(Vital Art is my ongoing attempt to cobble together a list of what I consider “essential” works – basically a low-brow version of Harold Bloom’s “How to Read and Why”, only encompassing all forms of art.)
I stumbled a little when deciding what the initial piece of Vital Art I’d discuss would be, and decided to take it easy on myself and pick something I love, and that’s often dismissed as guttural or “common”. I was at a lecture once in college where a pompous visiting pencil-neck was gushing over Kandinsky, when a classmate asked a question about Peter Max (not that I’m a fan of Max), palpable disgust washed over the guys face (seriously, the guy looked like he was going to ralph) as he spat out the words “he was an illustrator, I’m talking about art”. On the one hand, I understood the guy was just covering his ass as an expert academic, but on a deeper level the idea of seeing high-art and low-art as separate struck me as stupid, the way bigotry strikes me as stupid. So, this Vital Art series is my attempt to counter that intellectual bigotry, and identify low-barrier entry points to enable everyone to have a broad relationship to art in themselves, and their daily lives.
So, why “The Maltese Falcon”? In and of itself, it’s a brilliant piece of art, plus:
- it’s an exemplar of the genre (hardboiled crime fiction)
- it invites you to explore the genre (both in film and in books),
- it’s a gateway to the other works of the creators (Hammett, Huston, Bogart, Lorre, Greenstreet),
- it trades in primal themes of an unchanging, dark human nature
I’m not going to explain the story, that’s your homework, I’m just going to lay out what I think is amazing and hope you pick up the thread and explore.
Three Reasons The Maltese Falcon rules
Stripping the characters to the chassis, both the writer Hammett and the director Huston marched out almost cartoonish archetypes (something disguised by the almost – I’m looking at you Mary Astor – uniformly genius acting), gave them a motivation, then turned them loose to slam into each other like rock-em-sock-em robots. By not attempting to humanize them, they become MORE human, more recognizable. And what a buffet of archetypes they are:
Greedy Omnivore: Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet) is a fat man who can’t get enough, he doesn’t seem to have any needs (clearly he’s got the food thing covered), his sole motivation appears to be hoarding – like a medieval dragon. He wants things so others can’t have them. This makes him supremely dangerous, simply because his hunger is bottomless, and he’s ruthless in pursuit of his desires. Bonus points for actually naming him “Gutman”.
Inferiority Complex: Peter Lorre’s Joel Cairo wants so bad to be taken seriously he’ll do anything, but he’s not very good at anything, so he’s continuously humiliated. When Sam Spade smacks him and says “When you’re slapped you’ll take it and like it”, he’s not telling Cairo anything he doesn’t already know. He’s dangerous because there’s nothing more unpredictable than an incompetent trying to prove himself. Also, it’s interesting to see how they treat a gay character at this time, while it’s not what you’d call sympathetic, it’s nothing as heinous as the racial stereotyping of the time.
Femme Fatale: The slam on the femme fatale has always been that it’s a negative female stereotype, a warning to men about the faithless female. I’ve always thought that was a bunch of malarkey, the F.F. is a warning to men to not be saps and suckers, to refrain from abandoning reason in the face of beauty. Miles Archer (Spades short-lived partner and cuckold) immediately buckles to Brigid O’Shaughnessy’s charms and gets a bullet to the chest for his troubles. I alluded earlier to not liking Mary Astor, this character demands more base appeal (say, Gene Tierney). The specter of sex, potentially easy transcendent sex, needs to cling to this character – Astor can’t generate this heat (I keep expecting her to offer me a Werther’s Original).
Tough Guy: The tough guy is dangerous because he’s more concerned about successfully opposing other people’s ideas than pursuing an agenda of his own. This posture makes him nearly invulnerable, because nothing can be taken from him, and he thrives on conflict. Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade does not give a shit. The only person Sam doesn’t oppose is his secretary, and she works for him. Tough guys are perfect story catalysts, because it takes so little to set them off, and its fun to watch what happens.
Napoleon Complex: One could argue this is Joel Cairo but for my money it’s Elisha Cook Jr.’s Wilmer Cook – the boy gunman who works for Gutman. Wilmer (love that name), not only short of stature but short on experience, represents the sub-archetype of “hard guy”. The hard guy wants to be a tough guy, but never will be because he cares that you think he’s a tough guy. Wilmer can only get his licks in when Spade is weakened, at all other times he’s continuously bested by the laughing tough guy. By choosing violence as the gateway to adulthood, Wilmer continues to be a boy, always wondering why nobody respects him.
2. Black and White:
I continue to be saddened and horrified by what I hear from folks about their feelings on black and white films, particularly that they automatically won’t watch them. People who think it’s cool to put a black and white filter on their instagram pics, instantly dismiss forty years of art as “boring” because it’s not in color. I beg of you, if you’re one of these silly bitches, turn off your expectations and put this movie on. It’s not even particularly well shot, but it will instantly transport you to a vital world seen in real time, not through the filter of “Boardwalk Empire”. The idea that you’re choosing between color and black and white is like thinking you have to choose between cereal and milk – do both! If you can enjoy the plays of Shakespeare, the humor of Mark Twain, the poetry of Robert Frost – you’re already used to art from across time, add the glorious grey scale to your pleasures!
The movie “The Maltese Falcon” is as close to a filmed book as anything you’ll see, if you love it, you’ll love Hammett. Dashiell Hammett wrote five novels and a bunch of short stories in an elegant, terse language that is as fun as it is awesome to behold. I love a lot writers with a lot of different styles, but there’s something so diamond-like in Hammett’s prose – clear, cold and hard – that defies the passage of time and fashion. All I can ask you to do is read his stuff, you’ll be richer for it.
Watch “The Maltese Falcon” (get a blu-ray, dvd or look for it on TCM), then read the book, at minimum you’ll have some fun and the sky’s the limit on what you’ll find if you go down the hardboiled rabbit hole. Authors like Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Carroll John Daly await your discovery and delight.