Tag Archives: Humphrey Bogart

The Maltese Falcon: The Flitcraft Parable

14 Jun

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If the stars suddenly aligned on an especially dark night and I was given the chance to remake the film of my choice, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell the movie gods I will do The Maltese Falcon. And if such a cinematic fate befell me, my adaptation would include one special passage in Dashiell Hammet’s novel that has never been translated to film even though at least three film Falcons have soared into movie theaters since the novel debuted in 1930.

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Noir fans call it the “Flitcraft Parable” found in Chapter 7: G in the Air — a short digression completely unrelated to the novel’s plot in which Sam Spade, tells Brigitte O’Shaunessy a little story about a man named Flitcraft.

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In the story, Spade explains how Flitcraft, a real estate agent and family man living in Tacoma goes to lunch one day never to return.  Five years go by and his wife comes to the detective agency where Spade is working with news: someone in Spokane has seen a man resembling her husband. She retains Spade to track him down only to discover that it is indeed Flitcraft.

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Flitcraft tells Spade the day he went to lunch, he had walked by an office building under construction and a huge beam fell from eight to ten stories up, impaling itself into the sidewalk right beside him. The experience of nearly being killed had a profound effect on Flitcraft, jarring him out of his very existence for a moment. As Spade explains:

“He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works,” says Spade. “The life he knew was a clean orderly sane responsible affair. Now a falling beam had shown him that life was fundamentally none of these things.”

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Flitcraft had left for Seattle that day without any provisions or extra cash. To his family, it was as if he had simply disappeared off the face of the earth. Flitcraft moved around a little bit before eventually coming back to Washington State where he married again – to a woman very much in appearance and temperament as his first wife – and started a new family. Spade concludes the story with a final thought:

“I don’t think he even knew he had settled back naturally in the same groove he had jumped out of in Tacoma,” says Spade. “But that’s the part of it I always liked. He adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.”

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I know why no filmmaker before me has ever seen the need to keep this digression in their movie version of The Maltese Falcon. It’s because on the surface of it, the Flitcraft Parable has nothing specifically to do with the larger plot of The Maltese Falcon. But if you think about it in terms of Spade’s character and, by extrapolation, author Hammett – you see that it has everything to do with how Spade is able to prevail in almost any situation put before him.

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Sam Spade is a master of observation.  A student of human behavior with the uncanny ability to boil life down to its barest and most basic essentials at any given moment. He’s able to see a situation by any given angle and point of view from whichever character he finds in the room. He knows that once you strip away love, desire, greed, lust, rage and romanticism from any equation – you are left with the truth: what we do with our lives is largely insignificant in the larger scheme of things.

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Who we love or hate, who we back and who we resist, will be most certainly be forgotten soon after we shed this mortal coil. That thought, whether delivered by steel beam from the heavens or a loved one’s untimely departure, whether by ugly divorce, chronic illness or natural catastrophe – is coming for each and every human who has ever lived. And when faced with our own mortality, we humans tend to react with varying forms of panic, fear, terror and desperation.

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What is less common, however, and what is so magical and I believe cinematic about Hammett’s Flitcraft Parable is not so much what the character of Flitcraft does – but how and why Sam Spade is telling the story in the first place. Spade is telling Brigitte that he (Spade) perceives life to be a game at best, a cosmic joke at worst. We’re lucky to even be alive, walking the earth so why take things so seriously? And at the same time, Spade plays the game well, better than anyone else and that includes her. And because of this high-powered perception, he knows that she is bad, playing him for a sap, a chump. He’ll play along as long as it amuses him, to see how it all ends up. Because what’s love when there’s a steel beam 30 stories up just waiting to fall with your number on it. Might as well enjoy life before it falls and that includes playing chess with the likes of a beautiful femme fatale.

