Or, The AFI List Project #31: The Maltese Falcon
Like the Western, the film noir is a particularly American genre, sometimes commandeered by other national cinemas but nonetheless particular to the darkened streets of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, and to the famously hard-boiled detectives that are the protagonists of its myth. Also like the Western, it is a genre that has largely disappeared from contemporary cinematic discourse, frequently referenced but almost never produced.
Unlike the Western, however, it has gone quietly. There have been a number of efforts to revive the Western in the past decade (3:10 to Yuma, the remake of True Grit, even Cowboys & Aliens), but all contemporary noirs call deliberate attention to their own anachronism – glossy black and white, highly stylized costuming, frequent and unnecessary use of voiceover. That is not really so surprising: uniquely among film genres, the film noir is defined in the modern imagination not by characteristics of its story or setting but almost exclusively by its visual style. That isn’t to say that it doesn’t employ particular tropes: the film noir is always a detective story involving a femme fatale and a cynical, hard-to-fool protagonist, set in a period when men wore felt hats and long beige jackets. But if we were talking of genre, we would properly be speaking of mystery: that we think of the noir as a distinct genre is more a result of the success of a group of films sharing a visual language than the distinct qualities of its stories.
The film that was the root of that language was The Maltese Falcon, the 1941 noir that was John Huston’s directorial debut. Humphrey Bogart, in his second-most famous role, plays detective Sam Spade, hired by a mysterious and beautiful woman (Mary Astor) to find her sister. What Spade uncovers, however, is a far more intricate plot with the titular ‘Maltese falcon’ at its center, a priceless relic made by the Knights of Malta that is coveted by a number of unsavory characters. Unlike the almost amateurish cinematography of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, made in the same era, The Maltese Falcon is visually remarkable, and Bogart’s Spade is probably one of the great protagonists of the cinema.
Excellent as the movie is, though, I think it also shows up why it’s hard to make a noir today, or at least what we think of as a ‘noir.’ That is that the true inheritors of the genre are not deliberate anachronisms like The Good German or Brick (a color film that got a lot of attention when it first came out for its noir-ish ambitions) but more sophisticated crime films. Dirty Harry is a good example: I don’t think anyone would call it a noir, because it doesn’t speak the same language as The Maltese Falcon, but Clint Eastwood’s steely-eyed, trigger-happy Harry Callahan is of the same breed as Bogart’s Spade. In recent years, no one has captured the spirit of the noir more brilliantly than Michael Mann, whose series of films centering on themes of crime and justice – The Insider, Collateral, above all Heat – look much more like thrillers and police procedurals than like mysteries but which have inherited in spades the moral ambivalence that is the hallmark of the noir. The style that defines the noir, meanwhile, has much to do with the way that movies were made in the ‘30s and ’40s. We don’t make movies in that way anymore, so making a contemporary noir seems out of place, backward-looking, and we as filmgoers are looking to see things that we have never seen before.
The noir, then, has gone the same way as its rural counterpart the Western, leaving us with a legacy of film studies essays (littered with words like ‘disillusion’ and ‘maladjustment’) and some number of truly great films: The Maltese Falcon, The Third Man, and their ilk. That begs another question: why do some genres seize the imagination at a particular cultural moment? Why did the Western and the noir? Same for the epic naval action movie, which produced one of the finest pieces of cinema of the past decade, 2003’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, a film that has since faded into absolute obscurity. And then, why the current cultural fascination with superheroes and vampires?
Of course, it might be as simple as my earlier point about how we want to see things never before seen: once we get used to the dips, troughs and characteristics of a genre, we get tired of it. That, though, begs another question in turn: why are there some stories that we apparently don’t get tired of? The romantic comedy, for instance, has been around since the advent of film, and the ones we watch now aren’t that different, structurally or dramatically speaking, from the ones our grandparents watched in the ‘20s and ‘30s.
So maybe the answer is flexibility: the romantic comedy, after all, is infinitely relevant and infinitely pliable, so it can be current in a way that the Western and the noir, which self-consciously locate themselves in a particular temporal context (modern-day experiments like No Country For Old Men notwithstanding), can’t be. I don’t think that necessarily means that movies in those settings can’t be good or even relevant – but it might mean that they won’t get watched.