Monday, April 27, 2015

The Maltese Falcon

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

There’s a great line from the TV show The X-Files.  Fox Mulder is talking to the “Deep Throat” character who supposedly is giving him inside information about the alien conspiracy. The FBI agent has become extremely cynical after being deceived so many times and says, “I’m trying to decide which lie to believe.”

That line could refer to John Huston’s classic 1941 detective film, The Maltese Falcon.  Based on Dashiell Hammett’s story, the movie centers on private eye Sam Spade, played in iconic anti-hero mode by Humphrey Bogart. Spade has been sleeping with the wife of his partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan). A Miss Wonderly (you start to “wonder” who she really is as the story unfolds) asks the detectives to check out a man named Floyd Thursby who supposedly ran off with her sister. Later, Sam finds out that Miles was shot to death. The police also find out that Thursby was killed. They think that Thursby killed Miles and Sam killed Thursby, although they have no evidence to back up the charge. 

Sam is contacted by “Wonderly” whose real name is Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor). She seems like the helpless female. He learns from her that there was no sister, and Thursby was someone she knew who had double-crossed her. Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) shows up at Sam’s office looking for a black statue of a bird. Cairo reveals that Brigid is after the bird for herself. She hits Cairo over the head, showing she is not as helpless as she seems. She fools Sam’s secretary, who says that Brigid is “alright.” When the police show up, Sam, in keeping with the deception theme of the film, makes up elaborate stories about himself, Cairo, and Bridgid, saying they were “play acting.” It is further revealed that Brigid and Cairo are both looking for the statue, and they mention that “the fat man” has arrived, and is also seeking the treasured bird. When Sam and Brigid are alone, she tells more lies, which Sam sees through. She admits that she is a liar. There have been so many deceptions that she no longer knows what is or isn’t a lie.  It is implied that Sam and Brigid have sex that night, since the next day he is calling her “my one true love” and is acting very sweet toward her.

Sam finds “the fat man,” who is appropriately named Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet). at Cairo’s hotel. Gutman talks like a civilized man, but he is really ruthless, employing the hitman, Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr.). Gutman says he likes “plain speaking” people, which is ironic given all the lies thrown about. He tells the story of the falcon, a gift from the crusades, whose black lacquered surface covers a gold and jewel-encrusted figure. He says “the story is history” and that what he has told are “facts.” Again, ironic, since the whole story is a fiction made up by the author, Hammett.  Gutman acts like he is willing to pay Sam for the bird, but then drugs him to get him out of the way so he can get it from Brigid, who he assumes has the object. When Sam awakes, he sees a notice about a ship arriving circled in the newspaper. At his office, the shot captain of the ship arrives and hands Sam a bundle before he dies. It is the Falcon. Sam stores the bird at a bus station and sends himself the collection tag. When he arrives at his office, Brigid, Cairo, Gutman, and Wilmer are there. Sam says he wants the whole story if they want the bird.  Gutman tried to get Thursby to cooperate, but he wouldn’t betray Brigid. Wilmer killed Thursby, and also the captain, but he escaped and was able to deliver the Falcon to Sam.  When the black bird is delivered to the office, Gutman determines that it is a fake. He decides to continue searching for the “real” bird, (who knows if it really exists). Sam calls the cops to round up Gutman, Cairo, and Wilmer.

But, he realizes that it is Brigid who killed his partner, Miles. She originally hoped Miles would scare Thursby off, so she could have the Falcon for herself. She then killed Miles so she could pin the murder on Thursby. She sought out Sam, using him as a protector. It is here that the complexity of Sam’s character is emphasized. He says that when your partner is killed, even though you slept with his wife, one is supposed to do something. If not, it’s bad business, since it can leave all detectives vulnerable. So, Brigid has to “take the fall.” Sam tells her that he won’t let her go because maybe he isn’t as crooked as he appears, since pretending to be somewhat crooked may be good for business. But, he says if the bird had been real, more money would have been one more point in her favor. Is he as deceptive as the others? Earlier on he says, “Everybody has something to conceal.” His name is “Spade.” Is he as black as the bird? At least he has a code he lives by.

The ironic thing is the black bird is exactly what it appears – a black, unimpressive figure. It was what Sam says at the end that it is: “The thing that dreams are made of.” Sometimes we wish to believe the lie, because it is all we have left.

Next week’s film is Quiz Show.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Sunset Boulevard

The title of this dark film about Hollywood and the movies applies to its two main characters, each one heading to “The End” at the conclusion of their intertwined stories. There is Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), who lives in a decaying monstrosity of a mansion, which mirrors her post-mortem career as a silent film star. But, we also have Joe Gillis (William Holden), who is much younger, but whose screenwriting career is on a downward ride. In fact, we already know that he is dead at the beginning of the story, which he tells from beyond the grave. His claim to fame is that he has written a couple of "B" movies. Now, he finds himself unable to sell one of his stories to an ulcer-afflicted producer (disease being linked to the film industry here). Hollywood has its own Catch-22 for scripts – they won't be bought if they are either too original or not original enough.  Quality in and of itself isn't profitable. One of Gillis’ scripts was changed from being about the dust bowl to a story set on a submarine. As the writer says, he tried talent last year – now he's trying to earn a living.

