Bogart with the Maltese Falcon
Bogart with the Maltese Falcon
Source: "Bogart with The Maltese Falcon." Corbis, 1941.
About the Author: This photograph is part of the stock collection at Corbis photo agency, headquartered in Seattle and provider of images for magazine, films, television, and advertisements. The photographer is not known.
Crime has always been a popular theme in film and The Maltese Falcon (1941) is a classic. It belongs to the "film noir" genre, which arose in the 1940s and is characterized by a moral and psychological darkness, both in theme and visual elements. The Maltese Falcon is based upon a story by Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961), the American novelist and screenwriter. The film was the first work of the great director John Huston and starred the legendary Humphrey Bogart (1899–1957), who is depicted in the photograph here.
Bogart's character is Sam Spade, a private investigator who investigates the death of his partner. He is hounded by the police himself when he gets involved in the pursuit of the valuable statuette that gives the story its name. Huston's Maltese Falcon was actually the third remake of the film and, according to film historians, easily the best version with its fine acting and stylish direction. It is faithful in most respects to Hammett's 1929 story, which was published as a serial in a detective fiction magazine called Black Mask. The film is peopled with corrupt low-life villains, deceitful women and tough heroes like the cool, cynical Spade, who lives by his own rules. It received three Oscar nominations but won no awards.
Bogart went on to play another "hard boiled" detective, Philip Marlowe, in The Big Sleep (1946). Marlowe was the creation of Raymond Chandler (1888–1959) and the film, another "noir" classic, involves seven killings, gambling, pornography and generalized vice and corruption. Spade and Marlowe are both men who prefer action—even if it includes violence—to the careful investigation of the evidence. As such, they form a sharp contrast with that earlier detective hero, Sherlock Holmes, who favored a more gentlemanly and analytical approach to crime.
BOGART WITH THE MALTESE FALCON
See primary source image.
Film noir is an important trend in the cinematic portrayal of crime and punishment. The word "noir" is French for "black" and was coined by the French film critic Frank Nino in 1946. During World War II, France had been under Nazi occupation and Hollywood film imports were forbidden. Accordingly, when the conflict ended, the critics and the cinema-going public had several years of Hollywood output to catch up on. They were startled by how the theme and content of American films had changed during the 1940s. Before they had been optimistic and straightforward; now, they were dark and full of foreboding.
Film noir was probably rooted in the German expressionism of émigré directors such as Fritz Lang, which proved an ideal vehicle for a U.S. society troubled by the war. This was coupled with the introspection of psychoanalysis, also popular in artistic circles around this time, to create troubled, yet cynical, heroes. The absence of men at war had left women in charge on the domestic front. These social changes were reflected by the "femme fatale" characters that often appeared in film noir—independent, demanding and likely to trap the hero in a web of deceit.
The visual elements of film noir reflected both theme and content and, to a large extent, the budgetary restraints of the war years. Tilted camera angles, long shadows and high-contrast imagery all helped to create a mood of paranoia and alienation. Sets often involved streets, rain, flashing neon lights, and hotel rooms, all contributing to the gloomy atmosphere. Plot lines were bleak and fatalistic, where one false move could plunge the hero into a nightmarish vortex of intrigue. Film noir was in its heyday in the late 1940s, where it continued to reflect troubling changes in American society—unemployment after the war, race riots, strikes, rationing, and the start of the Cold War. The genre reached Europe with, for example, The Third Man (1949) from the British director Carol Reed, which ends with a shootout in the distinctly "noir" setting of an underground sewer.
Filmmaking has changed a great deal in the last fifty years, but the classics of film noir are still popular. There have been certain films since the heyday of film noir that seem to have many of its elements, such as Roman Polanski's Chinatown (1974), Ridley Scott's Bladerunner (1982), and Curtis Hanson's LA Confidential (1997). A sub-genre known as tech-noir, which combines science fiction with classic film noir, is exemplified by films such as Andy and Larry Wachowski's The Matrix (1999) and Steven Spielberg's Minority Report (2002). Film noir, it seems, continually re-invents itself, playing on the public's fascination with crime and punishment.
Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, 3rd ed. Edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1993.
Crime Culture. "Film Noir." 〈http://www.crimeculture.com/Contents/Film%20Noir.html〉 (accessed February 26, 2006).
Filmsite.org. "Film Noir." 〈http://www.filmsite.org/filmnoir.html〉 (accessed February 26, 2006).