Technique is a weirdly invisible thing in film. Everything a director or an editor does is right there in front of you, but it’s somehow really hard to notice it. The whole business of film-making is a matter of glamour, a sleight-of-hand facilitated by distracting the audience with shiny baubles such as unfeasibly attractive stars and exciting shoot-outs—so it’s usually just when something unexpected happens that we notice the way a film is cut, or the way that shots are tracked. Having recently been prompted by watching a lot of neo-noir to go back to Golden Age Hollywood movies, my initial impression (from Bringing Up Baby and High Sierra) was that technique has moved on a lot since then—the editing in those films seems so laboured and pedestrian as to be distinctly noticeable. But at least one director already employed what looks like a modern vocabulary.
The Maltese Falcon was made in 1941, the same year as High Sierra, and it has certain similarities. They are both classic films-noir, and much of the dialogue has the same period awkwardness. Gender relations exist in the same weird fantasy domain, where a macho enough guy can kiss who he wants, and she’ll like it. Both films star Humphrey Bogart, and both screenplays were written by John Huston. The Maltese Falcon was also directed by Huston, however, and this is the root of its differences, which are profound.
Huston was one of very few auteur directors able to operate successfully within the Hollywood studio system, a lassitude which he earned with the remarkable success of this film, his first feature as director. One imagines that he’d been thinking long and deep about the way films are made, while he’d been writing scripts for other directors to shoot—by the time he got a shot at his own movie he knew exactly what to do. The Maltese Falcon is an adaptation of a book by Dashiell Hammett, one which had been filmed twice previously to little acclaim or box office reward, so as a first-time director with a seemingly unpromising adaptation he was given a very limited budget. This may account for his meticulous planning on this movie, which apparently included every shot, pan, cut or zoom, all plotted out before he even got on set.
I don’t know anything at all about the ins and outs of Golden Age cinematic tradecraft, but the impression I’ve gotten from my very limited sampling of old movies is that standard practice was for the director to tell the actors to say their lines, and to tell the cinematographer to film them doing it. The contrast between this film and the two others mentioned above is that in this one every scene is a construction, an edifice built out of shots, rather than a segment of drama that someone pointed a camera at. Both the shooting and the editing are crisp and dynamic, with the camera rarely staying still for long—what Huston seems to have understood, and perhaps other film-makers did not always explicitly grasp, is that stories in cinema are told by a sequence of moving images, not by a group of actors performing scenes.
This isn’t to say that The Maltese Falcon doesn’t seem old-fashioned: as noted above, much of the dialogue is wooden, and there is little about it that looks naturalistic by contemporary standards. Bogart’s Sam Spade has sexual relationships, but we are told about them in a heavily coded way, entirely through the act of (quite chaste) kissing and the much-abused word ‘love’. However, in important ways, the film feels very modern: its pacing, its cinematic rhetoric, its carefully sculpted narrative arc, all conform sufficiently to contemporary standards that the twenty-first century viewer is unlikely to notice them.
And all this also isn’t to say that Huston swapped style for substance, or glamour for structure. Sam Spade is a vulnerable hero, one who the bad guys might get the jump on, one who might take a beating: but he is still the kind of tough guy that’s obviously going to come out on top, a belligerent, two-fisted brawler who doesn’t need a gun to put hoodlums in their place. Mary Astor’s femme fatale is a surprisingly complex character, a strong and resourceful woman, but she is also an unfeasibly stylish clothes horse, and performs all the obligatory tropes of the film noir dame. All the glitz and panache indicated by the word ‘Hollywood’ is present. In fact, I’d argue that it’s present to a greater degree than in films with a less snappy structure—Huston took a set of given conventions, and he made them sing.