[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]
The Maltese Falcon showed up in the area recently, for the hundredth time. Hohum? Far from it! Let there be a hundred more! Huston’s first film set the standard for his later work, a standard of excellence that has rarely been matched by his more recent films. In The Maltese Falcon Huston was already developing the pattern that would characterize his finest films: the introduction of an intrigue-suspense plot that’s soon completely subordinated to characterization. In films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen and The Kremlin Letter, we become so taken with the characters, the human truths they represent, and the stylish manner in which they are portrayed, that the actual plot line becomes insignificant; and if the Maltese Falcon or the Kremlin letter should prove to have been red herrings all along, it matters not a whit.
In a Lonely Place (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD) hasn’t much to do with the Dorothy B. Hughes novel on which it was ostensibly based, beyond the title (one of the most evocative in noir history), the Los Angeles setting, and the murder of a young woman that puts our ostensible hero, volatile, hard-drinking Hollywood screenwriter Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), in the crosshairs of the police. The victim, a bubbly, not-too-bright hat check girl, had been to Dixon’s apartment to recount the story of a romantic potboiler bestseller he’s too jaded to read himself. When he’s hauled in for questioning, he’s unfazed and sardonic, treating the whole thing like a murder mystery plot to be dissected. The oddly-named Detective Sergeant Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy) tells his boss that Dix has been like that ever since they met in the war, where his hard, cynical attitude kept the unit alive, but the Captain isn’t convinced. Even when he’s alibied by his lovely new neighbor Laurel (Gloria Grahame), a one-time Hollywood starlet running from a failed romance with the poise of a queen of society. She likes his face. He likes her style. I like their flirtation: smart, knowing banter, seductive smiles, a push-and-pull as Laurel decides whether she’s ready to jump into another relationship. Despite that poise, she’s a little skittish about commitment.
Let There Be Light (Olive, Blu-ray, DVD) – John Huston, like so many members of the Hollywood community, offered his talents to the armed services after Pearl Harbor. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps, where he made four films. This disc features all four films, including a recently restored version of his final documentary for the armed services.
You can see his changing perspective on war through the productions, from Winning Your Wings (1942), a recruitment film narrated by James Stewart, to Let There Be Light (1946), his powerful portrait of the mentally and emotionally scarred men treated at a Long Island military hospital. Report from the Aleutians (1943) shows the routine of military life at a remote base in the frigid Aleutian Islands between Alaska and Russia (it’s also the only film shot in color), but his tone becomes darker in San Pietro (1945), which documents the battle to take a small Italian village from the occupying German forces. Huston provides the ironic narration himself over the record of destruction and loss of life on a single battle. The scenes of bombed-out ruins and dead soldiers are real but the battle itself was restaged by Huston for maximum dramatic impact. The military chose not to show the film to civilian audiences but new recruits did watch the film to understand the grueling ordeal awaiting them in battle. The film was voted into the National Film Registry in 1991.
Let There Be Light, his final film, is on the one hand a straightforward portrait of soldiers receiving help for “psychoneurotic” damage, what today was call post-traumatic stress disorder, and on the other a powerful portrait of the damage that war left on these men. It’s also a portrait of an integrated military, with black and white soldiers living and working in group therapy sessions together, before it ever existed in the barracks. The film was censored for 35 years and restored just a few years ago. This disc features the restored version.
[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
One of the most memorable scenes in High Sierra takes place when Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) is driving towards Camp Shaw high in the mountains of California after being released from prison. The camera sweeps the Sierra peaks and pans down to Earle’s car as he pauses at the junction of the dirt road leading to his destination. When he starts out we see him, the mountains, and a string of pack horses led by a couple of dude ranch cowboys who are moving slowly in the opposite direction, emerging from the world Roy Earle is about to enter. It is all somehow safe and reassuring, and yet in retrospect the image becomes a fatefully and fatally ironic premonition of Roy Earle’s death at the hands of a cowboy who perches on a rocky ledge above him and picks him off with a highpowered rifle and telescopic sight. The seemingly innocent picturesqueness of the scene perfectly indexes the illusory safety of the place to which Roy Earle is retreating, at the same time it suggests one of many aspects of the mortality which stalks through the movie. Walsh doesn’t invoke that oddly incongruous cowboy image by mistake; Roy Earle, who is himself a mythic presence, is shot by a figure who not only seems to belong in some other corner of history but who might more comfortably inhabit a different cinematic genre. Cowboys shouldn’t be any more “real” than the ancient race of gangsters to which Roy and Big Mac belong, and yet it’s a cowboy who destroys the man and momentarily diminishes the mythic aura surrounding Roy Earle.
