Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"A thousand dollar bill I was supposed to be bribed with" or "real between curtains" - John Huston and Bree Daniels--Gamblers (KLUTE, THE MALTESE FALCON)

Checking out The Maltese Falcon (1941) again--every time it's a different movie! Last time I wrote about it I saw it right after In a Lonely Place and was shocked by much that film's unflattering portrayal made Bogie and Astor each seem as monstrous and misshapen as Joel and the Fat Man. Mary Astor's twisted rococo hair styles made it scan like some Martian transmission from the bowels of one of my old-school delirium tremens. (see Bride of Bogartstein, Acidemic August 2011)

This time around, a slim three years later-ish, there was none of that but another facet, one equally rare in a noir or detective film: a concise expense account. The film is almost completely obsessed with it but not in a big brass ring way--though that is what "the Falcon" represents--but also in a hundred dollar way - the money never gets lower than hundred denominations but even that is unique in a movie. It starts with the two hundred given to Miles Archer and Spade by Brigid O'Shaughnessy ("you gave us too much money if you'd been telling us the truth and enough money to make it all right") and culminates in the envelope of ten thousand dollar bills with the delivery of the eventually worthless dingus. Spade gives the cops the thousand dollar bill (see title of this post) Guttman leaves with him for "his time and expenses," but pockets all the smaller denominations he's accrued along the way. After all, he has to keep the office running. Running around with these dregs then dumping the whole kitten-kaboodle in the lap of the law is his stock and trade.

Paradoxically--and this is something most movies don't understand-- if the money amounts were larger, they would be less relevant. It reminded me of the few times I ever did large (to me) drug deals, handing over five hundred dollars (a lot of money, at least to me) to a hippie I never met in a place that seemed dark and strange, where I was relying on the kindness of strangers not to just rip me off as they disappeared into their secret sanctum. There's an electric cord of adrenalin clear-headed focus associated with such sketchy cash outlays. When some big deal cokie brings a briefcase of thousands to a drug deal in a modern gangster film it paradoxically seems to mean a lot less than those smaller deals, refracting down to mere MacGuffin status by contrast --but in Falcon every hundred dollar bill has clout. A C-note buys Spade's loyalty, to a point, and it's never really clear whether he's just faking his lack of morals to solve his partner's murder or just faking his faking. This is a movie where even we don't get to see the hero's cards. Dashiell Hammett's dialogue is always realistic in the sense that detective work is a business and, like a lawyer, a fastidious record of retainers, per diems, and expenses must be kept (the radio show is all dictated by Spade to Effie as a report to be filed both with client and --if necessary--police).

So back to biz: After his second meeting with Brigid, Spade relieves her of another five hundred, compelling her to hock her jewelry (she says). Then he calls his lawyer when he gets back to the office: "I think I'm going to have to tell the coroner to go to blazes, Sid." He asks if he can hide behind his client's privacy, "what'll it cost me to be on the safe side?" another pause as Sid surely lays out an estimate (for filing injunctions, paying off inquest officials to temporarily misfile paperwork? We never know). "Well, maybe it's worth it. Okay go ahead."

These kind of details reflect a savvy gambler's awareness of how money predominates discussions when no one is copping to their real motives or who they really are, i.e. in a game of poker. Money talks while bullshit walks as it does in gambling or with Brigid and Sam's love affair, who can say if either is really in love with the other? Who knows what the other guys are holding? In most films, we're encouraged to forget we're watching actors play characters; even so, we still know we're not watching the truth. But not seeing the truth implies there is a truth, somewhere outside the frame -- the truth is actors are making a film and you're watching it and being able to forget that is restorative; but great movies like The Maltese Falcon call the idea that there is such a thing as truth at all into question. That's what separates great literature from 'fiction.' Great literature uses our willingness to lose our compass back to the truth against us, to lead us to some truth so great the barriers we'd set up against it melt like ice in the Tropics.

