The Stuff That Nightmares Are Made Of

Film noir (black film) is extremely difficult to categorize. People who know it and like it recognize it when they see it, but there is no single common element which is universal to all noir. A wide variety of sub-classifications exist based on time period, sub-genre and so forth. For instance, noir of the 1920s and ’30s is often called “proto-noir” (movies like the chilling M). Everything between approximately 1940 and 1958 is designated “classic noir” (such as the brilliant Double Indemnity). Various films ranging from the 1970s to the present represent “neo-noir” (including throwbacks like The Man Who Wasn’t There). There are also “psycho-noir” (Memento), “sci-fi noir” (Blade Runner), “teen noir” and “parody noir” (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid) floating around out there.

Whatever the sub-type, noir films are arguably most successful in their stark, cynical examinations of the human condition when they are at their most ambiguous regarding the integrity of their characters and the focus of their plots. Two examples of film noir (and, incidentally, cinematic masterpieces) that fit this bill exceptionally well are The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Chinatown (1974). The two films share a close, almost familial, thematic bond. Both are defining examples of the noir style and form during different periods.

The Maltese Falcon is probably not the first true example of film noir (although the question is of course debated by film scholars), but it is certainly the first important one. The movie is based on a 1929 novel of the same title by Dashiell Hammett (one of several important authors in the hard-boiled detective school that pre-dated and informed much of film noir). By 1940 it had already been adapted for the screen twice with little success, but screenwriter John Huston was convinced that he could do it better, and on a shoestring budget. The Maltese Falcon was his directorial debut, and it proved iconic in its popularity and influence on later films.

The story ostensibly centers around the frenzied pursuit of a priceless black statuette which numerous unsavory characters will do anything to get their hands on. The setting is San Francisco in the 1940s. Humphrey Bogart got himself typecast for the bulk of his career with his role as Sam Spade, Private Eye. Mary Astor plays the slippery femme fatale, Sydney Greenstreet (in his screen debut) is the formidable villain, and the great Peter Lorre plays his usual slimy, weasely sidekick-type. The Maltese Falcon was nominated for three Oscars, but won none. However, that same year, Mary Astor walked away with the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in another film (The Great Lie). Two of the three awards ultimately went to John Ford’s sentimental heart-warmer How Green Was My Valley.

Chinatown was the first film Roman Polanski directed after his wife and unborn child were murdered by the Charles Manson in 1969, and this shows most strongly in the film’s ending, which was originally a far happier one. The movie is a definite throwback to the noir efforts of a few decades before: in its setting, its characters, its themes, and in the twistings and turnings of its plot. The characters from The Maltese Falcon are mirrored in Chinatown by Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, Private Investigator, Faye Dunaway as his female counterpoint, and John Huston (yes, the director of The Maltese Falcon) as the dangerous character to watch out for. Peter Lorre, sadly, proves to be irreplaceable.

Chinatown‘s plot explores murder, corruption and worse surrounding a water-rights scandal in 1937 Los Angeles. Nicholson’s character struggles to peel back layer after layer of deception and obfuscation to discover the shocking truth of the events surrounding him. Chinatown was nominated for 11 Oscars, but only received one (for its screenplay), chiefly due to stiff competition from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Part II (certainly a far worthier opponent than John Ford’s schtick three decades earlier).

Both films begin at the same point: A world-weary, wisecracking private eye is visited in his office by a weepy dame with a minor problem. In The Maltese Falcon the job is to follow a man who has eloped with the woman’s sister so that she can be located and rescued. In Chinatown the woman suspects her husband of cheating and wants proof. Both women are liars and masqueraders, and their commissions lead to immediate problems for the PIs before descending into increasingly dark depths of mystery and human sinfulness.

Neither of the female leads is who she appears to be at first (or second or even third, actually). The remain ambiguous throughout the majority of the story, despite the usual romantic spark between them and their respective leading men. However, only in the closing moments of each film do we learn that final piece that completes the puzzle of each one’s nature. The pictures that are revealed could not be more different from each other, but the processes by which they are constructed are almost identical.

