THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)

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“The perfect detective story cannot be written. The type of mind which can evolve the perfect problem is not the type of mind that can produce the artistic job of writing.”

– Raymond Chandler

Chandler surely believed these words when he wrote them; what he meant, I suppose, is that the men and women who write detective fiction should not be compelled exclusively by the grand intricacies of plot. If they are, something is lost. The ‘who killed the chauffeur’ anecdote surrounding Hawks’ version of The Big Sleep is proof that Chandler had grander ideals than the simple ‘whodunnit’. And the ‘type of mind’ that could write the perfect detective story is drawn to other pursuits: science, medicine, academia of all colours. It takes a special kind of mentality to spend the days writing about murder.

 If Chandler is noir in the womb, so is Huston’s Falcon. Everything that would become film noir is here, and yet not fully formed. So many conventions are established, almost unknowingly, that it becomes the glittering prototype for everything that was to follow. Its influence would persist until Huston himself hustled out of Chinatown, 34 years later. What strikes the modern viewer is the gleeful cynicism of it all. Bogart and Astor are as cruel and fuckable as each other, and make a narrative of stratified lies; it’s difficult to grasp what anybody wants in this film, so deep do the deceptions run. And if there is a love story, it’s well hidden behind the quick-snap dialogue and wonderful casting; Peter Lorre does beautiful things with those eyes of his (is he hankering after Spade? The vile morals of 1941 deprive us of this added subtlety) and Sydney Greenstreet provides the finest mock-Falstaff in modern cinema. We can’t take our eyes off these people, even as we lose trace of particulars.

And here, at last, is the Bogie that Jean-Paul Belmondo desperately wanted to imitate in Breathless: uncaring as his partner is murdered in cold blood, yet driven by the very idea that a man must have revenge, or at least closure. This fact alone should indicate how far the reach of the Falcon has stretched; in 1960, with the turning of world cinema, Godard’s scalpel had chosen Sam Spade as the ultimate emblem of cinematic self-possession, though the outcome is very different. There the dame overcomes, the chain-smoking scoundrel gunned down in the Parisian streets; here, at the threshold of America embracing the darkness, the dame takes the fall, with the chiaroscuro shadows of impending prison bars falling across her face. With this came the heralding of a new cinematic movement.

 And Huston knew, I think, what he was doing. He changed little from the novel, unlike the two previous cinematic attempts; all that was required, really, was an understanding that Hammett had already written a film. And the MacGuffin is the silliest, but also the most perfect, in all noir (Hitchcock would giggle with joy at the mere mention of The Knights Templar). That it is inauthentic, worthless, only further illustrates Chandler’s final maxim that we don’t give a shit about the tectonic shiftings of plot: there can be, probably, no perfect detective story, because people don’t want detective stories.

Not really.

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