Huston, John --above all, an adaptor of that kind of great literature, and a gambler. A lot of film directors are gamblers by nature, borrowing money to try and break the bank, trolling through the world, collecting philosophies that help them deal with losing huge amounts of money--whether through a hand of poker or a roll of the wheel, the critics' whims or the public's fickleness. In Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Walter Huston's cracklin' pappy gold prospector and Tim Holt realize the entirety of a year's work on the mountain is lost in the Mexican desert wind as easily if shooting the works on a spin of the roulette wheel --and Holt is dejected but Pappy--played not incoincidentally by John's own (Walter Huston)--knows just what to do, laugh it up! God's joke on us! So laugh they do. And the fact that Holt is able to let go and shrug it off is the real 'treasure' he finds shows he's discovering what John himself has perhaps learned in his storied life. And in Maltese Falcon it's about being so good at bluffing, at seduction, at manipulation, that even we, your movie audience, don't know what you're holding. Hell, maybe even you don't. A busboy once told me how his wife was so good at reading tells that his only chance of winning was if he no longer even looked at his hand. He just took his chances and laid his money down. Now that's a deadpan gambler!

Not to be trite, but for real gamblers, like Huston, a fortune is something meant to be won and/or lost - its table stakes - the stakes get larger, the table grander- but it's still a game --and the measure of a man is not how much he keeps (how rich he gets) but how gracefully he can lose his skin on a toss of the dice, as per Huston's beloved Kipling. I know this poem of Rudyard's must be like holy gospel to old John H.:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!  
I've never been much of a gambler myself --if I win I turn arrogant. If I lose I turn ashen, my son. But  I ascribe to the Great McGonigle's 'never give a sucker an even break or smarten up a chump' philosophy--a good trimming can be as valuable as four years of NYU; if the chump be naive enough to be trimmed twice the education was wasted. Casinos create valuable service industry jobs and remain meccas for performers. And what's a bigger stakes gamble than filmmaking? A few million dollars is considered a low risk gamble compared to the titanic bloated budgets of normal multiplex fodder. If gamblers didn't know how to laugh off catastrophic losses, Michael Cimino would have wound up wearing cement shoes after Heaven's Gate. Shit, my son. He singlehandedly killed our once strong studio system! And he's still walking around... even making movies. They suck, don't look them up.

I also resonate with the gambler because I have addictions of my own, and knowing these I've been wary - casinos, like strip clubs, always seem very sad and suspicious to me, like pushy salesmen traps. The lap dance is okay to receive if part of some academic study, but I know if I surrender to its allure I'd wind up broke and pathetic within a matter of months and no closer to any kind of even semi-permanent fulfillment. Gambling too is okay for research and participation on some minor scale, to get a flavor for it so you can write about it later. Casinos wouldn't even be in business if a right-brained scattershot like myself could beat them.

But beating them is not really the point: Every true gambler is always either rich or broke, it keeps them on an even-keel. Huston was like that, filling his unforgiving minute with guts and glory-- and part of what makes his films work is that few other directors convey such an accurate vision of what it is to be broke enough to understand the sign of class that is giving up your last cigarette to a near-stranger when you can't afford another pack, or the victory of getting a peso coin handout twice from the same American tourist, or quietly benefitting from the two-day period involved in finding your partner's murderer, to the tune of approx. seven hundred dollars in the bargain:

Brigitte's initial retainer -         $200.
Brigitte's second cash outlay    $500.
Joel Cairo's 'small retainer' -     $200.
Less the lawyer fee for Sid to keep
her name out of it -- guestimate - ?? est. --minus $200.
-TOTAL $700!
Solving two murders = priceless cred.

Lastly the thing that stuck with me this viewing was the impossibility of knowing whether or not Spade really loves Brigitte or is just a gent since he shagged her and any gent can feign being into a girl for at least 24 hours after shagged. We get his clear-eyed list of all the things that would go wrong if he trusted her and helped her dodge the rap --"Look at the number of them!" Bogie's eyes when he says that indicate he's mentally looking at the list and shuddering with withdrawal reptilian self disgust.

S - "Maybe you love me and maybe I love you"
B - "You know whether you love me or not!"
S - "Maybe I do."

