#147. The Maltese Falcon (1941)

I’ve mentioned before that Bob and Lynda were two of like four friends who responded really enthusiastically to the Project and were kind enough to invite me over on a couple occasions for dinner, and to join me in watching something off the List, and whenever we did that I’d give them a range of around ten movies. I was happy to break the chronology if it gave us an opportunity to watch something we’d almost definitely enjoy. And so the first time we got together we agreed on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which we all kinda hated, and then for the second viewing – wanting something as close to the opposite of Mr. Smith as possible – we went for The Maltese Falcon, about which we all knew virtually nothing except that it’s based on a Raymond Chandler novel, it’s a cornerstone for film noir, and that it’s one of the movies that shaped Bogart’s tough guy image. Seemed like a sure bet.

We hated it again. Not only that – I’d had a few drinks, and then fell asleep on their couch halfway through, kept waking up and resolving that now I could stay awake, on account of I’d had my power nap and I had to show to my friends that I was serious about getting through the Project. That I was disciplined.

But I fucking just kept falling asleep. The movie sucked.

So I left their apartment and stopped at a Denny’s on the way home to have a cup of coffee and a snack and take a stab at jotting the essay. What I wrote was like six paragraphs about how bored I was throughout, wondering if maybe it’s only still held in high regard because of what it did for Bogart’s career, and for film noir in general (though I know now, having returned to the chronology, that it was High Sierra that made Bogart a star; The Maltese Falcon just gave him his coat and tie). I was being all sassy and obnoxious about it. And also I found myself perfectly content with not understanding the story. With not even wanting to try to understand the story.

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Pauline Kael watched a movie only once before writing her review for the New Yorker.

Then I started stressing about having an immature or myopic approach and thought, No, I should watch it again, try to understand it. And I know that Pauline Kael, one of the great movie critics of the last century, was adamant about only watching a movie once before she’d write about it. She was of the opinion, I guess, that a movie should stand on its first impression.

Also there’s the question of, do I owe these movies any greater-than-average consideration or analysis simply because they’re classics? I hadn’t really thought about it until now. Like am I going through this Project as a viewer or as a student? Cuz if I’m just going through it as a viewer then I can say, “Yeah, that didn’t work for me,” and then move on to the next one. Which is definitely way faster and better-serves the part of me that’s like, Yeah let’s get this done and then pitch it to an agent, write a book, rake it in (which is so obviously not gonna happen but it’s a candle of hope I’m carrying through the tunnel). But I guess if I’m going through the List with the intention of learning shit then I oughta be given pause whenever I come across a widely-lauded masterpiece and either hate it or don’t see any redeeming value. I should try to at least understand its allure.

maltese falcon poster
Probably one of the fuckin most deceptively interesting posters on the List to date.

So, grudgingly, I watched The Maltese Falcon a second time. Alone. And sober. (The alone thing is a big factor, I think, because when I looked left and right and saw that both Lynda and Bob were as bored shitless as myself I started getting that anxiety like when you’re on a road trip with several other people and somebody hands you the AUX cord and you play music that you’ve foolishly praised beforehand but now nobody’s responding to it and you feel like an idiot. So watching a movie that I knew I wasn’t gonna like was way easier knowing that there wasn’t a roomful of people being subjected to it on my behalf.)

Anyway: I like the movie now. Emphasis on like, though. Definitely not something I’m gonna be watching again and again. But, like with lots of other film noir, I was attracted more to the mood of it, and the characters, and I was kinda interested in the story (which is almost absurdly complicated) but mostly just…glad to be here?

maltese falcon 1
Bogart looking dashing as fuck in Maltese Falcon.

