Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Birthday Take: John Huston in "The Maltese Falcon" (1941)

Scene from The Maltese Falcon
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: John Huston
Born: August 5, 1906
Died: August 28, 1987 (79 years old)
Nomination: Best Adapted Screenplay (nominated) for The Maltese Falcon

The Take

If one is to consider the best triple threats in early Hollywood, one needs to not look any further than John Huston. While he got his start as an actor, his best work was often done behind the camera, either as director or writer. As his 15 Oscar nominations (2 wins) will attest, he was a prolific voice that churned out constant iconic films both on screen in films like Chinatown, and behind the scenes with The African Queen and The Treasure of Sierra Madre. While some may not necessarily find his style to be nearly as distinct as counterpoints like John Ford, he made exciting films that as an actor himself, he knew what audiences wanted to see - no matter what genre the story happened to fall in.

Among his best achievements is The Maltese Falcon, which many consider to be the best film noir of its era. And for good reason. It features one of Humphrey Bogart's best performances and a criminally overlooked (Oscar-wise) performance by Peter Lorre as his obsessive co-star. Along with a very witty script and a set so hazy that not smoking would be criminal, it was a film that took a very simple story and exploited what made it great. It was the introduction to the idea of a MacGuffin. It presented an idol that audiences could understand and explain the struggles to obtain it. Even with this in mind, the results are predictably tragic for the characters and the finale isn't a moment of relief, but of harshness.

Impressively, Huston was nominated twice this year for two very different movies. The other was Best Original Screenplay for the patriotic tale of Sergeant York. That film followed the struggles of fighting a war and being loyal to your religious beliefs. It was a film rooted in great performances that benefited from director Howard Hawks beautiful direction. While that film has its own share of legacy, it is the film that Huston decided to direct that has withstood the test of time with more optimism. It could be that it helped to set a blueprint for a genre that would continue to define itself over the next few decades.

Beyond that, The Maltese Falcon is probably Huston's best work because it captures something humane in the characters. Among the misery that is displayed in its San Francisco characters, it is a story that captures an emotional resonance of people longing for something greater. Beyond the script, it is a masterpiece of performance in which the most that happens is people talking through monologues. There's a style to it that is typically film, but there's also more heart than one would expect. There is a reason that Bogart was so great at playing these type of characters. His mumbling voice and visual appearance had a disappointment built into it that complimented stories like this. Even if it was his type, he never felt like he was phoning it in. He always gave it his all.

Huston is a versatile artist who you likely will notice from countless projects. He helped to shape the face of cinema through various different genres. He was able to do so because as someone with experience in major fields, he knew what the audience wanted to see. He knew how the actor would react to his scenarios. He was someone who paved the way for triple threats, most of which still aren't able to come close to his multiple Oscar nominations. He is a unique voice, and one that continues to be celebrated and enjoyed because what he made was pure Hollywood cinema that wasn't just vapid entertainment. It was full of heart, even when the story was about sheer disappointment.

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