THE MALTESE FALCON, Elisha Cook, Jr., Sydney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, 1941

THE MALTESE FALCON, Elisha Cook, Jr., Sydney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, 1941

In the end of The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade’s greatest fear is not death but being made a fool. And he’ll resist being her fool because as he tells her, “all of me wants to.” Spade could give Gandhi a run for his money when it comes to resisting an urge. He’s a professional, after all, with a job to do. And when death does come for him as it will all of us , you better believe he’ll stare into the Grim Reaper’s eye-sockets and grin back at him. Now that’s dark, people. It’s why I love Noir because it doesn’t hold back on the reality of the human condition – but pushes it kicking and screaming into the center of the spotlight.

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We’re all going to die, so we might as well enjoy ourselves and have a little fun. That’s why Noir as a genre is more than alive as well. Why Hammett’s Flitcraft Parable would be right at home in recent existential fare such as TRUE DETECTIVE (can’t you see Matthew McConaughey’s character regaling The Flitcraft Parable to an annoyed Woody Harrelson?) or even THE DARK KNIGHT’s JOKER character played by the late, great Heath ledger.  That’s the power of classic Noir, to strike a chord in every human’s fibrous, meaty core and question why each one of us are here and why the hell we take everything so damn seriously.

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Take Hammett and Spade’s word for it. Life is a game so enjoy it for what it’s worth and remember to play the game well while you have the time. Because you better believe the competition are playing for keeps – and no one likes to be made a fool of.

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Claire Trevor: Queen of Film Noir

7 Jun

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Claire Trevor is no stranger to Noir Film fanatics like myself. From 1933 to 1938, Claire made 29 films in which she was the heroine.

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She was gorgeous but these still glamour shots don’t really do her beauty justice. That’s because Claire cannot be truly appreciated unless she is in motion. She had such a unique and affecting acting style that her static attraction cannot capture what she was like in the dynamic.

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What’s even more interesting is that Claire became MORE beautiful as she matured. Her work in the 30’s was as the prototypical bad girl but her work in the 1940’s was more character-based and thus gave her the chance to really spread her wings.

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Don’t get me wrong, I love the young Claire in DEAD END (1937) as Francey opposite Bogart and for which she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Her portrayal of a desperate woman forced into prostitution only to be rejected by her hood boyfriend as a result is intense and magnetic. But it would only foretell the heights her acting would reach later.

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My ideal Claire Trevor movies are MURDER, MY SWEET (1944), BORN TO KILL (1948) and last but certainly not least, KEY LARGO (1948) in which she played opposite Humphrey Bogart again, this time with his wife Lauren Bacall. The role of gun moll Gaye Dawn to Edward G. Robinson’s gangster Johnny Rocco finally won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. You only need see the performance to understand what lengths Claire is willing to go to nail the role of a torch songstress-cum-alcoholic whose been kicked around a little too much.

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Claire said that the scene where Johnny Rocco forces her to sing unaccompanied for a much-needed libation was sprung on her at a moment’s notice by Director John Huston. Claire was horrified because she was unprepared but that’s exactly what Huston wanted. Her performance of a woman well passed her performance prime is haunting. It was easily the best performance in the movie, and when you’re talking a Noir full of heavy weights like Robinson, Bogart and Bacall – that is saying something!

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Claire eats the scenery in Key Largo every time she appears on screen. Her master of her craft and instrument are bar none. I only wish she was in the movie more, because her performance balances an otherwise sentimental and overly sanctimonious commentary on war, racism and a heavy-handed nod toward naturalism: nature taking a hand in wiping out an evil seed like Johnny Rocco is interesting as a metaphor but not so much in application. Claire, on the other hand, is the true force of nature in Key Largo and it would have been interesting to see her as a real threat for Bogart’s affections from the fawn-like, subdued Bacall. But alas, she was closer in age to Bogart than Bacall and we know how Hollywood is about casting mature love interests (i.e. they don’t like it).

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It’s interesting to watch Bogart and Trevor in DEAD END and then watch them in KEY LARGO. Both are acting greats, though Bogart is remembered and Claire largely forgotten. A true powerhouse, Claire retains the title of Queen of Film Noir even though Lisbeth Scott, Ellie Raines and Lana Turner each took their turn as the Noir ‘It’ Girl of the late ’30s and early ’40s. the difference is that Claire got better with every star turn, then every supporting role. She was a true craftswoman when it came to acting and she reinvested in every role regardless of how small.