Ugh, fuck, here’s a digression that has nothing to do with the movie: that phrase, “I’m glad to be here,” which really did just pop up naturally in trying to describe what it’s like to watch the movie, was actually emblazoned on the shirt of a professor I had in college. His name was Phil and I had him as a teacher four or five times. If a semester passed where I wasn’t taking any of his classes, I’d go to his “coffee hours” (he hated his office) where he’d set up camp on the second floor of the campus bookstore, order a single espresso, and sip it for three hours while students came and went, talking to him about whatever, asking him whatever. He did this twice a week. Super cool guy. He was a professor emeritus from Cornell who’d left the Ivy League into a premature retirement on grounds of what were rumored to be some kinda misconduct, the story being that he was “allowed to resign,” but nobody ever had an answer for what that infraction might’ve been. Anyway. All of his students loved him, scrambled to take whatever class he was teaching. I had him for a class on 20th century American poetry and another on Victorian poetry and another called The Psychological Novel and another class on Hemingway and…something else I’m not remembering. But he would always tell his classes that he loved them and, since this was Florida International University and the student body at the time was something like 80% commuter, with another good portion being in early-middle age, with full-time jobs and spouses and children, he was always quick to shoot down anybody’s reference to like the grandeur of an Ivy League education.

“I worked in the Ivy League for many years,” he’d say, “and I can tell you with total certainty that the only difference between those students and you guys is resources.”

He was in his sixties at the time that I knew him and he died a couple years after I graduated, age 71, prompting a flood of grief on social media and a memorial service at the university where he’d kind of estranged himself from the rest of the department. I think he caused a stir by not attending faculty meetings in the beginning and fighting it afterward. Professors would talk about how he didn’t really mingle with colleagues. That there was a jarring divide between the number of professors who flat-out disliked him, on account of he seemed pompous, and then students who swore by him – and not because he was edgy or radical or (God help us) sexy. He was just funny and sweet. Very much a bachelor who, if you got to know him well, was full of funny stories about the travails of online dating. But I never heard of him being flirty with anybody, nor of any student having the hots for him. Just a cool guy. Super life-affirming. He’d read as much as probably any other English professor, maybe more, and once over coffee he started weeping to think of the ‘60s (he was talking about the death of Bobby Kennedy and just broke down). But he was hilarious anyway, and his lectures were all peppered with humor and he was keen to take digressions and encourage us to jot down the name of this or that movie, this or that poem or novel, shit we oughta check out just to amplify our appreciation of something going on in class or in life.

Just a cool dude.

The topic he most readily digressed into was the value of everybody in the room, and of life itself, and after a student made him a t-shirt bearing his catchphrase – “It’s Great To Be Here” – he sorta spun a philosophy out of it. Would talk unironically about what a beautiful day it was. Ask people how they were doing. One day he sent out a flustered email letting us know that the class had been moved to a different room.

I’m actually realizing now that Peter Lorre here, with the tight curly hair in Maltese Falcon, looks almost EXACTLY like Phil!

So we all showed up to the new location a couple days later and he pulled up the blinds and found the sun, at that hour, beating an intense beam directly into the room. He was delighted. Stood there for a moment just smiling about it. Then, turning his back toward the window and assembling his papers, he said, “If the sun is too bright for anybody, just let me know, and I’ll put on my sunglasses.” I still don’t know what the fuck that meant, but I’m laughing myself to tears even just writing it down years later.

He told me a story once about a faculty party at Cornell. Said, “These two professors, they were married, and somebody brought up Wales to them. The country. The wife said, ‘Oh, I love Wales.’ The husband said, ‘I hate whales.’ He was thinking of the fish. They got divorced later that year.” And that was the whole story. He scowled while he told it, like he’d found something profound in it. Ahdunno what. But I was happy to hear it.

Somebody in class was once talking about how she’d had a pet gerbil and a pet snake, and that one day the snake got out and ate the gerbil. Without missing a beat, without even smiling, Phil goes, “Same thing happened to me. But fortunately my chicken ate the sake.”

Just a cool guy.

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Phil always stressed the importance of this picture of Ernest Hemingway, which we seldom see, because up there on his forehead is the scar from a recent freak accident — of the sort to which he was tragically prone — wherein a heavy skylight dropped out of its frame and shattered on his head. Not too long after this he’d get into two plane crashes in a single day: the first would cause a concussion, the second would exacerbate that concussion to the point he was leaking actual cerebral fluid. What we today refer to as CTE, the blunt-trauma brain damage that’s quickly become the bane of every footballer’s existence (a light is now being shined on its near-equal prevalence in hockey), was, Phil thought, probably a major factor in Hemingway’s suicide.

