Thoughts on The Maltese Falcon, and various giallo/film noir observations
I had my first proper film noir experience today in the form of John Huston’s celebrated 1941 offering, The Maltese Falcon. I don’t mean by that that it was the first film noir I’d ever seen, but rather that it was the first time I sat down to watch a film thinking “Right, this is a film noir. What does that mean and how does it manifest itself?”
The Maltese Falcon is currently ranked as the 69th greatest film of all time on IMDB, and, regardless of how much or how little faith you put in such lists (personally, I think they’re generally of little value), it’s tough to deny that it’s difficult to approach any film with that sort of reputation, particularly one that’s over 60 years old. How do you even begin to comprehend how it would have been viewed at the time of its release, and how do you begin to appreciate its various innovations in that context, knowing full well that they have now been assimilated into the everyday language of film? The answer is that you don’t, unless you possess both a time machine and a means of erasing all of your existing knowledge and preconceptions regarding the type of film in question. The Maltese Falcon is very much a quintessential film noir, but it wouldn’t have been seen as such in 1941, given that the movement didn’t enjoy its glory period until some years later, and it would take even longer for people to begin actively referring to these as film noirs.
So anyway, did I enjoy The Maltese Falcon? Yes, I did - considerably so, in fact, although, as I find to be the case with many films that are considered the greatest of their respective genres or movements, my enjoyment didn’t develop into out and out awe or adulation. I found it consistently witty dialogue-wise and at many points engaging, but there were also several moments for me where things began to sag a bit and my interest started to wane. Each time that happened, a plot development would generally show up in a few minutes to regain my attention, but my overriding reaction was “Yeah, this is a really good film” rather than “Wow, this is one of the greatest films of all time!” (Oh, and a minor criticism: I must admit that the continual continuity flubs, mainly actors changing position between shots, kept taking me out of the drama.) That said, I’m pretty sure my reaction to Deep Red was somewhat similar the first time I saw it, and we all know how highly I regard it now.
Anyway, as I’ve continued reading up on film noir, the similarities between it and the giallo movement have become all the more pronounced. I’m not sure that much, if any, of this comes from my viewing of The Maltese Falcon, but I thought I’d note a few of my observations regarding the ties between the two movements:
- The giallo began in the late 60s as an offshoot of 30s pulp literature, whereas film noir kicked off more than two decades earlier, in the early 40s, drawing on the influence of 10s/20s German Expressionism (for the visuals) and hard-boiled detective pulp fiction (for the narratives and themes).
- For both movements, there is a broad agreement on what constitutes the key iconography, but no single universally accepted definition. In addition, broadly speaking, it is agreed that neither the giallo nor the film noir constitutes a genre. To describe film noir, Alain Silver uses the word “cycle”, which has obvious connotations of time, indicating that the movement is part of a specific period, an is echoed in writing on gialli which uses the Italian word ‘filone’, used to refer to trends and cycles.
- Key traits include moral ambiguity and sexual motivation, often involving a contemporary urban setting.
- Although there are a number of high profile exceptions (The Maltese Falcon being a case in point), the majority of gialli and film noirs tended to be B-movies, with modest budgets and a lack of major stars.
- Both movements seem to have emerged in times of social and/or political unrest:
— Literary gialli arrived in the 1930s during the rise of fascism.
— Filmic gialli emerged during a period of intense violence and terrorism in the early 1970s, and following considerable progress in the women’s emancipation movement.
— The hard-boiled detective novels which influenced film noir emerged in the US during the Depression of the 1930s.
— Film noir as a movement took off during the aftermath of the Second World War, and its portrayal of powerful, independent women as dangerous (i.e. the femme fatale) can be seen as representative of the fears of a generation of men who returned from war to find that women had entered the public sector in their absence. The vilification and ultimate destruction of the femme fatale can be argued to constitute an attempt to restore ‘order’ and return women to what was perceived as their rightful place.
