It's one of the most famous movies of its era, up there with Citizen Kane (which came out the same year). This is fair. All of it's good and the last act's outstanding. However it's also supposedly the first film noir, which surprises me a bit since personally I didn't find it very noir-ish. Admittedly I'm not very experienced in the genre and I'm probably comparing it with imagined stereotypes, but it doesn't have that rich shadow-drenched cinematography that I associate with the genre and it has a motherly femme fatale. That's not a complaint, mind you.
For most of its running time, I merely liked it. I didn't adore it and want to have its babies or anything, but it's a juicy potboiler. The wobbliest it gets is a point in the second half where I started having my suspicions about the plotting of these hard-boiled 1930s detective stories. It's like watching a juggling act in which the author keeps throwing in cool stuff to keep us off-balance, whether or not it makes sense, until he hits the final stretch and it's time to cobble together an explanation. In fairness this film does get everything straight in the end, but I definitely have my suspicions about Raymond Chandler.
That's a very film noir thing to do, mind you. It's a genre that loves keeping the audience disorientated, not quite sure of what's going on or even our moral compass. When I said that this movie didn't feel very noir-ish to me, I was talking entirely about production factors. Script-wise, it's hitting the bullseye. We've got a morally ambiguous hero, which was one of the main attractions of the role for Humphrey Bogart, in a storyline where for quite a while he seems to have been hired to do something dangerous but he doesn't know what. Everyone's dodgy. The first murder victim isn't mourned by his own wife. Bogart himself is one of the blackest liars in the film, telling obviously ridiculous stories to the police that you half-expect to get him hauled down the station and beaten for a while with lead pipes. However that's all lead-up to the part that really impressed me, which would be the third act. I'd never seen anything quite like the scene in which everyone has a discussion about which of their number to stab in the back, albeit metaphorically. It's rather startling, but then it tops itself with a scene between Bogart and Mary Astor which is at once taking the ruthlessness to another level and yet also giving it a new emotional weight. It's also worth looking at all the layers of failure and complexity in what on the surface looks like an ending that would please the Production Code. No one gets what they want.
So in noir terms, the story's there all the way. As for the actors, all but one of them is great. Humphrey Bogart in particular really surprised me. Eventually I realised that it was that my mental image of him had been drawn from Casablanca
, which is a very different role. Here he's dangerous! He's tough, cynical and big. Suddenly I could see why he'd been in so many thirties gangster films. There's a scene where a killer threatens him and it's Bogie who's the scary one. This was the movie that took Bogart up from supporting player to leading man and fully-fledged film star, which doesn't surprise me in the slightest. All that and he's even a surprisingly good actor. He also seems younger than I'd remembered, despite the fact that this is 1941 and Casablanca
is only 1942.
Sydney Greenstreet made his cinema debut here, after forty highly respected years on the stage. He's larger than life (ho ho). As for Peter Lorre, I'll always love him but this isn't my favourite role of his. He's good, but he's not slimy enough. Elisha Cook Jr is quietly surprising in a role that could have seemed like a throwaway and together they're all attacking the material with skill and energy. It's a great ensemble... but I haven't yet mentioned the oddity. Mary Astor isn't actually bad as Brigid O'Shaughnessy, but it's bizarre casting. Technically she's a femme fatale, but Astor looks like someone's mum, is always making the character look helpless and might perhaps have been getting a little trapped inside that English accent she's doing. The character's clearly supposed to be gorgeous, sexual and manipulative, but only the last of those ever really comes across. Add in the fact that she's got almost no chemistry with Bogart and you're looking at a misfire that you'd never have seen a few years later, once noir had been more firmly established. Imagine Lauren Bacall in the Astor role and you'd have been practically tearing down the walls to see her. Admittedly trying to look helpless and weak is part of the character's schtick, but Astor doesn't seem to be pretending. In later years she'd find herself getting typecast as colourless mother figures. Oddly enough though in real life the actress was notorious for being an adulteress and an alcoholic, whose diary of her sexual exploits had been used as court evidence in a custody hearing. Even while making this film, she was sleeping with the director, John Huston.
This wasn't the first adaption of the original Dashiell Hammett novel, or even the second. Huston hated the other two, with their studio-imposed happy endings, but the 1931
one has the big advantage of being pre-Code and thus able to go further with the sexual side of things. The Peter Lorre character is supposed to be homosexual, but here they can only hint at that by making him effeminate. More surprisingly though, the Elisha Cook Jr. character may also have been intended as gay, since his nickname of "gunsel" could apparently mean a young homosexual in a relationship with an older man. That I'd never have guessed, but I do remember being surprised that his character's name in the credits was Wilmer, since I'd been assuming that everyone was calling him "Wilma" as a dig at his masculinity. That's an interesting little undertone, but there should also have been more overt sexual content with the Mary Astor character, all of which was taken much further in the 1931
film and as a result the Hays Office banned its re-release on the grounds of lewd content. Warner Bros replied by remaking the film as a comedy, Satan Met a Lady
This was John Huston's first film as director, by the way. He storyboarded it meticulously, hardly changed a word from the book, shot its scenes more or less in order and got it done for under $300,000 with time to spare. Of course he'd go on to a huge career and a famous association with Bogart.
The cinematography is apparently a big part of the film, but I'm afraid I didn't notice at all. I'll be looking out for it next time, though. Personally I think it's a bit too bright and clear to satisfy my personal ideas of noir, but a bit of reading around will reveal that Huston was trying tricks like an extraordinary seven-minute take, unusual camera angles and a visual motif of stripes reminiscent of prison bars whenever Mary Astor's on-screen. Sounds cool. I suspect that this is one of those films that particularly rewards return visits, both on a visual level and in terms of being able to appreciate deeper levels in the performances when you know what everyone's really after.
Obviously this is one of the classics. It has one big flaw in the casting of Mary Astor, but that could reasonably be viewed as just an eccentricity. It was Oscar-nominated for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Sydney Greenstreet) and Best Adapted Screenplay, although it didn't win any of them. Warner had been going to make a sequel, The Further Adventures of the Maltese Falcon, by the way. Personally speaking, my reactions to it in order were "like like like like wow". Bogart deserves his reputation, Lorre I can never get enough of and Greenstreet's immense in every way, but as important as all of them is its story. One final anecdote, which I dare say I'm the last person in the world to have heard but still blew my mind a little. Greenstreet and Cook Jr's characters are nicknamed Fat Man and Little Boy in the film... which names were borrowed for the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I wonder what they think of this film in Japan?