Anyway. His constant thing about It’s Great to Be Here was a lovely and impressionable philosophy because he really did always seem to be thrilled to be here. Always just wanting to sit around and talk. Even when he had a disturbed student who just wanted to talk about how much he or she hated this or hated that – there was a student who used to refer to himself as Satan, because he said the name “Satan” meant “bringer of light,” and so he’d tell people to call him Satan because his purpose in life was to bring light into the world. Weird fucking guy. That same guy – whose name I won’t mention because he’s pretty disturbed and might fucking murder me if he ever sees this – once said, when we were talking about the issue of sexual assault in fraternities, “Y’know, me personally…” and then he flexed this pensive frown as though he was thinking hard about something, shrugged a shoulder, and continued, “I never…I just never had any interest in raping anyone.” Whereupon another Alex at the table, an intense and brilliant woman who could spit an off-the-cuff crash course in Derrida and had some Vonnegut quotes tattooed on her arms, balked at him, and then at the professor, and then said, “Do you want a fucking cookie for that?”

Phil just sat there without any dramatic reactions. Talked people down when they were going off on something psychotic. Listened calmly when they just wanted to rant about their cat or their father. (The aforementioned guy, the weird one who prided himself on never being tempted to rape someone, once said he planned to murder one of our professors, a notoriously difficult one, because that professor had given him a D on an essay. The same guy also once said that he’d written several novels that were very violent and said, with strange pride, that he’d probably written more than he’d ever read.)

But anyway. I’ve probably brought up Phil a couple times in the Project now and I’m sure I’ll mention him a few more. What we’re talking about here is The Maltese Falcon – which is maybe a Great Movie, but didn’t make a powerful impression on me. One of the things it accomplishes, though, is a thing that Alfred Hitchcock celebrated, which is the use of the McGuffin, but it’s taken to an extreme here. The McGuffin is the thing that our characters care about but we, the audience, do not. What we care about is them, and whether they get what they’re looking for, whether they prosper or fail. In The Maltese Falcon it’s easy to lose sight of who’s chasing what, and how they all know each other, but I do totally believe that these characters have their own lives, their own motives and interests, and that Sam Spade (the edgy gumshoe played by Bogart) is only interested in straightening things out. By the end of the movie it’s hard to tell if he even gives a shit about the murder of his partner – which is kinda what got him tangled up in this whole mess to begin with.

The question throughout the movie is about the location/ownership of an antique called the Maltese Falcon, which is apparently worth a fortune. But the movie doesn’t seem to concerned about it. There are three or four characters pursuing the falcon, but the movie doesn’t seem too interested in them either. The movie has a terrifically charismatic hero in Bogart, but there’s so much shit going on that he almost doesn’t feel like the main character. He’s like this avatar we’re following in a quest to resolve a mystery that the movie doesn’t even seem to care all that much about.

maltese falcon 2
Our gang, toward the end, when we’ve finally got them all in a room together and, like with the final act of The Thin Manour previously disoriented but self-driven hero starts straightening out the story for the benefit of a hapless audience.

Watching The Maltese Falcon feels a lot like sitting on some patio café in South Beach and watching the people pass by. The people making out, arguing on cell phones, roller blading, the people with fascinating scars or heartrending disabilities, with little dogs, old men holding hands with much-younger women, homeless people in agitated conversation with themselves and children dancing to the tune of a guy with a saxophone on the corner and a few dollars in an upturned hat at his feet. All these people, rich and poor and gay and straight and all genders and ages and nationalities and races, walking around, passing one another, sharing the same space but inhabiting different worlds and hardly aware of the myriad ways in which their paths and interests probably intersect again and again and again.

So you see Sam Spade and his rogues gallery, starring Sydney Greenstreet and Mary Astor and Peter Lorre, and you wonder if he cares about any of them, or if they care about him, or if the movie cares about anything. And somehow that ambiguity is really interesting.

If you’re sober.

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