Welcome to a new weekly classic movies column here on Nerdist.com. Each week focuses on a different film available on streaming. Sit back, grab some snacks, and expand your film knowledge with some old Hollywood cinema.
The early 1940s were a time of unrest and dramatic change across the world. Hitler was leader of the Nazi party in Germany, beginning his reign of terror throughout Europe. Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of England and leader of the Allied resistance movement as the British Empire fought the enemy. Times were tough abroad, and only seemed to be getting bleaker.
Across the pond, the United States was getting back on the road to prosperity after the Wall Street crash of 1929. Out of the difficult economic times, incredible art was being created. Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Dorothy Parker, Ella Fitzgerald, and Georgia O’Keefe were just a few of the great artists of the time. In cinema, Hollywood was in the middle of a “Golden Age” of filmmaking. The studios were mostly producing glittery musicals, sweeping romances, and terrifying science fiction pictures to cheer up and entertain the public. Movies were an escape from the everyday. But in 1941, cinema started to reflect the bleakness of the outside world.
Film Noir was born out of the German Expressionist movement of the 1910s and ’20s. Surreal, sensual, and thrilling, these films often dealt with betrayal or madness — a reaction to the events of WWI. When Hitler rose to prominence, many of these filmmakers fled Germany and headed to Hollywood. Artists associated with the Expressionist movement went on to create successful horror films like Frankenstein, The Mummy, and Dracula. These creature features paved the way for darker fare in cinema throughout the 1940s.
Released in October of 1941, The Maltese Falcon is regarded by most as the first major film noir. The movie tells the story of private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) who sets out to find who killed his partner while getting tangled up with criminals, a beautiful dame (Mary Astor), and their quest for a priceless statue of a bird. Helmed by first-time director John Huston (one of the all-time greats), this thrilling noir highlights the struggle between power, wealth, and integrity. Without giving away the ending, certain characters reveal their worst traits — all in the name of greed. Contrary to most other genres of the time, the film ends on a bitter note with no happy ending in sight.
The Maltese Falcon popularized many tropes that are still being used in modern movies. Today, we consider Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow exploits as she manipulates her way through difficult situations to get the information she wants as par for the course. Back then, Mary Astor’s character, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, was one of the first on-screen portrayals of the “Black Widow” type. Audiences in the ’40s were not used to seeing a woman who was neither pure good nor pure evil. Instead, Astor’s character was more shades of grey: complex, intelligent, powerful, and debaucherous at the same time.
Additionally, the prized statue of the falcon itself is well-known for being one of the first MacGuffins (a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock), an object, character, or event that serves to propel the plot forward despite being unimportant to the story, in cinema. These days, the falcon has become a symbol for the obsessive lengths taken by someone to achieve a goal. Fun fact: Mythbusters’ own Adam Savage went through great trouble to reproduce his own Maltese Falcon statue! As Humphrey Bogart says in the film’s most famous line, the bird is truly “the stuff that dreams are made of.”
The Maltese Falcon was nominated for three Academy Awards that year: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Unfortunately, the film did not win in any category. How Green Was My Valley beat out the competition, including Citizen Kane (now regarded as the greatest film of all-time), to win Best Picture.
Speaking of Citizen Kane, the two films share similar cinematography techniques. Both movies are known for their unusual camera angles and low-lighting. In particular, the two masterpieces choose to film certain scenes with the camera placed low on the ground, pointed up towards the ceiling to emphasize the actions or nature of a character.
Left: scene from The Maltese Falcon, right: scene from Citizen Kane. Notice the low angles both scenes are shot from to make the main characters appear more powerful?
The Maltese Falcon is currently available to stream on Turner Classic Movies’ Watch TCM app until June 12, 2015. Catch more great film noir every Friday on TCM’s “Summer of Darkness” programming.
What’s your favorite film noir? What other classic movies would you like to see in a future column? Drop us your thoughts in the comments below!