemed to weigh her down, as well as the film itself too.

One of the best known scenes in the film is where Joe takes Ann to the "Mouth of Truth." As the story goes, stick your hand in it, tell a lie, and your hand will be bitten off. The scene works on more levels than it would in most other romantic comedies. The easy one is that Ann is lying about her identity. Likewise, Joe is white-lying about his motives. There is also the idea of phoniness present in regality, as well as the lies told in the press (something Joe acknowledges to his boss). Then we get to the idea of film itself and how truthful it is, in both the shooting, editing, and acting. Combine this with Wyler's direction on real locations in Rome, as well as Peck and Hepburn's improvisations, and you've got a two minute scene that's doing so much work.

Need I quote Godard again? - "Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world."

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The role that completes the film for me is Eddie Albert as the photographer, Irving Radovich.

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Film noir often deals with the idea of fleeting happiness in the face of a darker world. While not a film noir in any regard, Roman Holiday can be seen as fantasy in the face of reality. This is why the title of Roman Holiday is so perfect. Holidays have necessary expiration dates, or else they cease to be a holiday. What we do take back from a vacation, or any momentary reprieve from reality for that matter, are the little things. Little souvenirs, photographs, and above all, memories. For me, film is great because it can be enjoyed while you're watching it, but also when it's just thought about in memory. Films are like little vacations, and I think that's why the pictures in Roman Holiday are so important.

Pictures, as the old saying goes, are worth a thousand words apiece...

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More than just generating keepsakes, Eddie Albert also provides valuable humor to the film's already bubbly surface. I always get a kick out of Joe spilling his drink on Irving to prevent him from spilling any beans. I also enjoy his guerrilla style of picture taking, such as driving a car while taking shots (this actually mirrors Wyler's shooting style as well):

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I think the idea of "don't sweat the small stuff" is a well intentioned, yet flawed, philosophy. In Roman Holiday, I feel the details are what make it special. I'd go so far as to say that about any film (I am particularly aware of this in Kieslowski's Three Colors). Whether it's Irving's lighter/camera, or the way Ann greets members of all nationalities, or the way the barber adjusts Ann's bangs, I think it's the details that make life worth living, good or bad (at least, detail's are part of it). Maybe that's why I find Gregory Peck so appealing. His humorous moments are somewhat awkward and are less like punchlines and more like little nuances of his character.

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I've heard people complain that Roman Holiday is not a good romance. To me, it couldn't be better. Most romances seem to chug along, going through the motions to that inevitable conclusion. Romance, in my mind, has more to do with the mystery of love than love itself. That is, the lack of a relationship is as much a part of romance as the presence of one. I think the last thirty minutes or so of Roman Holiday come to terms with romanticization coupled with reality very well.

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What distinguishes Roman Holiday from the likes of Sabrina or Breakfast at Tiffany's is that the ending is not mired in naivete, but grounded in reality. I feel the same way about Martin Scorsese's period masterpiece, The Age of Innocence. I get the feeling that the people presented in the film have a nobility to them that seems to be lacking these days. Rather than choose themselves, the characters must first consider the consequences of their actions. This gives the ending a poignancy that's absent from more traditional hollywood fare like Sabrina.

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The acting, as well as the writing, is terrific in the final scene. The subtle sideways glances resonate more strongly than any open expression of feeling. Admittedly, I made a cardinal error when I saw Spartacus, which was written by the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo (who wrote Roman Holiday's script). I did not buy the absolute nobility of the slaves (which Stanley Kubrick also disapproved of), and dismissed Trumbo on this one script. His screenplay for Roman Holiday, on the other hand, works very well. It lacks the phoniness of Spartacus and it still seems fresh.

To be honest, I was gripping my seat as I watched this shot:

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In a lesser film, I feel we would've had Ann bursting into that room, which Joe is in some way hoping for. But thankfully, Roman Holiday ends on a perfect note. The film really is a cinematic treasure, and it's the way that it combines reality and fantasy in a believable way that elevates it to something more than just a romantic comedy.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Spoilers, spoilers everywhere, so please O' please, watch the film first.

Director: John Huston
Screenplay: John Huston and Story by Dashiell Hammet
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet

Images from the Warner Bros. 3-disc special edition.

I find I have the most trouble looking at films that have become so iconic and canonical, that their reputation threatens to obscure what makes them great in the first place. Two films I've been hesitant to include on my favorites list are John Huston's The Maltese Falcon and Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. Having recently rewatched them for maybe the 6th time each, I've decided I can no longer omit them based solely on an aversion to cinematic cliche. 

They are remarkable pieces that reward multiple viewings. It's interesting to see the similarities: They are both 1941 best picture nominees whose reputations have far exceeded that year's winner (How Green Was My Valley?). They are the debut features of two great talents in american cinema, John Huston and Orson Welles. Finally, their influence on subsequent films is titanic, to say the least. The Maltese Falcon is oft-cited as one of the very first film noirs, sparking american cinema's most influential movement. Citizen Kane helped usher in the idea of the auteur. That is, the idea that the director is the author of the film, more so than the screenwriter, the actor, the cameraman, the editor, etc.. The big difference between the films, however, is that while The Maltese Falcon is a faithful adaptation of Dashiell Hammet's novel by the same name (adapted twice beforehand as The Maltese Falcon (1931) and Satan Met a Lady), Citizen Kane is quite the opposite: a completely original work. I think what this shows us is that to make a great film, it is not so important as to where the story comes from, but how it is told.