Note that she doesn't even bother to wonder if her own feelings are real or if she's just scared to death because she too can register horror and reptilian self-disgust the way he can. Her tears fall so hot and fast you can see her whole persona begin to melt off, even if her make-up never runs. She's a great actress, is Astor, which perfectly suits the material. Not unlike Elizabeth Shue in Leaving Las Vegas or Jane Fonda in Klute, they convey the complexity of performance by dissolving the metatextual difference between good actresses who are sexy by nature (Astor loved sex as we well know from her infamous journal) and don't have to prove it, vs. bad actresses acting sexier while acting sincere (probably as the result of acting teacher input and relentless sincerity). As Mildred Plotka once put it, registering the "genuine" tragedy of sincerity is impossible-- "We're not people, we're lithographs. We don't know anything about love unless it's written and rehearsed. We're only real in between curtains."

in KLUTE, the triumph of Fonda's Bree is that though she doesn't really feel too attracted to Klute it's the very fact that he doesn't ask or need to be loved or adored that proposes the actorly challenge for her. It's his renouncement of any happiness for himself (including masochism or martyrdom) that ensures living in Bumfuck PA with this hangdog snoop will be like rehab, or prison, where she can no longer escape the fish bowl confessional that is finally looking at a too-long unregarded self. Such a choice seems like the last thing a girl of Bree's 'drinking wine in the dark and nursing a roach clip'-cool would find endurable. But she can at least realize that bored frustration is a unique paradise compared to the nonstop sexual twilight that is feigning genuine interest in unattractive and possibly psychotic guys. Klute demands no expression of even minimal interest on her part, and sees through all artifice as his job demands, so it's sincerity or nothing with him, a bit like the court-ordered rehab worker who believes not a word his scamming patients say, trusting only in the sanctity of their urine.

This kind of endorsement can come close to being a pro-sexist post-code patriarchy soap opera sanctification of woman's 'choice' to be a barefoot pregnant servant of any man who'll marry her.  Man can't force her, but if she chooses to renounce her freedom then she is the only girl in town who will know true happiness. That's kind of coercion through manipulation, force by a slyer name. Looking at these kinds of films now can make one feel dirty, like our most cherished ideas of self-sacrifice were being exploited like we're goddamned Viridiana or Candy Christian.

In the end, acting itself may be a form of prostitution, but there is one idea you can trust above all others --not steel, as it was for Conan; it's not even cash. It's that the best possible kind of secret agent doesn't even know he's an agent and that there is no discernible difference between a real person faking being in love and a fake person in love for real. If that's too harsh a truth then don't play poker, don't fall in love with your prostitute, and don't ever fuck with Roy Rogers' horse. Shit's POTENT, son. Love will not be trifled with. Fake it at Your own risk --but the payoff is all around us, choking the Earth with its relentless distracted appetites. One Tin Actress rides away... yeah, ride it.


  1. The Maltese Falcon is one of the best movies made from a book, ever. They really compliment each other more than feel like source material and adaptation. Dashiell Hammett was so good. His writing always feels to me like it is writing itself as I read it, like if I turned the page really fast it would be blank. I like your write up here, because I never really bought the Sam falling in love with Evelyn angle, but knew it wouldn't be the same movie without the dialogue. I would love if there was a scene of the telling of The Flitcraft Incident that they had to cut for time. That is one of my favorite passages in literature, and Paul Auster ran with it in Oracle Night. When I was in San Fransisco the only time I have been there, I boosted a guy up to stand on my shoulders and do a crayon rubbing of the "On This Spot Miles Archer Was Gunned Down By Evelyn Mulwray... Plaque. I plan to do a photogravure etching plate from it when I have the chance to get access to Flatbed Press printing again. When that happens, if you want, I will send you an artist proof if you would like. Anyway, another great essay. I consider The Maltese Falcon to be the first real Modern American Novel. If you ever get the chance, read Josiah Thompson's book on private investigations. He was an ethics professor who took a sabbatical and worked as a PI intern in San Francisco. I think it's called Gumshoe. He's a JFK conspiracy guy, so he has a weird way of looking at people at their worst, and he writes about working surveillance while high. Keep up the good work. Check in on Mad Men with us again, soon. Oh, have you read Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem? Amazing book about the thin spaces between life and art and the news and post September 11 angst. Great read.

  2. Whoa, thanks Johnny! Lot of good book recomendations here. Isn't Evelyn Mulray from Chinatown?


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