Sunday, February 21, 2016


Warner Bros., 100 minutes

TCM Big Screen Classics 75th Anniversary Event
2/21 and 2/24 at over 650 cinemas nationwide
Introduction and closing from TCM host Ben Mankiewicz

In recognition of the film's 75th anniversary, Turner Classic Movies in conjunction with Fathom Entertainment has returned THE MALTESE FALCON to theatrical exhibition this week. All movies are best witnessed on the big screen, especially the greatest movies. That is the premise of this year's TCM Big Screen Classic presentations each month, along with the related idea there are enough people willing to pay for the experience to justify re-releases of classic cinema in the digital age. We can only hope there is enough public interest to keep the presentations flowing throughout select theaters for years to come.

THE MALTESE FALCON marked the directorial debut of John Huston, who would team with its star Humphrey Bogart again for ACROSS THE PACIFIC (1942), THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), KEY LARGO (1948), THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) and BEAT THE DEVIL (1953). Whether THE MALTESE FALCON constitutes the best effort of that group I will leave for others to debate, but there is little doubt that it was their most important collaboration. Many of the key elements that would define the film noir movement are there:  the narrative's origin in a hard-boiled detective novel (this one authored by Dashiell Hammett), a complex web of a story, a gritty urban setting, a tough-as-nails PI whose moral code trumps the rules established by society's institutions, a duplicitous dame, exotic villains, a dark and sinister atmosphere, and not the happiest of conclusions. All of these genre conventions would gather steam throughout the 1940s and 1950s. One of the best is THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950), also directed by Huston. But the more crucial film noir was THE MALTESE FALCON since it impacted every crime film that came after it.

Production Photo

For a film originally released 75 years ago, during a time when the rigors of the Production Code monitored Hollywood content, it is remarkable how tough a cookie Samuel Spade (Bogart) really is, and how little he is bothered by things that would make the average man shake in his boots. When he learns his smarmy PI partner Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan) has been found dead, Spade's only initial reaction is, "Where?" Maybe that is because Spade had been fooling around with Archer's wife Iva (Gladys George), but it is more about a cynical world view that permeates the entire film. Later when Captain Jacoby (Walter Huston, uncredited) staggers into Spade's office and dies, Spade only regrets the man did not live a bit longer so he could have been questioned. Not even his love for a woman can alter the course that Spade's moral compass provides ("If they hang you, I'll always remember you."). So closely associated with the role is Bogart it is hard to believe he only became involved with the project after George Raft declined the role.

The invaluable falcon statuette that causes the film's characters to collide is a lot less interesting than the characters themselves. With her portrayal of Brigid O'Shaughnessy, Mary Astor established the femme fatale archetype that would distinguish the film noir cycle, especially in the mid-to-late '40s. O'Shaughnessy is a great-looking woman, but cannot be trusted for anything but endless betrayal. At one point she even admits she is a chronic liar. Despite all of her obvious flaws, Spade still struggles with handing her over to the cops. That is what makes her so dangerous—men want to believe in her, even when they know she is thoroughly deceptive. Iva Archer is not a much better representation of woman; she seems fine about her husband being out of the way since she prefers Spade anyway. Spade's faithfully attentive assistant Effie Perine (Lee Patrick) embodies the film’s ideal female, one with traits Spade considers more representative of a trustworthy male. Interestingly, she does not see O'Shaughnessy to be the menace she actually is. The assortment of criminals is led by Kasper Gutman, a man of culture as portrayed by Sydney Greenstreet, a veteran of the stage making his screen debut. Gutman's gunman/boyfriend Wilmer Cook is perfectly realized in a supporting performance by Elisha Cook Jr., who made a long career of playing wannabes not built to last.

Scene Still

I have screened THE MALTESE FALCON in many different home video incarnations, but the large screen experience made me more aware of the film's finer details, especially in terms of its exceptional performances. O'Shaughnessy comes close to cracking up when Spade bamboozles the police. Wilmer Cook indeed looks like the "boy" he is accused of being when he realizes he has been deemed the most expedient fall guy. With his scented calling card, the flamboyant Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) makes a perfect nemesis for Spade; talk about two polar opposites in one room! In a film absolutely loaded with great lines, Cairo probably has the best one when he tells Spade, "Our private conversations have not been such that I am anxious to continue them."

Hammett's 1929 novel was filmed twice before the Huston interpretation. Director Roy Del Ruth's early "talkie" THE MALTESE FALCON was released in 1931, followed by William Dieterle's SATAN MET A LADY in 1936. The second film's cinematographer Arthur Edeson served in the same capacity for the Huston film, definitely the standout of the three adaptations. Academy Award nominations included Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor (Greenstreet).

