02 February 2010

47. The Maltese Falcon




Here's what I mean when I reference the structural economy in Classic Hollywood Cinema: there's no set-up at all. There's no prologue scene where we get a sense of the main character, there's certainly no backstory, there's no exposition other than a sign on the window that reads: "Spade and Archer". And we see our (Anti) Hero, rolling a cigarette and accepting a task. His partner comes in and he's taken a shine to the lady who gives the task (which is itself economical set-up that's later paid off), and then we see him on that task, and he's murdered.

This murder happens six minutes into the movie, and structurally speaking, it marks the end of the first act, the "point of no return". At only six minutes in!

We find out Bogart was fucking his partner's wife, we find out the lady isn't who she said she was, we see Bogart being stuck up in his office by Peter Lorre. He marks the B Plot: The falcon. We get a long scene here to describe it and to show how much it matters here.

Complications in Act 2: Bogart avoids a tail, he's falling for the mysterious lady against his better judgement, the cops are coming after him for the murder of his partner.

At minute forty, the A & B plots merge with Cairo and Bridget getting together and discussing the falcon. She explains how she came across the falcon.

At minute 51, Bogart meets with the Fat Man. He plays both sides -- he's in it for himself. He storms out, he's acting.

He comes back, and we learn even more about the falcon, the ultimate McGuffin. There's tons of exposition in dialogue, but who cares? It's Sydney Greenstreet! Bogart is slipped a mickey -- a twist after we thought Greenstreet was a good guy.

The third act, like a lot of them, is contained and compressed in some way. Like in "Humpday", the third act is almost entirely in one room, Spade's studio apartment. We learn the rest -- the double-crossings, the secrets, the shifting alliances, who was responsible for the murder, and finally, that the coveted falcon that resulted in death and intrigue and money and everything else, is a fake.

Everyone gets caught except Bogart because he killed no one and kept his code intact. That's the secret of anti-heros: they have to be consistent and good at the core, especially compared to the others they come into contact with.

Like a lot of great movies (especially ones with an anti-hero), the hero is his task and how he manages his task. We don't care about how he got there, his backstory, or anything other than the task that we see set-up, and that we want to see wrapped up in a way that satisfies us. Anything else we're given makes us groan: there's almost no room for emotions, for subplots that aren't pertinent, for random characters. Stick to the task at hand, throw in some twists to make it fun, wrap it up like a bow with some quotable dialogue, and it'll all come together.

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