22 January 2011

The Maltese Falcon

It's really hard for me not to compare The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. They're two of the most famous detective novels from the golden age of detective novels -- the former by Dashiell Hammett and the latter by Raymond Chandler. (Much has been written comparing these two, though if memory serves they both loved and respected each other immensely: Hammett wrote sharp action in the third person; Chandler wrote quippy dialogue with a first-person narration... beyond that I forget the details of the debate.) They're both also classic detective movies, obviously both starring Humphrey Bogart, directed by two of the greatest (and both somewhat notorious, right?) filmmakers from the golden age of Hollywood filmmaking: Falcon by John Huston and Sleep by Howard Hawks. And they both take really different approaches to the mystery formula.

In each, the hero (Sam Spade here, Philip Marlow in Sleep) is a tough-as-nails, quick-witted detective who improvises boldly as a way of staying one step ahead of the chaos long enough to put together all the pieces of the puzzle. But where Marlowe comes off as fearless and sarcastic, Sam Spade actually comes off a bit like an asshole. It's hard to imagine Marlowe sleeping around with his partner's wife, both of whom he seems to practically loathe, or feeling so apathetic about a friend's death that the only reason he avenges it is because letting people kill detectives isn't good for business. But the hero's relative morality isn't the difference that stands out to me. What stands out to me is the story, and how linear and rational Huston wants to be, and how loose and abstract Hawk is willing to be.

The Maltese Falcon is at every turn concerned with keeping all the details straight as it goes through its labyrinth of twists and turns. The players are all full of useful exposition and the majority of the story is listening to each character lie or change sides back and forth, as everyone vies for the titular macguffin. In The Big Sleep, the details are so fuzzy that even Hawks, Bogart (and Chandler himself, reportedly) weren't sure why each murder took place or who was ultimately responsible. For sheer story and colorful crooks, The Maltese Falcon seems to win out, because each beat in the story makes rational sense and because Greenstreet, Lorre, and Cook are wonderful character actors used brilliantly. For mood and dialogue, though, The Big Sleep weighs out better.

But the final deciding factor for me between these two is the romantic chemistry and the performance of the story's femme fatale. Falcon comes up pretty weak, if you ask me, and although Mary Astor doesn't do the film any favors (she and Bogart are supposed to fall almost instantly in love, but they have no chemistry), it should be pointed out that her character is written pretty sloppily. Still, it's possible a great actress could sell us on the untrustworthy, self-serving backstabber who becomes a damsel-in-distress at the drop of a hat (and a lot of proverbial hats get dropped throughout), but Astor never manages to tie all the lies and pleas and plasticity into a single, satisfying character. On the other hand, The Big Sleep pits Bogart against Lauren friggin' Bacall, who holds her own against Bogey's sardonic wit and always reads as a character with depth and personality and feeling. So, it's not fair.

I still like The Maltese Falcon a lot. Seriously, any time Bogart, Greenstreet, Lorre or Cook have scenes together it's classic stuff; and it's fun to watch Sam Spade make shit up to everyone he talks to and struggle to outpace all the conniving and backstabbing (it's easy to see how George Lucas and Steven Spielberg drew a straight line from the kinds of characters Humphrey Bogart played into the kinds of characters Harrison Ford would play thirty years later, with Han Solo and Indiana Jones both acting very much as Bogart does here). But even though its story makes so much more linear sense than The Big Sleep, there's really no question which of the two I hold more fondness for.

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