Saturday, February 6, 2016

GILDA (1946)

Columbia Pictures Corporation, 110m 23s

"You do hate me, don't you Johnny?"
"I don't think you have any idea how much."

On a dock in Buenos Aires, Argentina, loaded-dice gambler Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford) is rescued from an attempted holdup by Ballin Mundson (George Macready), who diffuses the situation with a walking cane that doubles as a dangerous dagger. The dual nature of the cane introduces GILDA's recurring motif in regard to things that may be something other than what they at first appear, and certainly the cane's owner represents another ambiguity factor. "I lead the life I like to lead," Ballin assures Johnny, as the two carry on a conversation rich with homoerotic connotations. Ballin invites Johnny to his casino, and almost instantly Johnny becomes Ballin's most trusted man. As the two build a close relationship, Johnny even compares himself to Ballin's phallic cane. Though Ballin openly theorizes "gambling and women do not mix," complications are triggered when Ballin violates this doctrine and impulsively weds Gilda (Rita Hayworth), to whom Johnny is stunned to be introduced.

Gilda and Johnny became acquainted long ago, but the background of their relationship is left as the film's variation on the MacGuffin plot device. What went wrong, disastrously wrong it seems, is never explained. All that matters is they hate each other. What is more clear is Ballin's new bride is one high-maintenance babe. Apparently having married him for the money, Gilda spends a minimum of time with her new husband, instead showing preference for the willing company of both attractive local men and free-wheeling out-of-towners. At the same time, Gilda has no issue with the idea of being a kept woman. Johnny has a big problem with that moral accommodation, no doubt because of his own ties to the same benefactor.

Though the story is easy enough to follow as directed by Charles Vidor, the love triangle between Gilda, Johnny and Ballin is geometrically complex in terms of unresolved feelings, sexual repression, sexual freedom, and shame. Johnny's devotion to a male partner in part may be connected to his deep disappointment with Gilda, and his exasperation about her choice for a new husband. Whether Johnny is jealous of Ballin or Gilda sometimes is left to viewer conjecture, but the romantic connection between Johnny and Ballin is granted far too much screen time to be dismissed as a hazy subtext. During a dinner table conversation that serves a hearty main course of sexual tension for subjective consumption, Johnny registers resentment that Gilda has returned to inject turmoil into his life. Ballin proposes a toast to the three of them that echoes his earlier toast to the union of Johnny, himself, and his dagger-cane, Ballin's "little friend." Johnny notes Ballin's cane must be female "because it looks like one thing, then right in front of your eyes it becomes another thing." Though Johnny seems to be taking a shot at his ex, he just as easily could be referring to Ballin. Later Ballin is the jealous half of the male couple, as the two converse obliquely about "swimming." As the intensity of the fire between Johnny and Gilda heats up, the cane comes to stand for Ballin's sexual confusion and probable impotence. The cane-wielding Ballin recalls another cane, the ambitious Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) from CITIZEN KANE (1941). Ballin hopes to control the global supply of tungsten necessary to incandescent lighting, but much like Kane, his professional struggles are tied to losing control of one woman.

Working from Jo Eisinger's adaptation of a story by E.A. Ellington, screenwriter Marion Parsonnet's finished product is embedded with lots of uncertainties and false appearances. A cynical "peasant" becomes the manager of an upper-scale casino, games that appear legit are rigged, businesses that appear legal are illegal, and life is confused with death. Of course the film's greatest enigma is Gilda, whose flirtatious antics would drive any husband nuts, especially a certain ex-husband; Johnny gets pretty rough with Gilda on more than one occasion. But when her second rendition of "Put the Blame on Mame" degenerates into a striptease, is she really the thoughtless tramp she projects? Hate and love are so intermixed in GILDA, one wonders if it is precisely Johnny's dark half that appeals to her. During an embrace, she tells him, "I hate you so much that I think I'm going to die from it." Those are some strange words of adoration. Johnny's occasional narration includes one of the genre's great lines, "She was in the air I breathed, in the food I ate."

Contextualized by the presence of post-war Nazis with big plans deep within the international business underworld, GILDA was released within the classic film noir period of the last '40s. Oddly enough, there has been some critical debate as to whether GILDA is representative of the film noir movement, which I find puzzling, even if you do not buy into the notion that Gilda qualifies as a femme fatale. For unquestionably noir material, one need only look to the perverse sexuality of the film's final act, when Johnny endeavors to keep Gilda faithful to a dead man! If that is not film noir, nothing is.