Gillis comes upon Desmond's Gothic castle when he is driving away from men trying to repossess his car. The fact that she is living in the past, because there is no place for her fragile ego in the present, is seen in all the photographs of herself decorating the house.  She has her own screening room where she shows films of, what else? – herself. The ghosts of a past life inhabit this place, and Desmond feels at home only in that previous life. Her former director and husband, Max, is now her butler, and feeds her delusions to protect her by sending fake fan mail. She does not want to leave her crypt. She has silent film stars over occasionally, who Gillis dubs the "wax works," emphasizing the lifelessness of Desmond’s world. She has a New Year's Eve party with only Gillis in attendance, a spectacle without humans inhabiting it. It is an ironic celebration of a holiday which only pushes her glory days further into the past. 

But, she is hopeful about the future now because the younger Gillis has now arrived, needing her money. So, he promises to, appropriately, "ghost write" her script. (This movie really piles on the “death” references). When he bolts for a party with younger guests, she attempts suicide, again showing how she almost ceases to exist when the present world intervenes. When he returns to her, she holds up her arm to cover her face, reminding us of a stock silent film acting gesture. Gillis feels badly about leaving and plays the role of the gigolo, since Desmond is his only current salvation. Gillis is sucked into her ghostly world, sleeping in the room of her former husbands, driving an antique car, wearing clothes that she picks out for him. He is never given enough money at one time, so he can't escape. 

Gillis realizes he has lost his soul, and there is no place for him in Hollywood now. He breaks away from a young woman he was co-writing a script with in secret, and who had fallen in love with him, not knowing about his relationship with Desmond. He feels guilty about leading her on, causing her to want to leave her fiancé. He tells Desmond the truth about the fake fan mail, and that there will be no comeback movie. He packs his bags, and tries to leave, seeking resurrection through his old journalism job in Dayton. But Desmond shoots him, and he falls dead into that symbolic Hollywood status symbol, the swimming pool.

Desmond totally escapes into her dream world of past stardom as the police come for her with the press in attendance. She goes along only when Max makes it look like she is being photographed for her film. The ending is very creepy, with Desmond talking straight to the camera, to us, as the film shows us how total escape into the illusion of the movies is frightening:  "There's nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark."

For a movie about a silent film star, it is ironic that we are given an Oscar winning screenplay which contains so much wonderful language.

Next week’s movie is The Maltese Falcon.

Sunday, April 12, 2015


SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

There is an old clichĂ© about Asians being inscrutable, meaning not easily “seen,” or understood. This movie uses this idea of mystery as a symbol for discovery of dark deeds below the surface appearance of legitimacy. Things are not what they seem in Chinatown in LA, or in the movie Chinatown. Jack Nicholson's J. J. Gittes is a private eye. He is hired to see things with that eye that are deceptions – primarily cheating spouses. Yet it takes him quite a while to see the deceptions and corruptions of those higher up in the food chain who hire him in this story.

A woman claiming to be Mrs. Mulwray hires Gittes to investigate adultery involving her husband.  He never gets to talk to Mr. Mulwray, who was a big shot in the water department, because he drowns, ironically, during a drought. Los Angeles is in the middle of a desert, and water is highly valued. Mulwray was a good man, a man of vision, who wanted to help the city. His honesty gets him killed. The real Mrs. Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) shows up, proving that the P.I. was duped. This fact doesn't sit well with Gittes, who confronts Mrs. Mulwray. She now wants to hire him (his second time) to find out what was going on with her husband. This leads to her father, Noah Cross, who then hires Gittes to find the supposed mistress of his son-in-law (we find out later that he sent the fake Mrs. Mulwray).  When Gittes goes to the LA waterway, he is accosted by thugs, one played by director Roman Polanski. The latter cuts his nose as a warning.  Symbolically, it shows that not only is Gittes being deceived by what he sees, but he also loses his scent to follow the right trail.

What he stumbles upon is a scheme to divert water from the San Fernando Valley, buy the land cheaply, and then divert water back to make the land profitable. Gittes is attacked when he visits an orange grove as part of his investigation of this swindle.  (Hollywood has a thing about using oranges as omens of death.  See The Godfather, Identity, and Children of Men for example).  Cross is the big bad man behind this, and his decent son-in-law suffered the consequences of finding out about the deception. Water is life, which is what Mulwray wanted to preserve, to stave off the desert, which metaphorically is the evil represented by Noah Cross (an ironic name – since Noah preserved life during a flood). Here, Cross does the opposite, by aggravating a drought, and killing for profit. The "Cross" name is also ironic – he is quite the opposite of a Christ figure. When Gittes confronts Cross and asks him what else does he need to buy, Cross answers, "The future."  He not only wants to exert power in the here and now, but leave his evil imprint on the temporal hereafter.

