The Maltese Falcon (1941)

falcon1.jpg2016.20: The Maltese Falcon (Blu-ray)

Another of those classic films that somehow I’d never gotten around to, the steelbook Blu-ray I’d bought has patiently sat on the shelf for something close to two years until now. Having enjoyed Casablanca so much a few weeks ago it was inevitable that I would get around to finally watching this at last (and yes, I’m certainly getting through the ‘to-watch’ list this year).

The Maltese Falcon is no Casablanca, but it nonetheless deservedly merits its status as a film classic. I was actually surprised how demanding this film is. From the very start you have to pay keen attention to the twists and turns of its fairly labyrinthine plot (though I’m told its by no means the most confusing of the noir thrillers of the period). Its fascinating to consider how sophisticated its script is compared to the simpler fare that gets made today; I certainly cannot imagine many modern-day multiplex-goers sitting through a film this dense without walking out perplexed.

Hardboiled private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart), is hired by mysterious femme fatale Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor) to tail a man who has ties to her estranged sister. When Spades business partner Miles Archer is murdered that evening, Spade finds that he is a police suspect and is thrown into a complex web of lies and double-dealing concerning the location of the Falcon of the title. Along the way we meet some remarkable characters- notably Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre in possibly his finest role) and Kasper ‘The Fat Man’ Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet in what is, incredibly, his first screen role, stealing every scene he is in and defining the silver-screen ‘evil criminal mastermind’ forever).  The economy with which this film tells its tale and divulges its secrets is quite breathtaking, it’s really a very little film with a small cast and minimal sets but it packs quite a punch. A film like this could really teach modern-day screenwriters and directors something about scale and storytelling.

If only because the film answered some decades-old questions of my own regards a Jon & Vangelis song, I rate this film as something special, and it’s certainly a classic. You can see it creating the film noir/private eye genre right before your very eyes. All those films that came afterwards owe so much to this film.Funny thing is, and something that I had no idea of until I watched some of this excellent blu-ray disc’s special features, is that this is not the first screen attempt at filming The Maltese Falcon. It’s actually the third film made based on the story. Well, you learn something new everyday…

Mr White’s Hotel Conundrum

When I writing yesterday’s review of Casablanca, it set me thinking about how perfect that film’s script was. The setting and the premise were clearly set up, the characters and their motivations all clearly defined, the dialogue full of character and precisely furthering the story. The humour worked, the emotion felt real, the character arcs and the general plot were interesting and made sense. There was a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even though the hero didn’t get the girl, it was nonetheless completely satisfying, it all made sense. I didn’t start second-guessing it after it finished and I haven’t spent days splitting it apart.

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Here’s the thing: it’s Mr Whites’s hotel room, in L’American (I’m talking the latest Bond flick, Spectre, now). You see, it doesn’t make any sense. Bond has rescued the late Mr White’s daughter, Madeline Swann, from the bad guys and has gone with her to Tangiers to find L’American, only it’s not a person, it is a place- a hotel in fact. There’s a room there that Mr White kept going to, where he spent family holidays with wife and daughter every year. Only in the room Bond cannot find anything unusual. Until, that is, he spots a mouse running through a gap between the floor and wall.  Bond dramatically smashes through this false wall and discovers a secret room beyond, containing all Mr White’s intel and secrets. Hurrah.

But it doesn’t make sense. First of all, Bond has smashed through a wall to get in. How the hell did Mr White use the room if it doesn’t have a door?  A room without a door? Did Mr White have to smash through the wall every time he visited the hotel and then rebuild it and redecorate the hotel room to hide the fact? Does the hotel owner know about the room? You’d think the owner would have to, as you’d think even the cleaner would notice part of a hotel room has disappeared behind a suddenly-new wall. Or notice that the decor changes every time Mr White pays a visit.

So maybe the hotel owner is ‘in’ on it. Maybe Mr White pays him a retainer. Maybe he even keeps the room rented out all year; I mean it’d be embarrassing if Mr and Mrs Jones from Texas with their little boy Tristam on a lovely holiday accidentally noticed, like Bond does, the false wall and hidden room behind it full of horrible terrorist stuff and then posted it all on Facebook.  Where’s the (secret?) way in to the secret room; does it have one? Is it really a room without a door?