- Shared (partial) roots in German Expressionism: Dario Argento, whose The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) is considered to have sparked the main thrust of the giallo boom, has professed to having been influenced by German Expressionism, particularly the films of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang.
- In both cases, the ‘colour’ terminology appears to have been applied retrospectively. ‘Film noir’, or so says Wikipedia (remind me not to quote that in my bibliography!), was first coined by French critic Nino Frank in 1946, and likewise the term ‘giallo’ does not appear to have been actively used when the films in question were initially released (trailers which do attempt to classify them tend to use the word ‘thrilling’, e.g. Deep Red). It may be that the giallo movement’s literary origins were only noticed and acknowledged later. (Does anyone know? An investigation of contemporary Italian press publications would probably be needed here.)
- Oh, and Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione (1943), referred to by some (e.g. Gary Needham) as the first cinematic giallo, was adapted from James M. Cain’s novel The Postman Always Rings Twice, itself adapted in the US in 1946 and considered a major film noir.
Posted: Thursday, April 10, 2008 at 7:45 PM
| Comments: 9
I may be wrong, but I suspect that the use of "giallo" as applied to Argento/Bava&friends movies was started entirely outside Italy.
Here in Italy, if you say "Ho visto un giallo" (I saw a giallo movie) everyone thinks you saw a movie taken from Agatha Christie's books, or a movie featuring Sherlock Holmes or any other detective solving a crime story thanks only to his/her reasoning, with next-to-nothing use of graphic violence and action sequences. For sure, no common joe would immediately associate the term giallo with a movie like Argento's Deep Red - even if it does feature a lead role investigating on a crime.
For me, I found the term giallo in relation to Argento and other 70s film-makers only in a few Italian internet sites and in a few cinema magazine aricles.
I suppose this is because in Italy the equation giallo (yellow-covered) book = "classical" crime/mistery book/story is very very strong.
Posted by: MCP, April 10, 2008 10:31 PM
That’s really interesting, MCP, and I think it does point to a major issue in terms of discussing these films: the fact that the term “giallo” does seem to have been misappropriated by English speakers. I wonder how that came about. Certainly, it sheds some light on why the Italian poster for Sleepless describes it as “il nuovo thriller di Dario Argento”, and he described The Card Player on a featurette on the French Trauma DVD as “a sort of giallo”.
Posted by: Whiggles
, April 10, 2008 10:37 PM
To support what MCP says, the term 'giallo' is in Italy simply synonymous with the broad label 'thriller' (or, more specifically, the detection-oriented thriller), and thus can refer to everything from Conan Doyle to Mickey Spillane. It's only English audiences that attach the label 'giallo' to the Italian-style thrillers delivered by filmmakers like Mario Bava, in much the same way that 'Spaghetti Western' (or 'Continental Western') label was concocted by English-speaking critics; the italians call their Westerns 'Italian-style Westerns' (westerns all'italiana), and as I understand it the Bava/Argento films are in Italy still tagged as 'thrillers all'italiana' (Italian-style thrillers). The label 'giallo' is something of a misnomer.
"It may be that the giallo movement's literary origins were only noticed and acknowledged later. (Does anyone know? An investigation of contemporary Italian press publications would probably be needed here.)""
I'm sure I remember stumbling across some vintage British reviews of L'UCCELLO DALLE PIUME DI CRISTALLO that made much of the Christie-esque aspects of the narrative and discussed the film's nod to Fredric Brown's SCREAMING MIMI. I'd start with the vintage British materials about the Italian-style thrillers to discover whether that was in fact the case: that style of comparative criticism is more in line with British film criticism of the 1960s and 1970s than with American film criticism.
"Although there are a number of high profile exceptions (The Maltese Falcon being a case in point), the majority of gialli and film noirs tended to be B-movies, with modest budgets and a lack of major stars".
