Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A Not-as-much Fun as You Might Expect Adventure

Exhausted from our bout with Elsa Morante, the Mr. and Mrs. Buce reading club needed a lightener. We chose Dashiell Hammetet's Maltese Falcon. It was good fun, and instructive. It is easy to see how he is a pivotal figure in the history of detective fiction: discontinuous with Sherlock Holmees, a precursor to (but not as good as) Philip Marlowe. Considering the cachet he acquired via Lillian Hellman, Hammett is a surprisingly mediocre writer: good enough at the rat-a-tat declarative sentences, but given a bit sloppy in construction and given to flights of fancy that don't quite get airborne. Chandler really does look pretty good by comparison to Hammett, and Marlowe by comparison to Sam Spade. Recall Chandler's motto for Marlowe: "Down these mean streets a man must walk who is not himself mean." Spade falls more into the category of "Yea, though I walk through the valley and the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for I am the meanest son of a bitch in the valley."

But then we pushed a good thing a bit too far. We watched the movie version--rather, "versions": not alone the justly acclaimed John Huston (Humphrey Bogart) number from 1941, but also its two predecessors: another Maltese Falcon from 1931, and an imitator-- Satan Met a Lady from 1936.

This enterprise also was instructive in its way but since we were our own instructors, we felt like we were sitting through some long evenings at a mediocre community college film appreciation class (just for the record, Palookaville has a fine community college). Still, a few points. One, the pre-Hays-office 1931 version is indeed a bit sexier than the more famous Bogey model, but you would hardly notice. We do get to see Bebe Daniels' bare shoulders emerging out of Sam's bathtub, and we can tell by the clock that they must have been in bed together: neither of these touches make it to Bogey. On the other hand, in the 1941 version, somebody calls somebody a "gunsel" (three times, by my count)--a gun-toting hoodlum or alternatively a passive homosexual, an erastes (cf. link). For this we have a censorship program? Did the censor, the little goose, not know what a "gunsel" is? Or did he assume the audience would not? Or was he distracted by the more anodyne meaning?

The 1936 comic version has its moments, but on the whole, it is pretty mediocre--they say it is material like this that prompted Bette Davis to skip out to London (and into litigation). The trouble is that nobody, and in particular not Warren William as the detective can seem to figure out exactly what is funny and why. Indeed, this may be the trouble with all three versionds--Spade himself, a hole in the center. Starting with Hammett, we never see inside his mind. So none of the three leading men--I include Bogart--can figure out exactly how to play him.

Still, the exercise was an ample demonstration as to why the 1941 version is so highly regarded: it is just so much better than the other two in almost every way. Certainly the bad guys: Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre and Elisha Cook, Jr. They own their parts. In a note on Greenstreet, the critic David Thomson says you can imagine that he is still out there somewhere, still tracking the elusive bird.

I'd said that Bogey couldn't quite figure out how to play Spade. I'll stand by that, but with a qualification: the romance between Bogey and Mary Astor. Watch it in the right frame of mind and this is one of the hottest scenes in film, as these two scoundrels try to get the better of each other. Thomson (again) says it is film noire crossbred with screwball comedy. Really, how can you beat a combination like that.

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