The Maltese Falcon

In appreciation of Roger Ebert (1942-2013)

Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre: I love those guys! Bogey playing the kind of hard-boiled-on-the-outside-but-with-a-tender-center detective that he was made for. 968full-the-maltese-falcon-posterJohn Huston directing his own screenplay of the great Dashiell Hammett novel. No wonder Roger Ebert called “The Maltese Falcon” one of the greatest films of all time.

Ebert also said that the plot of this picture is the last thing you think about. (And I thought it was only me who had difficulty following the story…) What matters, what makes “The Maltese Falcon” worth watching again and again, are the stand-alone scenes. You hardly care what’s come before, or what’s coming next, you’re so caught up in the perfect moment.

Bogey’s classic line:  “I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.” Wish I could say that the way he does, and mean it. Heck, he’s even plausible when he wants to talk about the bird.

 

“The movie is essentially,” Ebert noted, “a series of conversations punctuated by brief, violent interludes. It’s all style. It isn’t violence or chases, but the way the actors look, move, speak, and embody their characters.”

Think about San Francisco and you think about Sam Spade. The shabby office with the frosted glass door. The city streets by night. I’ve walked that town with key scenes in my head, from the corner of Burritt Alley and Bush Street, where Spade’s partner was done in (there’s actually a plaque to mark the spot) to the fancier locales around Union Square. I’ve even stayed in Joel Cairo’s hotel, the Belvedere (now the Monaco, a Klimpton property with a delightful restaurant).

Indelible.

Casablanca

I wish I could have been on the set when they were filming “Casablanca.”  What a great story, and what a great cast!  Wartime Hollywood must have been a lot like Rick’s Café Américain.  Refugee actors desperate for work, preyed on by studio executives who knew they could get them on the cheap.  But something about the exotic mix of nationalities, along with the high stakes involved, brought out the best in people.

All those Europeans, their nuanced performances, make Humphrey Bogart’s straight-talking American stand out like a sore thumb.  Don’t get me wrong.  Bogart is perfect as Rick, the cynical nightclub owner who retrieves his sense of purpose while letting go of the only woman he ever loved.  Against the shadowy elements of “Casablanca,” his clear-eyed character emerges in sharp relief, the way a searchlight cuts through the night fog.  No wonder the exquisite Ilsa fell in love with him!

I’ve never liked Peter Lorre better than in the role of Ugarte.  “You know, Rick,” he says, “I have many a friend in Casablanca, but somehow, just because you despise me, you are the only one I trust.”  Even a thief like Ugarte can disarm with his honesty.  Then there’s the fine French actor, Marcel Dalio, in a bit part as Emil the croupier.  Mere minutes onscreen, but he is luminous.  Sydney Greenstreet as Signor Ferrari:  pure pleasure to watch this master actor at work.  And Claude Rains as Captain Louis Renault.  Seeing him come around and commit himself to the anti-Nazi cause makes me smile every time.

“Rick, you’re a sentimentalist,” he tells Bogey.  Well, count me in, guys.

(18 January 2011)