[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.
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.
“Your flesh will creep… at the hand that crawls!” promises the poster for the 1948 The Beast with Five Fingers, a Warner Bros. production that, modest by studio standards, is one of the classier horror films of its day. Once a thriving genre, horror films had largely slipped into the B-movie units of the Hollywood majors by the 1940s, with the Poverty Row studios picking up the slack. This production, helmed by Robert Florey and featuring Robert Alda, Peter Lorre, and J. Carrol Naish, sounds on the surface like a twist on The Hands of Orlac, a chestnut of a thriller about the hands of a strangler grafted onto the body of a musician that have a murderous life of their own. And while The Beast with Five Fingers does indeed feature a famed musician and a killer hand crawling through the picture, it is also an old dark house thriller set in a turn-of-the-century Italian castle where friends and relatives gather for the reading of a will and start turning up dead.
That all comes later. The film opens with Robert Alda as an American in Italy fleecing tourists with ersatz jewelry and a line of malarkey sold with a devilish grin. That’s just a sideline for Conrad Ryler, a former musician who is now part of the retinue that serves Francis Ingram (Victor Francen), a piano maestro paralyzed by a stroke but for one arm, with which he uses to pound out Brahms on the grand piano that dominates the front room. Ingram’s nurse Julie (Andrea King) and his secretary Hilary (Peter Lorre), an obsessive who is usually squirrelled away in the library studying ancient astrology and magic, fill out Ingram’s staff, and it’s a rather strained sense of community.
Set in the unforgiving desert badlands and cutthroat diamond trade of North Africa, with a cast that could be the burned-out, ruthlessly mercenary evil twins of Casablanca, Rope of Sand (1949) recasts the exotic thriller with a noir sensibility under the harsh light of a desert sun. Burt Lancaster is the American hero, turned bitter and vengeful after his mistreatment at the hands of the sadistic head of security of the diamond company, and Corinne Calvet (“introduced” to American audiences here) the doll-faced femme fatale Suzanne, a mercenary gold-digger whose first act is to blackmail middle-aged company man Arthur Martingale (Claude Rains). She’s a beauty, to be sure, and plays the part as a sex kitten with claws, but she’s not convincingly worldly next to the display of hard-bitten survival from the rest of the veteran cast.
The echoes to Casablanca (which was also produced by Hal Wallis) are unmistakable, and not just from the North African setting, expatriate characters and battle of wills. Rains plays Martingale as a cousin to Casablanca’s Louis in the corporate world, with a little more venom but just as susceptible to dramatic romantic gestures, and fellow Casablanca vets Paul Henreid (this time as a villain) and Peter Lorre (all drunken melancholy as a well-informed underworld hustler) fill out the top-billed cast. Even more fun than the battle of wills between the embittered Mike and Henreid’s vain, vicious Commandant Vogel (not a Nazi but certainly symbolically channeling the role) is the gleeful gamesmanship of Martingale, who hires Suzanne to play the two off one another for his own amusement (he delights in humiliating Vogel) as much as for business.
Director William Dieterle really sinks his teeth into competitive play of blackmail, double-crossing and betrayal and keeps the edge on even as a couple of characters reveal a conscience by the end. And he nicely shifts the film from the hard daylight of the desert, the shadows more about the heat of the sun than the darkness of the soul, into a nocturnal world with intimate indoor scenes in pools of illumination and outdoor scene played in the shadows as lights cut the darkness, in particular a muscular fist-fight in the desert lit by the headlamps of a halftrack. It makes for one of the most engagingly entertaining artifacts on the margins of film noir and a terrific rediscovery debuting on DVD in a fine B&W edition. No supplements from this bare bones Olive Films release.
Film noir historians trace the roots back to the silent era and the full flowering to the war years, but most tend to agree that the first true American film noir came in the otherwise modest package of an ambitious B-movie crime thriller from 1940. Before the hard-boiled world of suspicious private eyes, double-crossing dames and a nocturnal urban jungle where deals and double-crosses are hatched with often fatal payoffs of The Maltese Falcon, and the slippery narrative and visual expressionism of Citizen Kane (an influence on the genre and a close relative if not actually a member of the immediate noir family), there was Stranger on the Third Floor, a paranoid murder thriller that, for all of its budgetary constraints, took viewers on a spiral of justified paranoia. This odyssey into the dark side of American life begins with the hopeless and helpless cries of innocence from a kid convicted of murder on circumstantial evidence and the apathy of a judge and jury (Elisha Cook Jr., soon to become a minor noir icon, delivers the appeals with a haunting plea and eyes watery with abject terror) and builds to a literal nightmare with images right out of the height of 1920 German Expressionist classics.
Plenty has been written about the nightmare sequence, which explodes out of the increasingly oppressive atmosphere created by director Boris Ingster and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (who became RKO’s house specialist for shadowy crime cinema and went on to shoot one of the greatest masterpieces of the genre, the sublime Out of the Past) and the guilty conscience of suddenly self-doubting newspaper reporter Mike Ward (John McGuire) as much as the paranoid twists of the Frank Partos’ screenplay. As many historians have written, the stylized sequence of stark settings created largely by massive shadows thrown across a blank canvas of a screen dressed with exaggerated props was the first American expression of this distinctly German style (which, coincidentally, had since fallen out of favor under the Third Reich’s control of the German film industry). 70 years and scores of stylized noir offers later, it is still impressive and effective and not just for its evocation of paranoid nightmare or psychological terror. This sequence effectively replays the ordeal that hapless Joe Briggs (Elisha Cook) endures in the opening act, but this time around with Mike—the star witness for the prosecution—in his position, grilled by the cops and marched off to execution in a resigned, lifeless lockstep shuffle that echoes the worker slaves of Metropolis.
[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).