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The Maltese Falcon tells the story of private detective Sam Spade, who is involved in a plot with shady characters hell-bent on acquiring the illusive and eponymous "Maltese Falcon," a classic MacGuffin, all the while trying to solve the murder of his partner, Miles Archer and blah, blah, blah... I believe people who watch The Maltese Falcon (or film noir in general) for the story are missing the point. Many film noirs (Out of the Past, The Killing, Touch of Evil, The Third Man, Double Indemnity, etc., etc.) have twisted and convoluted plots, and personally, I don't really care about sorting out all the details. Film noir is more about mood and texture than anything else. It's about moral ambivalence, corruption of the soul, and a profound melancholy and disillusionment about the world. These themes are the meat of film noir, and the convoluted plot is more of a byproduct of these ideas. 

I think one of the central dichotomies of The Maltese Falcon is the relationship between Sam Spade and his partner, Miles Archer. Odd to say, given that Miles is given about 4 minutes of screen time before he is shot dead by some unseen gunman. Miles is someone I almost completely forgot about the first time I saw The Maltese Falcon. Study his body language and contrast it with Sam's, and you'll see an important difference. 

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Sam and Miles both have the same temptations. It's a question of fortitude that determines their survival. In the opening scene where Ms. Wonderly lays out her web, I noticed that Sam's gaze does not falter. He invariably looks Wonderly in the eyes, even as she averts her gaze, studying her and trying to determine whether she is trustworthy. Even when she pulls out a pair of hundred dollar bills to bribe the detectives, Sam's eyes barely glance at them. Contrast this with Miles, who's eyes are constantly darting from the bills, to her face, and searching up and down her figure, checking her out.

The detective's names are equally contrasted. Spade is a worker. Tough, consistent and determined in his work. Archer's name suggests he is flighty and aims high, a reach that oft-exceeds his grasp. This is the yin and yang of film noir. Miles succumbs to his male temptations and is dead. Sam controls these temptations and survives.

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Sam is a tricky character to decipher, and I'm never sure just how much he is tempted by greed and Ms. O'Shaughnessy/Wonderly. His ambivalence is what makes the film so fascinating. It's not so interesting to see what he does without thinking about why he does it. Here he is "comforting" Miles's widow, Iva:

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His relationships with women, and everyone else for that matter, are guarded, and it seems the only person he trusts is his secretary, Effie. 

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The Maltese Falcon has some of the best character actors in the biz, such as Peter Lorre as the umbrella-fondling Joel Cairo:

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There is also Elisha Cook, Jr. as Wilmer, who would later star in a similar role in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. Wilmer is representative of those hot headed adolescents who brandish their pistols but lose them without a moment's notice when they try threatening people like Sam Spade.

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I've always felt that film noir is especially good at capturing the pitfalls of masculinity. It's interesting because in The Maltese Falcon, Bogart plays a character who is able to rein in his temptations and not become overcome by them. In Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Fred C. Dobbs has the same male temptations, but his own temperance is completely broken by the end of that film. I suppose Spade has many of the same flaws as any man, but he channels them in a different way. Like when he beats the snot out of Joel Cairo, who had a gun pointed on him. Or when he explodes in anger at Gutman. When he walks out, he calmly reels in that anger, pleased with his ability to control his emotions. 

Another character actor who would star in the equally iconic Casablanca, is Sydney Greenstreet, making his debut screen appearance as Kasper Gutman. 

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As in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Huston uses low angles masterfully, and I never tire of looking at them. They are indicative of many things. Shifts in allegiance, subversion, towering greed and folly. All things that are attributed to film noir. 

Sydney Greenstreet as Kasper Gutman is one of the film's most indispensable roles. I absolutely cannot see anyone else play him. His frame and his name are so perfect for a man who has spent 17 years looking for the falcon, and will determinately spend another 17 looking for it. I'm always amazed at how well he takes the news of discovering the false falcon. It's as if he's fed on his dreams, and judging from his size, you can tell he dreams a lot.

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These final scenes are some of my favorite not only for the suspense, but for the business-like transactions being performed on deciding who murdered who and when Sam will get paid. I wonder whether John Huston knew just what he was making, as the final 30 minutes or so seem almost prophetic of film noir's focus. 

15 Maltese Falcon

17 Maltese Falcon

Who sits closest to the camera, on the lower right of the frame? Why, it's none other than the noir hero and the femme fatale. I like to think of this as the director's chair they're sitting in. After all, the noir hero is often at the center, orchestrating the convoluted plot in front of our noses. Yet, who sits in the hero's shadow? It is the femme fatale of course. In many ways, she is the one who really sets the events in motion and stands back to see how they play out. As it must to all femme fatales, her comeuppance will arrive:

22 Maltese Falcon

This final shot of O'Shaughnessy is one of my favorites. I love how the elevator gate forms a crow's foot (or should it be falcon's foot?) across her eye.

The Maltese Falcon is a very cool film. I find that it's one of those rare ones that gets better and better the more you see it. As I've said, I am very much opposed to letting a film's reputation sway my opinion of it, which is easier said than done. For that reason, I tend to avoid calling a classic/iconic/canonical film one of my favorites until I've given it plenty of time and thought, which I feel I've finally given to The Maltese Falcon.