That what we see isn't the truth is emphasized in this film by references to eyes and sight.  When Gittes has dinner with Cross, he is served fish with the head on it, the eyes staring up at the P.I., as if to alert him to open his eyes to what is going on. (Cross' taking life out of the water is emphasized by his serving the fish). In an attempt to get county records out of the government office, Gittes fabricates an excuse about not being able to see without his glasses. He says he wants a ruler to follow entries of land sales in a ledger.  He uses the ruler to rip out a page, so he can "see" how the dirty business is being  perpetrated.  Gittes, looking at Mrs. Mulray, says there is a black spot in her green eyes.  She calls it a "flaw," which represents the immorality in her character, and of the mark of evil infesting the world depicted. He realizes that the salt water in Mulwray's lungs came from the pond at Mrs. Mulwray's house. In the water he finds a pair of glasses. He assumes that they belong to Mulwray, but the dead man's wife corrects him, saying they belong to her father. (Cross' glasses, which represent his view of the world, are symbols of him fouling the water, which is equated with life itself). They are bifocals, emphasizing the surface and underbelly realities of life. After we find out about the ultimate secret of incest between Cross and his daughter, the police fire their guns at the escaping Mrs. Mulwray in Chinatown, as she is attempting to save her daughter/sister from Cross. Cross "owns the police" as his daughter says, and they fire their weapons at her, shooting her in the eye. As Cross pulls away his daughter/granddaughter, he covers her eyes. This act shows how the cover up of evil activities continues.

As a cop, Gittes had worked in Chinatown, where things were topsy-turvy and inscrutable. At the end, it is appropriate that Gittes partner tells him to forget about fighting the corruption around him, because "it's Chinatown."

Next week’s film is Sunset Boulevard.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Road to Perdition

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

On this Easter Sunday which coincides with Passover we usually contemplate the divine. This week's film deals more with how to err is to be human. The Sam Mendes Depression era film is a road movie in many ways. There are actual roads on which Tom Hanks' Michael Sullivan and his son must ride to combat and escape the gangsters pursuing them in order to reach the physical town of Perdition. It is there that Sullivan hopes to find safe haven among relatives, which is ironic, since the meaning of "perdition," is the place where all hope is lost. But, there is also the symbolic road to "perdition," which, in religious terms, means hell.  

Sullivan is a hit man for the gangster Rooney, played by Paul Newman. But, the older criminal is more than that to Sullivan; he is a surrogate father. They are seen playing a piano duet, and there is more affection exchanged in the glances between these two than they show toward their actual sons. The movie is about family to a great degree.  Rooney's real son, Connor, played by Daniel Craig, is a spoiled, selfish man, who skims money from his own father, and is jealous of Sullivan's place in his father's heart. But, Rooney loves him and tries to protect him. After Sullivan's son witnesses Connor murdering a disgruntled gangster, he goes to Sullivan's house to kill the boy. Once he is discovered in Sullivan's house with a drawn gun, Connor feels that he must kill Sullivan's wife and the younger brother. The older son escapes, and Sullivan knows he must protect his remaining child.

Sullivan's son says that some people saw his dad as having good in him and others found no good at all. There is a continuum of evil here. Rooney at one point says that there are only murderers where they are. This is the life they have chosen, and there is no salvation for them. But, Sullivan says there is hope for his son, and other than revenge for the deaths of his wife and other son, that is his goal. As Sullivan hits the road with his son, they become closer, and the warmth that grows between them is mirrored in the weather, as it changes from winter to spring. At the other end of this evil spectrum, Jude Law's character, Maguire, as the assassin who Capone's people send out to kill Sullivan so he won't kill Connor, is totally immoral. As a crime scene photographer, he takes pictures of the dead, including pictures of his own victims. He says taking photos of the dead makes him feel more alive. But, the photos of the corpses are, in a sense, his only family pictures. When your life revolves around the dead, how alive are you really?

There are Catholic references in the film that are facades which cover up the darkness in the characters and their actions. In this respect, the film has some shades of The Godfather. There is a wake at the beginning held in Rooney's home for a murdered gangster; however, it is Rooney who ordered the hit. There are religious pictures in rooms where violence takes place. Sullivan seeks Rooney in a church using it as cover for their meeting. They discuss murderous acts in the basement of the church, which contains discarded religious statues that make the place appear as a kind of gothic subterranean crypt for lost faith. In counterpoint to Jesus on the cross, there is double crossing here.  Rooney betrays his subordinates. Connor steals from his father. Frank Nitti, in Chicago, first helps Rooney, and then, after Sullivan kills Rooney, helps Sullivan kill the loose cannon Connor. In the end, Nitti also finishes cleaning up the mess by having Maguire kill Sullivan.  But, before he dies, Sullivan kills Maguire so that his son will not do the deed, thus halting his offspring's journey to spiritual perdition.

Tom Hanks almost always plays a good guy. Do you think he pulls off this role of an outlaw?

Next week’s movie is Chinatown.