I have a theory; it’s all about spectacle and the catharsis of the moment; a moment that outweighs the logic of the whole in favour of the thrill of that moment. We are supposed to be thrilled/excited at how Bond discovers the room and smashes into it with his fists. We aren’t supposed to think,  hold on, where’s the door? All Bond had to do was find a secret catch and a hidden panel/door, it would be fine, maybe less exciting/thrilling, except for the lingering question what the hell was Mr White doing hiding all his stuff in a hotel? 

And of course, there’s the rub. If this is Mr White’s Holy Of Holy’s, his Secret Base of Operations, his motherlode of sensitive intel, incredibly valuable and secret, why would he have it in a hotel room on the other side of the world from where he lives? Does he really think it is so well hidden, so safe? How often does he go there? Is anyone watching the place for him just in case? Would he only learn something was amiss if he paid the place a visit to find  someone else had redecorated the place again? What if the hotel burnt down in a fire? Add to that, it’s already been established when Bond discovers Mr White back at his home in Austria, he has a secret basement/lair full spy stuff anyway; why not just keep it all in there? Why bother with the hotel in the first place? What does it do to enhance the plot/film?

This seems to be happening all the time with films now. The script isn’t worked out, no-one seems to be debating it, testing it. Mr White hides his intel in an hotel room- why? He He thinks its safe – why? Bond breaks into it by punching through the wall- why? There is no door – why? There’s no encryption on any of the data and the laptop is still switched on/logged in -why? So much could just be fixed by asking ‘why’ and establishing a logical explanation.

Its like, a few scenes later, Bond and Swann on a train journey to the Spectre base are ambushed and nearly killed by Spectre assassin Hinx- why? The central plot of cat and mouse is a scheme orchestrated by Oberhauser who intends Bond to find him- indeed Bond and Swann don’t find their own way to the Spectre base, Oberhauser arranges a car to meet and take them there, where they are greeted like expected guests. Why send Hinx to kill them if Oberhauser wants to finally meet Bond/reveal his identity and masterplan and himself torture and kill Bond? If Hinx succeeded, wouldn’t that ruin Oberhauser’s plan for his personal revenge against Bond? Wouldn’t that just piss him off?

Agh. No. I’m getting a headache. God, it’s Prometheus all over again…

Casablanca (1942)

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2016.13: Casablanca (Blu-ray)

It’s really a crime against cinema that this film has remained on my to-watch list for so long. I bought it on Blu-ray back in 2013 (the receipt was slipped inside the case, as if I’d put it there to shame myself when eventually watching it years later). How I managed to miss ever watching it prior to 2013 though, on any one of its many tv showings over all the years before (or even afterwards, while the disc gathered dust on the shelf) will remain another mystery. Its strange how some such films slip through the net,  but in some ways it’s a good thing that such classics can still be discovered for the first time. I have to admit, this is a film that surpasses all expectations, it’s a wonderful film. Perfect even. Naturally it leaps into my list of fifty great films.

Naturally for a film as old as this one, and so well-known as this one, it is pointless describing the plot and anything positive I have to say about the film is utterly redundant. Surely all has been said. The script… goodness, the script is simply perfect, and somehow despite being set in 1941 hasn’t dated at all. It’s a genuine example of why a good script is the foundation of any good film. The film is perfectly directed and lovingly shot. The cast are perfect. Have used the word ‘perfect’ enough?

It’s one of those films that was made at just the right time, when just the right talent in front and behind the camera came together at just the right time. It’s a film that defies criticism, that seems perfectly formed- cinema magic, a timeless work of art. There’s not many films this good; masterpiece is an over-used term these days, especially regards films, but in this case it is more than justified, its essential.

cas2So anyway, now I can truly understand all the fuss. One thing I must just mention; Ingrid Bergman- she just glows. Her performance is just… priceless. The rest of the cast are no slouches; Bogart impresses, as does Claude Rains, but it is Bergman that steals the show for me. It’s a phenomenal performance from -incredibly- seventy-four years ago. That thought just makes me pause a moment. Seventy-four years ago. Good grief.