The unsatisfying concluding sequence attempts to remedy almost two hours of incivilities. Unfortunately, the resolution phoned in from CASABLANCA (1942), the narrative's obvious source of inspiration, does not dovetail very well with the bitter love/hate dynamic that makes GILDA so resonantly noir for most of its runtime. With the threat of the liberated sexuality Gilda embodied for most of the film neutralized, Johnny safely can leave for America with the Gilda he still loves (hates?). Despite a conclusion without a kernel of truth to it, there is precious little else to bother a film noir fan. The performances by the leads are nuanced enough to offer something new upon every viewing, and the B&W cinematography only adds to the sense of intrigue. Director of photography Rudolph Maté later shot THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947), another justly famous Hayworth noir vehicle, and would himself direct the important noir works THE DARK PAST (1948), UNION STATION (1950) and the unremittingly bleak D.O.A. (1950). Prior to GILDA, Ford and Hayworth already had teamed up for THE LADY IN QUESTION (1940). Again they would work together in THE LOVES OF CARMEN (1948), AFFAIR IN TRINIDAD (1952) and THE MONEY TRAP (1965).

The Criterion Collection's new 1080P dual-layered Blu-ray presentation of GILDA boasts a new 2K digital restoration framed at 1.33:1. The new HD transfer utilized a 35mm fine-grain master derived from the original camera negative. The restorative work was completed by UCLA Film and Television Archive in cooperation with Sony Pictures Entertainment, the Library of Congress, and the National Film and Television Archive (U.K.). With solid film grain representation and excellent contrast, a Hollywood studio system classic is upheld. The film's production design really comes to life in this restored version, with director Vidor's masterful grasp of mise-en-scène always evident. "The Long Shadow of GILDA" essay included from critic Sheila O’Malley gives the viewer an indication of just how far the influence of GILDA extended:

"The shadow of Rita Hayworth in GILDA has stretched across the culture for almost seventy years now. In 1946, the United States conducted a couple of atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The first bomb dropped was named Gilda."

Foremost among the assorted extras is an interview (22m 13s) with film noir historian Eddie Muller. Recorded in 2015 for The Criterion Collection, the author of DARK CITY DAMES: THE WICKED WOMEN OF FILM NOIR (2001) wonders what type of impression viewers were left with after GILDA's original theatrical run. With its dark tone and strong suggestion that the Glenn Ford character is bisexual, was GILDA the Production Code era's MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)? Muller is in top form throughout, especially when he advances the notion that producer Virginia Van Upp may have considered the Ballin Mundson character an interpretation of Columbia Pictures Corporation boss Harry Cohn, who constantly reminded Hayworth she was his "property." In what amounts to a special treat for those who notice subtextual meaning in film, Muller recalls screening GILDA with its director Vidor's ex-wife Evelyn Keyes, who confirmed the scene that shows Hayworth bending over to reach a waist-high cigarette lighter held by Ford indeed was constructed to suggest fellatio.

A welcome vintage extra is an episode of the NBC television documentary series HOLLYWOOD AND THE STARS that originally aired in 1964. Narrated by the familiar voice of Joseph Cotten, "The Odyssey of Rita Hayworth" (25m 11s) explores the early career of Margarita Carmen Cansino, who became a professional dancer at the age of 12. Her dancing ability led to roles in B-films at Fox as Rita Cansino before she became Rita Hayworth while under contract at Columbia. At the age of only 23, she appeared in YOU'LL NEVER GET RICH (1941) with Fred Astaire, who later said Hayworth was his favorite dancing partner. The episode pays a lot of attention to the dancing ability of the "love goddess," her marriages to Orson Welles and then Prince Aly Khan, and her transition to dramatic roles, i.e. FIRE DOWN BELOW (1957), SEPARATE TABLES (1958) and CIRCUS WORLD (1964), in which she portrays the mother of Claudia Cardinale's character.

Additional supplements were extracted from the 2010 edition of GILDA released by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The audio commentary track features Richard Schickel, the former film critic for TIME magazine. Despite numerous lapses in his comments, Schickel adds a fair amount of critical insight. He recognizes film noir as a specifically post-WWII development, with male fears and anxieties about the liberation of women central to the genre. He notes women play more active roles than they had in the past, with men oddly passive. My favorite Schickel comment recalls his memory of quoting the line about women and insects among his high school pals. In another reflection on the movie under review, filmmakers Martin Scorsese and Baz Luhrmann discuss the historical significance of GILDA, particularly in terms of Hayworth's performance and her heightened level of glamour (16m 6s). A theatrical trailer (2m 9s) is also included.