[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
TheyDrivebyNight and Manpower gave Walsh some contact with another Warners specialty, the workingman picture. Both films tell us something about the conditions under which their respective kinds of work, commercial trucking and powerline repair, are conducted. Walsh, characteristically, puts greater emphasis on comedy than on any social problems that might arise—particularly in Manpower, where the nature of the script leaves him no choice.
TheyDrivebyNight is a likeable film that doesn’t seem too certain where it’s going. Initial focus is on two fiercely independent truckers, Joe Fabrini (George Raft) and his brother Paul (Humphrey Bogart); but a feisty waitress (Ann Sheridan), Paul’s worried wife (Gale Page), a driver-turned-executive (Alan Hale) and his treacherous wife (Ida Lupino) give the film several kinds of “romantic interest” and eventually lead it off the highways and into various offices and a courtroom. Otis Ferguson suggested that the film’s errant plotting may have derived in part from a failure of nerve in adapting a socially conscious novel: “At least half of the film was ‘suggested’ by the Bezzerides novel LongHaul, and in this I wish they had been more suggestible, for the trucking stuff is very good and could have not only made the whole picture but made it better.” The first half of the film crackles with a sense of the risks the drivers take, but the second gravitates toward conventional melodrama with no special point or effect. (An earlier, non-Walsh Warners film, Bordertown , seems to have been the source for this section.)
[Originally published in Movietone News 45, November 1975]
While TheRoaringTwenties is hardly a definitive history of an era, its chronicle of the intersecting careers of Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) and two buddies from the Great War has a sharp bite socially and more than a touch of tragic vision. Here as elsewhere, the Cagney character is the focal point of a deadly disparity between society and the man who lives by his instincts, and the elegiac tone which the film builds around him is a way of paying respects not to a bygone era, but to a naïvely vigorous man on whom time and change have tromped. Here the “Roaring Twenties” are more or less what happens in between an era that sets a man up (World War I) and an era that tears him down (the Depression), and the ultimate effect is one of waste, of quintessential vitality (Bartlett’s) squandered in a age too confused to find a place for it. In one sense the film spells out the limitations of Cagney’s film persona; but the downward spiral of Eddie Bartlett’s career and the upward spiral of his lawyer pal’s (from bootleg bookkeeper to assistant D.A.) also suggest that society’s values move in brutally indiscriminate character’s inability to find a suitable companion in life ultimately constitutes an important, though tacit, social problem as well.
[Originally published in Movietone News 40, April 1975]
She brought the bottle to his room and then he took the bottle to her room and now she has brought it back to his room without anyone having had a drink so far. He cocks an eye at their mutual pretext and remarks, “This is getting to be a problem.”
The line gets a laugh. And as you laugh at it, you can’t quite say why you’re laughing, but you know you’re laughing at a number of things at the same time. It’s more than two people getting set to play a love scene. It’s two people laughing at themselves for going through all this ritual to get at the scene, and it’s also two people digging the ritual and digging themselves for having set it up. It’s two canny actors, who are also people, enjoying and capitalizing on the happy fact that they are playing about the same scene they’d be playing anyway if there weren’t a camera crew standing around. It’s also Howard Hawks and his redoubtable extra-dialogue man William Faulkner and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall—only recently Betty Perske, unknown fashion model—laughing at the way they’ve just said “Screw it” to the whole bothersome notion of following a scenario.
For it must have been after the shooting of the second stage of the bottle’s progress that Bacall said—as James Agee recorded for Time and posterity—”God, I’m dumb.” Hawks asked why and she said, “Well, if I had any sense I’d go back in after that guy.” Hawks had to agree and that’s the way they went.
To Have and Have Not, then, is firstly and most durably a movie about the making of this particular movie. In his enormously suggestive book MovieMan, David Thomson has remarked that, with Hawks as with Jean Renoir, one so often has a feeling that the director and some friends of his have got together and, simply because they happen to be phenomenally talented people in the same line of work, made a movie. While there are moments implying breezy, spontaneous improvisation in virtually all Hawks pictures, no other has such an all-pervasive sense of a floating party where a couple of particular people keep bumping into the fact that there’s something lovely about each of them and something cosmically joyous about the two of them together.