Thats the magic of movies I guess. Some moments, some performances. They are frozen in time forever, truly the nearest a human can get to immortality. In this film Bergman shines forever.

The Horrible ‘To-Watch’ List Part One: The Guilty Secrets Dept.

Ah, the shame of a steadily-increasing list of  unwatched Blu-ray discs. I really should stop buying any more discs for a few months, until I get through some of these. You know, back when the HD formats started I looked at my huge soon-to-be -history DVD collection and decided that never again would I catch the collecting bug. You know how it is, you love movies, the extras look enticing, you start collecting a director’s movies or a series of films and then you suddenly find you’re building some kind of library of coasters.

The idea I can even watch a film whenever I want is still a kick for me,  someone who remembers the olde days of movie-watching being at the whim of terrestrial tv-planners; its all like some kind of ‘pinch-me-it-can’t-be-true’ dream. They made Titanic for $250 million dollars and you can pick it up for just over a tenner even on Blu-ray, with a picture to shame some cinema outlets. I guess that’s where they get us, with those darn bargains…. So anyway, despite my brave and noble intentions, I now have a collection of Blu-ray discs as large as the DVD collection that preceded it. And alarmingly, quite a few of them have not even been played yet. Well, we’ve all got ’em, the Unwatched Blu’s.

So I thought I’d trawl through my collection of films gathering dust that I haven’t seen yet. Maybe even offer up a few excuses.

casablancaFirst off, with today’s post, the guilty secrets department. I think we’ll start with a film oft-quoted in adverts, comedy sketches, countless ‘top-ten of all time’ lists… Casablanca. Everybody seems to love Casablanca. Nope, I’ve never seen it. I bought the American Blu-ray (superior master to the UK one, apparently) from Amazon several months ago for something like £5 before postage. Its a film that I’ve always been curious about, particularly since watching/loving the Woody Allen film Play it Again, Sam, so many years ago as a kid, which was practically a love-letter to the film.   I can’t really explain why I’ve never seen it,  God knows there have been ample showings on tv. Several years ago I even bought an anniversary making-of book about Casablanca when I was on holiday thinking it would be nice to read after watching the film, but as I never got around to buying the DVD to watch the film, nope, I’ve never read the book either. Its a classic romance apparently, and Ingrid Bergman is wonderful in it, and Humphrey Bogart is no slouch, either. I don’t know. I really should get around to it. I feel guilty just looking at it’s case up on the shelf…

We’ll stay with Mr Bogart with my next guilty secret that sits on the shelf alongside Casablanca– and this is the classic maltese bluJohn Huston mystery thriller The Maltese Falcon, which I bought as a rather pretty steelbook, with gorgeous original poster art (more old movies should get this ‘classic’ artwork treatment). Now I gather, rightly or wrongly, that this is a  film-noir detective thriller with Bogart playing hard-boiled no-nonsense Private Eye Sam Spade in a story based on a Dashiell Hammett classic piece of pulp fiction. I love film-noir and certainly black and white detective/private eye movies with plenty of twists and turns. I love that whole ‘pulp-fiction/potboiler’ genre. Just how I managed to watch seasons of gangster movies and b&w classics on the BBC over the years but never managed to see this is, well, quite beyond me. So I finally bite the bullet when this bargain-priced Blu-ray appears and it inevitably winds up sitting next to Casablanca.  I guess the two films would make a nice Saturday evening double-bill. Someday.

Now, readers of this blog wil know I’m a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock. Vertigo is one of my favourite Top-Five movies. I’ve bought several of Hitchcock’s  films on DVD, read a number of books about the director and his films. I’ve even started to buy his films on Blu-ray. But there is one that I have bought (like Casablanca, at a bargain-bin price from America) that even has the added draw that it stars the utterly gorgeous Grace Kelly that I have not catchathiefwatched yet, and that is To Catch a Thief. Okay, maybe its one of Hitchcock’s lesser films, to be honest I really have no idea, it certainly doesn’t appear to get the attention his more famous films get.  But with Hitchcock directing, and the film starring Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, it has to be worth a watch, yes? This darn thing has been sitting on my shelf for a year already.  When I bought it it wasn’t even available over here but that UK release has come and gone some several months ago. To add further insult to injury, that UK release costs a lot less than the ‘bargain’ price I bought the American edition for once postage is factored into it.

