A Bit of Noir and Bogart

So yesterday I had a bit of noir, and today, I’m having a bit of noir and Bogart which makes for quite an excellent mix. This is also another contribution to Noirvember:

Before this, the only Bogart films I’ve watched was High Sierra (1941) and Casablanca (1942), but I think I’m fully fallen under the spell of Bogart’s allure (and I honestly wouldn’t mind having him as an imaginary friend à la Play It Again Sam). Bogart’s outstanding portrayal as the classic hard-boiled detective in The Maltese Falcon (1941) is a definite classic and often seen as a far superior movie, but to me, it’s his gripping performance as the witty, sharp-tongued Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946) is where he truly shines.

The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941)

Often cited as the first film noir ever, The Maltese Falcon begins with an anxious woman (Mary Astor) visiting private investigator Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan). The film quickly kicks off after a night of Archer tailing a suspect named Thursby identified by the client, both Archer and Thursby are shot dead. Spade eventually uncovers a mystery involving a priceless black statuette, and soon gets himself in the middle of it all.

As a dialogue-driven film, The Maltese Falcon heavily relies on its captivating cinematography and fantastic cast. One scene that really stood out for me was the very first meeting between Spade and criminal mastermind Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet). A low angle is used whenever Gutman speaks, heavily emphasising on his massive stature and also his crucial position in the underworld. During the conversation, the camera occasionally cuts to Spade, seated opposite, and a regular medium shot is used instead. It’s even more impressive that The Maltese Falcon was John Huston’s directorial debut and yet he had already possessed such a skilled handling of the camera.

In addition, The Maltese Falcon had also successfully transformed a previously typecast Hollywood fourth-billed actor into the cynical, but soft-centered “Bogie” of cinema history. Sam Spade was the first in a long line of Bogart heroes – iconic, seemingly independent men in their signature trenchcoats.

The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946)

Based on Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name, Bogart stars as cynical private detective Philip Marlowe. Summoned to the mansion of the wealthy General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), Marlowe is hired to deal with the gambling debts the General’s thumb-sucking daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers) owes. This earns Marlowe the displeasure of meeting Carmen’s enigmatic older sister Vivian (Laura Bacall), who is fiercely protective of her sibling. As he begins to pursue the case, Marlowe eventually gets mixed up in a baffling murder-mystery involving a pornography dealer, a gambling-house proprietor, a missing friend of the General and a dead limousine driver.

I remember watching one of the opening scenes from The Big Sleep for a first year film introductory class. It featured the first and only conversation between Marlowe and the General. The scene used a standard single shot and two-shot et cetera, or how Hollywood traditionally filmed conversations between two people. On hindsight, I think my professor just really wanted to show us The Big Sleep. I can’t complain.

I have to admit, however, I found the plot to be really confusing. I mean, who did kill the limousine driver in the end? The film ends with hazy details and it’s not even clear if Eddie Mars was the culprit. The storyline was so convoluted and complicated that (allegedly) Hawks and the screenwriters (which included the great William Faulkner!) had asked Chandler for help on who killed chauffer Owen Taylor. Chandler apparently admitted later, “…dammit I didn’t know either”.

A photograph sure to warm the cockles of your heartNevertheless, I think most viewers would overlook this and be hooked by Bogart and Bacall’s captivating performances. The Big Sleep was apparently edited and released in favour of building up Bacall’s role to emphasise the sexual tension between Bogart and Bacall. Bacall was only 21 when filming The Big Sleep (Twenty-one! I’m only 20, what have I done with my life?) but she oozes a sultry coolness that an actress twice her age would still be striving for. She held a smouldering gaze, and also a teasing insolence that made her seem much older too. Her strong female presence matched Bogart’s leading male persona. Bogart and Bacall’s undeniable chemistry results in The Big Sleep as probably one of the most baffling film noirs but also one of the most successful in terms of its sheer star power.

On a side note: character actor Elisha Cook, Jr. stars in both these films too. As the “gunsel” Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon and as a doomed informant who tails Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Cook is rather charming on screen. Also, I really ought to read these books such classic noirs are based on, they sound pretty terrific.

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