Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

WHO: Humphrey Bogart stars in this.

WHAT: If you go to the corner of Bush Street and Burritt Alley, you'll find a plaque that reads: "On approximately this spot Miles Archer, partner of Sam Spade, was done in by Brigid O'Shaunghnessy". It must be the only plaque in San Francisco that memorializes not a historical event, but a key moment in fiction, namely the Dashiell Hammett detective novel template known as The Maltese Falcon. At least, the only one that bears no indication of its fictionhood, or that it constitutes a "spoiler" for anyone who might not have read the book or watched one of the movie versions made from it. Such as the 1941 version written and directed by John Huston.

Other versions (the 1931 one sometimes called Dangerous Female, or the 1936 Satan Met a Lady) have their points of interest, but the 1941 The Maltese Falcon is the one that became a cultural sensation and launched (with High Sierra) Humphrey Bogart's career as a leading man, Huston's as a director, and film noir as a powerful cinematic thread through the 1940s, 50s and beyond. San Francisco movie lovers are proud that their city plays such a key role in such a key film in such a key genre of Hollywood filmmaking, even if they know that apart from a few library-footage shots of the Bay Bridge and the city skyline, Huston's film does not feature actual footage of their city. As Nicola Balkind wrote in the recently-published book World Film Locations: San Francisco:
The camera descends and we are introduced to an office announcing 'SPADE AND ARCHER' where Sam Spade is working as the Bay Bridge gleams through a large window. The office interior was shot in LA but the location is estimated to be 111 Sutter Street at the corner of Montgomery in the heart of the Financial District - not far from neo-noir's favorite location: Chinatown. Although The Maltese Falcon was made in Hollywood, we're never allowed to forget it is set in San Francisco.
WHERE/WHEN: Screens daily at the Stanford Theatre at 5:40 and 9:25.

WHY: World Film Locations: San Francisco is starting to get a few reviews, such as this one in the Bay Area Reporter. It's available online and at stores such as City Lights, Moe's and even the DeYoung Museum gift shop. I'm proud to have contributed an essay on film noir in the city for the book, in which I quickly trace film noir history from Hammett and Huston to Otto Preminger's Fallen Angel and Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past, to the post-war vogue for on-location shooting and into the ways noir was transformed in the mid-to-late fifties and ultimately found expression in the still-vibrant neo-noir genre.

That's just two pages of the book's 1928, however, most of which are devoted to individual films from the silent era to relatively recent history (Steven Soderbergh's 2011 Contagion being the most current entry). Forty-six films are matched with forty-six of their most iconic San Francisco locations and presented fully-illustrated and even mapped. The pages for Greed show us the Cliff House in 1924 and today, while The Conversation is represented by One Maritime Plaza and Raiders of the Lost Ark is an excuse to show us City Hall, for example. 

San Francisco moviegoers can hardly get enough of seeing our own city on cinema screens, and there are many opportunities to do so in the coming months. The Stanford's current "Best of Bogart and Film Noir Classics" series gives us one almost every weekend in late September and October. After The Maltese Falcon this week, the venue brings Out of the Past (with the Caribbean-set To Have and Have Not) September 26-29, and Dark Passage (Oct. 10-13 with The Blue Dahlia), The Lady From Shanghai (Oct. 24-27 with Key Largo) and The Caine Mutiny (Oct. 31-Nov. 3 with Touch of Evil) each have their own entries in World Film Locations: San Francisco as well.

Two of the three features playing at Oakland's Paramount Theatre as part of its fall movie classics series are also featured in the book: Bullitt, which screens this Friday, and All About Eve, which was set in New York and Connecticut but had a key scene shot at San Francisco's Curran Theatre, screens there October 15th. (The third Paramount movie classic this fall is Huston and Bogart's Uganda-shot adventure film The African Queen on November 18th). Both of the films screening at the Pacific Film Archive's free outdoor movie series in the coming weeks also get WFL:SF entries: Harold and Maude and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And Vertigo (of course also in the book) screens November 1st at Davies Symphony Hall, with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra performing Bernard Herrmann's incredible musical score live.

Perhaps the most unexpected upcoming showcase of Frisco Bay films comes courtesy the San Francisco Film Society, which is hosting at New People Cinema October 18-20 an event called Zurich/SF, which is a cinematic celebration of the ten-year anniversary of San Francisco's sister-city partnership with Switzerland's largest city. This mini-festival collaborates with the Rainer Werner Fassbinder retrospective coming to the PFA, YBCA and Roxie this fall to plug the Autumn's German-language cinematic gap caused by the Berlin & Beyond festival's move back to a January timeslot after a few years having a go in the Fall, by showing films such as Kurt Früh's rarely-seen The Fall and Andrea Štaka's Fraulein (both in 35mm) as well as five other films by Swiss filmmakers. But it also brings four showings of films in which San Francisco is more than mere backdrop to action but a major element of character and theme. Of these, The Conversation and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill (the latter of which will screen on 35mm) merit entries in WFL:SF, while Medicine For Melancholy is discussed in one of the other contextualizing essays in the book. As for 1970s buddy-cop oddity Freebie and the Bean, it will have to wait and see if sales on the book merit a sequel.

HOW: The Maltese Falcon screens on a 35mm double bill with Casablanca.

1 comment:

  1. Brian: I've also seen the World Film Locations book at the Upper Market Books Inc., and at Berkeley's University Press bookstore (which has a nice selection of others in the series.)