Of the two detectives, Sam Spade seems to fare better than Jake Gittes in the difficult circumstances that surround each of them. However, Spade’s apparent advantage both in worldly wisdom and in stoicism (or is it merely apathy?) may not exist. Spade holds his cards closer to his chest, offering no grand theories or speculations until his final (dead on) denoument when the case is solved. Gittes, on the other hand, continually announces a solution to the case only to realize there is yet another level he has not yet excavated. It is possible that Spade has to revise his own theories repeatedly throughout The Maltese Falcon, but we are not privvy to his inner thoughts as we are to Gittes’. Additionally, Spade emerges from his own labrynthine investigation more or less triumphant. Gittes is crushed by defeat.

The darker emotions each character is feeling are probably similar, but Gittes has the added hardship of watching the bad guys come out on top and has a harder time maintaining his composure in consequence. The two characters have far more in common than not. They are both suave (when they want to be), cynical, skeptical, free of troublesome ideals and sentimentalities, and generally difficult to rattle. Sam Spade, however, is never really out of his depth in The Maltese Falcon. Jake Gittes, on the other hand, doesn’t know what he is dealing with until the final shock (although he is repeatedly warned).

At the center (and yet strangely peripheral) to all this are the title elements of both films. The Maltese falcon is almost wholly unimportant in The Maltese Falcon. It exists to drive the plot, but plays no part in the most important elements of the story. It is not mentioned by name by the characters until at least halfway through the film, and it does not actually appear until perhaps the final 10-15 minutes. In short, it seems very much to be what Alfred Hitchcock would later dub a “McGuffin” in his own films (to signify a plot device with no independent purpose beyond advancing the action of the story).

Similarly, Chinatown has seemingly little to do with Chinatown (and vice-versa). Speculation during the movie as to what role Chinatown may play in the film that bears its name might almost lead one to conclude that the whole thing has been fantastically mis-named. It is very easy to forget, during the movie’s leisurely-paced 131-minute length, what the title is at all. And then, once you are no longer thinking about Chinatown at all, it suddenly appears with perhaps 5 minutes of screentime remaining.

It would seem that the men whose visions created these movies had a very specific reason for naming their films as they did. Both earlier throw-away versions of The Maltese Falcon had deviated from the title of the original novel. One was called Dangerous Female, the other Satan Met a Lady. Yet John Huston, with his enthusiasm for seeing this movie remade, went with Hammett’s title. He must have seen something his predecessors did not: Namely, that the Maltese falcon represented something more important than its role in the story indicates. The same can certainly be said of Chinatown’s role in Chinatown. The final lines of both movies tellingly reference these title objects.

The Maltese falcon and Chinatown are both metaphors for an insidious, consuming evil whose central importance to the whole idea of these films might elude the audience entirely without a physical representation. If film noir can be said to have a single defining characteristic (which, by all scholarly accounts, it can’t), it is that all noir contains at its heart an attempt to probe the darker side of human nature.

The Maltese falcon is cold, black statue of a predatory bird that incites everyone around it to avarice and deception. The bird itself suggests the blind, hungry nature of human greed with its blank stare and cruel beak and talons. Everyone who falls under its spell has its greed and callousness grafted onto their personality, and this is what drives the interactions between the characters and decides their every move and (ultimately) their fate. In the final moments of The Maltese Falcon Ward Bond’s character, Police Sergeant Polhaus, asks Sam Spade about the heavy figure: “What is it?”

“The, uh, stuff that dreams are made of,” Spade replies pensively, his hand on the bird. Polhaus has no idea what this means, but the audience knows; some people will do anything to achieve a dream.

Chinatown is a place where nothing is as it seems, nothing means what you think it means, and even actions motivated by good intentions can hurt the innocent. It is an island of that which is foreign and strange in the midst of the familiar. It stands for everything we (and particularly Jake Gittes) think we understand, but don’t. Evil that can be identified can be opposed, but Chinatown is where Jake gets blindsided by the evil he never saw coming.

As everything comes crashing down in the films closing scene, Gittes’ partner counsels him to walk away: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown!” The nature of evil in Chinatown makes fighting it not only futile, but detrimental. The petty greed surrounding the Maltese falcon seems almost comforting in its familiarity compared to the incomprehensible vileness Jake encounters.

The noir style, concentration of symbolism, and the involvment of John Huston bridge a 33-year gap between this distinctive films, both of which stand out as masterpieces of cinema and potent examinations of the dark heart of humankind.

~ by Jared on November 30, 2006.

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