To Catch a Thief  is just the kind of situation that winds me up- I’m a big fan of the director, I’m entranced by one of the stars (Grace Kelly is a screen goddess, no question about it)… I’ve bought the film in HD, offering a quality I could never have enjoyed before. Good grief, its a Hitchcock film I have never seen! And yet it stays on the shelf. Maybe the truth is, there’s not many ‘new’ Hitchcock films for me to ever watch, so maybe its best to treasure them, wait for the perfect moment?

Which might be the excuse for my next guilty secret that sits on the shelf- because its an early film by one of my very favourite directors, Billy Wilder. Its The Lost Weekend, which is a film I know very little about  but which was released on Blu-ray last year by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. lostweekendI bought a few of these MOC films back then which I actually got around to watching, like the excellent Touch of Evil and Double Indemnity (another Wilder classic).  But this one slipped through the net. I will just point out in my defence that I did watch one of the extras on the disc, the near-three hour documentary about Billy Wilder (a BBC doc I believe) which would be worth the price of the disc alone. Its releases like this that really prove the value of home video, as it feels like the film is an unearthed classic, given the HD treatment against the odds, a gem for film historians who know of the film and for those like me who have somehow never heard of it.  Its certainly seldom if ever been aired on television (and in this day and age of almost zero-interest even by the BBC in showing old ‘classics’ unlikely to ever be again).

Now, regards films that are well-known, here’s one that I certainly have heard a lot of and yet never seen, even though I’m actually a big fan of it’s Historical Epic genre, and this is Cleopatra.cleopatra Nope, never seen it. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, a budget so big it nearly bankrupted the studio-  I think I read somewhere that, allowing for inflation, Cleopatra remains the most expensive film ever made, even compared to the monster epics of today like Titanic, Avatar etc. Don’t know how true that is, but you have to be curious about seeing all that money onscreen in the days before cgi ate up all a films budget. I do think the film is famous more for the real-life romance between Taylor and Burton and how it scandalised Hollywood at the time, and to be honest I think that this why it’s never particularly appealed to me. How good can a film be if its more famous for its stars having a sordid affair offscreen than anything actually onscreen?  But I have also heard, over the years, that its not a bad film at all, and certainly when the Blu-ray came out last year it came out with some fanfare. So its an old Epic back from the days when the word Epic really meant something, and Elizabeth Taylor is certainly a screen icon (although, to be honest, I cannot think of many films of hers that I have actually seen). Added problem regards watching this one though is its running time, over four hours? Come on, if I struggle to find 90+ mins to watch a  Billy Wilder film, what chance does this one have?

Now, the most recent Blu-ray that I have purchased that deserves the term ‘classic’ colonel blimpand that I have yet to see is the Powell and Pressburger film The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, a film widely hailed as one of the very greatest of British Cinema. It has recently been restored and is said to look simply wonderful in HD. I adored their Black Narcissus and recently bought and actually watched(!) their The Red Shoes, which was an utterly amazing film. So my expectations are high for this one. Again I know very little about it. But you know, I prefer it that way, and just as with films like The Lost Weekend, I actually work hard at avoiding any info prior to finally watching a film. Certainly not easy in this day and age. Now, if only I could finally get around to watching it…

 

Sometime I’ll continue this list with a list of those films I have already seen and have now upgraded to HD, only to, yes, fail to watch the darn Blu-ray. Films like Citizen Kane, Shawshank Redemption, Silent Running, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr Zhivago (this one still in the shrinkwrap, horrors!), Chinatown, HeatTotal Recall... yes the tale of shame continues… surely I’m not the only guilty party here though? Feel free to share your shame and list the Unwatched Blu’s on your own shelves…