[Originally written for the National Society of Film Critics anthology The A List: 100 Essential Films (2002)]
In 1539, the Knight Templars of Malta, paid tribute to Charles V of Spain, by sending him a Golden Falcon encrusted from beak to claw with rarest jewels – but pirates seized the galley carrying the priceless token and the fate of the Maltese Falcon remains a mystery to this day.
That crawl appears following the opening credits of The Maltese Falcon, set to dreamy-sinister music and laid over a dark image of the peregrine statuary seemingly poised in some undiscovered tomb. The grammar is regrettable (surely it should be Knights-Templar?), and suggestive of some haste. Was the foreword perhaps added at the last minute, in an act of desperation, after preview audiences had grown fidgety with reel upon reel of baroque conversations and ornately peculiar comings and goings in a collection of offices and hotel rooms purporting to be modern-day (1941) San Francisco? More than half the film elapses before anyone even mentions the titular bird, let alone accounts for its immense value and lurid history. Yet strike the keynote with that one-sentence prelude and the mantle of legend settles over the entire proceedings.
Of course, The Maltese Falcon has become positively encrusted with legend in the six decades since its release. It’s the classic hardboiled private-eye movie; the nervy maiden offering of its celebrated director, John Huston; the first glamorous star vehicle for Humphrey Bogart, an icon of American cinema and the 20th century’s definition of existential cool; and still the most triumphantly well-cast movie from Hollywood’s golden age (rivaled only by Casablanca). Watching The Maltese Falcon now, everybody and his brother know they’re in the presence of something extraordinary. But it’s tantalizing to contemplate how easily the brass ring might have been missed – how close the picture might have come to being just another detective thriller, like the two previous screen versions of Dashiell Hammett’s groundbreaking novel (respectively so-so, in 1931, and ludicrous, in 1936).
[Originally published in Movietone News 57, February 1978]
I believe the really good people would be reasonably successful in any circumstance; that to be very poor and very beautiful ismost probably a moral failure much more than an artistic success. Shakespeare would have done well in any generation because he would have refused to die in a corner; he would have taken the false gods and made them over; he would have taken the current formulae and forced them into something lesser men thought them incapable of. Alive today he would undoubtedly have written and directed motion pictures, plays and God knows what. Instead of saying “This medium is not good,” he wouldn’t have cared a rap, because he would know that without some vulgarity there is no complete man. He would have hated refinement, as such, because it isalways a withdrawal, a shrinking, and he was much too tough to shrink from anything. —Raymond Chandler (1949)
Raymond Chandler was given to talking things up in a way that Howard Hawks never has been, but part of what is remarkable about the above statement is its aptness as an aesthetics for Hawks’ films as well as for Chandler’s fiction. Even in readily likeable potboilers like Tiger Shark and The Crowd Roars, the hard-edged integrity that distinguished later and more accomplished Hawks films was already making itself felt. Indeed, in Chandler’s fiction as in movies like Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not, and RioBravo, the mixture of highly commercial genre and sharply individualized intelligence exerts an enduring fascination. Thus, that Hawks should end up filming a Chandler novel seems more than merely appropriate. Read More “Hawks, Chandler and The Big Sleep”
Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection (Warner) The Maltese Falcon Blu-ray (Warner) The Treasure of the Sierra Madre Blu-ray (Warner)
Humphrey Bogart was the first Hollywood star I embraced. Watching him hold down the center of Casablanca with a pose of populist existentialism covering his wounded romanticism (“Where were you last night?” “That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.” “Will I see you tonight?” “I never make plans that far ahead.”), I thought he was the coolest cat I’d ever seen on the screen. There’s not a lot new to say about the Bogie, and not much I can add to Dave Kehr’s excellent piece in the New York Times on the icon, the actor and the movie star in relation to the great new box set Humphrey Bogart: The Essential Collection (Warner). I received the set late, just after returning from Vancouver and nursing the end days of a pesky head cold, so I’ve not had as much time and energy as I would have liked to dive into the set.
However, I can still offer a tour of the selections in the set through notes and reviews I wrote on earlier viewings of the films and coverage of their previous release on DVD. Yes, each of the 24 films in the set have been previously available on DVD, both individually and in various box set incarnations, and the supplements from those excellent Warner volumes are ported over. But the remarkable efficiency of this box set (12 two-sided flipper discs in six thinpak cases, plus a couple of extras, more on those later) and the amazing price tag ($100 retail, less with inevitable markdowns) brings the price per film to under $4 apiece.