This has nothing to do with loud, rude, obnoxious movie-goers who talk, text, chew, slurp, snore and gargle throughout a feature film.
For what I do in the dark is nobody's business but my own....
No, this is more of a moral quandary. That may be over emphasizing the situation. Maybe it's a conundrum. At the very least it's a bass fiddle. The rest of the orchestra is tuning up.
No matter. We live in a shifting world of changing times as our core group of film aficionados are slowly eroding away. Interest in classic film is checking out with us. And yet, we still adhere to a set of tenets on how these films should be viewed, despite the growing impracticality of such demands on new blood. Tops among them is exhibiting these films as they originally were seen -- projected upon a big screen in front of a paying audience.
Last week I attended a showing of THE MALTESE FALCON (41) at our local ONE-SCREEN theater. It was part of their monthly vintage film series that runs year-round up here in Wine Country. The movies chosen are generally always war-horses. Classics (A most ineffective label that I never cared for. Cars, wines, metallic children's toys with jagged edges that cut - pretty much anything can be called 'a classic' if it lasts long enough). I always mean to attend these showings but more often than not my mind tends to wander by the time the evening rolls by (damn that dementia!). This particular month it was easy to remember. It was Bogie, who always plays great on a big screen with a full audience. And a full audience it was. Full of enthusiasm, full of applause. And full of calender years. There were no spring chickens in the bunch. I was the youngest member in the crowd. And I remember radio. I enter the theatre to a packed house (seniors tend to arrive early for fear of leaving late) and stand in the back amidst a parking lot of wheelchairs and walkers. I figured a valet cap atop my head and I could clean up.
The lights go down and the Warner's studio orchestra gives out with the familiar opening fanfare. That moment alone should convince any film neophyte of the power of film. Or maybe it is just the power of a good amplifier system? Either way, it always causes a chill through my body. Or else I am coming down with something. Why not, look at all of the sick people here?
Before the movie started the theatre brought in someone's local mom off the street to talk about what we were about to see (....for the thousandth time). It's always nice to have a little background to each film. It builds interest. Plus, everyone wants to pretend to be a Robert Osborne nowadays. She retold the familiar tales of John Huston's first time behind the camera, the George Raft angle, the cameo appearance of Walter Huston (HEY! SPOILER ALERT!!! The dead captain IS his Dad???). And then she had to trot out the old folktale of THE MALTESE FALCON being one of the first film noirs. Of which it is not. It isn't even one of the last film noirs, but does anyone listen to me? In the row ahead of me a wrinkly, kind old gentleman was nodding his head in agreement with the lady and I was forced to lean over and cut his oxygen tube.
For, as everyone knows, Noir can only exist in a paranoid, existential universe that is the by-product of a world gone slightly unhinged. You know, like surviving a World War and enduring the Bataan Death March, witnessing the bombing of Dresden and opening the gates of Auschwitz. The stuff of nightmares folks, that produce great dark movies. And at this time in our countries history we were still sitting on the sidelines ignoring Europe's woes as we wrote fan letters to Deanna Durbin, called anyone in a Union a 'Red' and welcomed the local Bund party to our Sunday Pancake Breakfasts.
That fact alone should had produced nightmares....
The other misconception of the FALCON is that it is a great detective murder mystery. Well, yes.....it's pedigree hails from the terrific pulp dime magazines that exploded in popularity during the early Thirties and brought the term 'hard-boiled' into general acceptance (well, outside of the Egg Industry -- where it was already fairly well-known). But we all know that it was the graphic sex and violence detailed in said books that lured in all of the young illiterate readers. Unfortunately, John Huston was unable to film the more salacious details that Hammett penned (lots of sleeping around, folks) so he did the only sensible thing one could do under the yoke of a Production Code - he made a comedy. For THE MALTESE FALCON is not only one of the great films of all time and an exemplar of the Private Eye genre, it also one of the best laugh out loud comedies of that or any other century (I like to cut a large swath in my hyperbole). The picture perfect supporting cast are all given moments to shine with their eccentricities in full bloom, but they all chased the tail of their ring leader, that great light comedian Humphrey Bogart. Whether looking down the barrel of a gun or into Miss Astor's baby brown eyes, Bogey has a quip or a retort for every situation. He is a regular Julius H. Marx. What is especially fantastic about this performance is that he behaves as if he is still the second lead in BULLETS OR BALLOTS (36). Every line is spit out through clenched teeth or a sneer.
Duke Mantee -- stand-up comic. Laugh or Die!
And yet it works marvelously throughout the film. Such as when Spade goes ballistic in Gutman's apartment, smashing his drink against the coffee table and storming out with one last threat about "you'll have to talk to me before this is through..." And as he marches down the hallway toward the elevator he passes the camera and we see he wears a shit-eating grin over the act he has just performed in that room.
The comedy works to engross us in the story and keep us entertained throughout, but it also sets us up for the climatic confrontation between Spade and Miss O'Shaughnessy. Despite the tempting offer of unlimited, illicit sex from Brigid (which Spade confesses he considered. If this was truly film noir he would had taken it), Sam drops the veneer of comedy and coldly tells her, "I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes Angel, I'm going to send you over" And we see the blood drain from Brigid's face as she realizes she played the wrong fella.
And with that we are left with a classic closing line (suggested on the set by our star himself) as shadows of prison bars are cast across our numb heroine during the closing shot. The lights come up in the auditorium as the last orchestra strains play out and then I see a familiar brightly colored title card telling us from Interpol that it is against the law to illegally copy this tape.
We were watching a projected DVD the entire time. It didn't ruin my viewing experience once I learned this but it did slightly confuse me. How do we argue with new film lovers who are content to watch movies we love in the comfort of their own homes on their wide screen TV's with their Dolby surround sound systems? Especially when we can no longer guarantee that any theatrical venue will even show 35mm anytime soon. The only thing missing from that set-up is the communal aspects of watching something in a room with total strangers. Being able to avoid that occurrence may be a hard hurdle to argue against. It may be time to face facts that the way films were once exhibited and shown to the public is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. A new template is most likely sounding like streaming and downloading at home. I have a teenage niece - very bright and curious for her age. She has been writing to me lately telling of these documentary films she and her little sister have been watching lately. When I asked what brought that on she replied that they have rented out all of the big studio hits from Redbox, and the semi hits and even the so so films, that they have gotten to the point of exploring other film genres that are available but not that popular. So as long as these other film venues keep supplying a wide range of film options - and not just the latest Hollywood blockbusters - Sam Spade will live on through generations to come.
SOUND MOVIE MAIN is the spot to discuss non-comedy SOUND films. Go figure.
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