There's a good article in the first FILM NOIR READER that discusses the relationships between the noir style and its association with off-Hollywood contexts. The early films noir were produced within Hollywood, but the fact that many of the key fifties films noir were produced outside the studio system may have more to do with the dissolution of the studio system that followed the 1948 antitrust case than with anything else. The noir style flourished during a period when the Studio System was collapsing, and of course there's the perennial suggestion that noir concomitantly spoke to the angst of post-war society. When Hollywood found its feet again, during the 1970s, it retreated into a cinema-of-spectacle rather than a cinema-of-angst, and thus the gritty crime film disappeared for another twenty years, until it found its expression via another form of angst (of the the 'fin-de-siecle' variety) in the neo-noir pictures (BASIC INSTINCT, SE7EN, John Dahl's films, the television show MILLENNIUM, etc). That position could be developed into a hypothesis of some kind, but I'm far too tired right now to formalise it ;)
Posted by: Paul, April 10, 2008 11:55 PM
Glad to hear you dug 'The Maltese Falcon'!
It took a couple of viewings for me to really appreciate it.
Some movies are like that.
I had to watch 'Taxi Driver' four times before something clicked and I realized its brilliance outside all the hype.
I look forward to 'Falcon' and other noirs (particularly ones helmed by Wilder and Hawks) being released on Blu-ray.
I definitely dig 'Double Indemnity' a whole lot more than 'Falcon' and suggest that one next (I think you'll like it).
Posted by: Daniel Sardella
, April 11, 2008 12:01 AM
"Double Indemnity" is the best of the noirs, IMO.
Posted by: Marcus, April 11, 2008 6:21 PM
" the term "giallo" does seem to have been misappropriated by English speakers. I wonder how that came about."
Now that I think of it, it's just an idea, but part of the explanation may come from Hitchcock: you see, even if the detection/explanation part is often only one element of a more complex whole, in Italy sir Alfred's movies are indeed commonly referred to both as giallo and thriller movies.
"I saw a giallo by Hithcock" is a phrase quite commonly heard here. And given the fact that from the beginning Argento himself often remarked the influence of Hitchcok on his own cinema... the term giallo could have surfed to English critics'language shores (as outlined by Paul)
Posted by: MCP, April 11, 2008 8:28 PM
"When Hollywood found its feet again, during the 1970s, it retreated into a cinema-of-spectacle rather than a cinema-of-angst, and thus the gritty crime film disappeared for another twenty years..."
I know you're generalising, but it's a bit sweeping to suggest that the noir tradition disappeared in the 70s not be seen again for decades - how do you explain Night Moves, Chinatown, Klute, Hustle, Body Heat, Blood Simple and a whole host of others (including the 70s remakes of noir standards)?
Posted by: anephric, April 14, 2008 3:16 PM
'I know you're generalising, but it's a bit sweeping to suggest that the noir tradition disappeared in the 70s not be seen again for decades - how do you explain Night Moves, Chinatown, Klute, Hustle, Body Heat, Blood Simple and a whole host of others (including the 70s remakes of noir standards)?'
I was referring to the growth of the New Hollywood post-STAR WARS and the way in which it ushered in the cinema of the spectacle. Pre-New Hollywood, there were still plenty of Hollywood Renaissance filmmakers who were interested in the noir tradition (Arthur Penn, Alan Pakula, Roman Polanski) and during the 1980s there were also some rare noir-esque crime films--but many of these were financed independently, away from the Hollywood studios (BLOOD SIMPLE, for example).
Posted by: , April 22, 2008 10:47 PM
You might also want to check out the podcast series "Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir" which is an excellent show doing in-depth investigations into the genre (https://www.outofthepast.libsyn.com/)
It used to be once a fortnight but they recently branched out into noir literature so the film podcast is monthly now, but it continues to alternate between investigating a classic film noir and a modern noir film each show.
Posted by: colinr0380, June 20, 2008 5:35 PM
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