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Once you get your fill of Bogart and Trevor, get a palate cleanser with Claire opposite Lawrence Tierney in BORN TO KILL. Tierney was a fucking lunatic in the Robert Wise directed Noir. His performance is lampoonish by today’s standards but Claire is right on the money as the equally-corrupt love interest who falls for a madman and tries in vain to save her family and herself in the end. Claire has a mature, smoldering sexuality that translates in motion on the silver screen. She is at the top of her game, even though the movie itself (other than Elisha Cook, Jr. who is equally brilliant) is dated.

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Claire is a class act no matter what vehicle she was put in – a race car or a clunker – she was able to make the most out of whatever material she was given. That’s why I consider Claire the thinking-man’s actress. Her instincts and talent translated so naturally to the screen that there have been very few whose beauty and acting chops made them what Claire Trevor was in her hey day: The Queen of Film Noir could hold her own against the best of them.

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Young or old, this man-killer is one of the greatest actresses of any Hollywood era. Do yourself a favor and check out TCM’s Summer of Darkness and learn more about the hugely talented and beautiful Claire Trevor. You won’t be sorry you did. And you may just fall in love with one of Hollywood’s greatest femme fatales – just don’t turn your back on her!

 

Dorothy Malone: Smart and Sexy

9 Apr

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Dorothy Malone is one of the movie stars that had everything: beauty, brains and talent. The reason you may not have ever heard of her is because Dorothy never had a huge hit propelling her into the stratosphere of glamorous stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age. A contemporary of Garbo, Dietrich, Stanwyck and Crawford, Malone was just as stunning although never connected with star-making material the way the others did.

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My first exposure to Dorothy was when she played the sexy, brassy ACME Book Store girl to Humphrey Bogart’s Phillip Marlowe in THE BIG SLEEP (1946). Check her out in a star-making performance that is brief but intense. Dorothy had all the sexuality of a major star and was a stunner in her brief interlude with Bogey.

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It would take decades for Dorothy to work her way up the Hollywood ladder, steadily getting more work and bigger, splashier roles. From her roots in B-Movies she was able to parlay her beauty and acting chops into an Oscar Winning Performance in WRITTEN ON THE WIND (1956) a melodrama starring Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall and Robert Stack. Her scenery-eating performance earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, largely because she turned herself from a buxom brunette into a buxom blonde!

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Malone’s next big break came on the small screen in TV’s prime time soap opera PEYTON PLACE (1964-1968) when she played the lead role of Constance MacKenzie. Her star-turn was cut short however when she had to have major surgery for blood clots on her lungs and was off the air for two years. Malone came back, but her role was diminished because of Mia Farrow’s meteoric rise to fame. Dorothy ended up suing 20th Century Fox for $1.6 million over breach of contract when she was fired from the show – and the parties settled out of court.

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Malone chose to raise a family and concentrate on her private life in the 70’s and 80’s but she made one more memorable star-turn in the salacious and decadent BASIC INSTINCT (1992) playing Sharon Stone’s friend and fellow murderer. Again, it was a small role but one that Dorothy made memorable – just like she had with Bogart nearly 50 years before. Dorothy even passed up playing the matron in TV’s DALLAS, choosing instead to go back to her private life and living comfortably in Texas. I’m happy to say the beauty with brains is still with us today, celebrating her 90th birthday in 2015.

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Dorothy Malone may never have become a household name like some of the stars she played opposite, but she holds a place in Hollywood’s sky full of stars. And next time you’re in Tinseltown, check out her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame located at 1718 Vine. She was a beauty for the ages and one to remember for never, ever giving up on her dreams of stardom.

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A cheesecake shot from Dorothy’s heyday as a platinum blonde.

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Even though I prefer her as her natural, brunette self!

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And one more random glamor shot from a bygone era.

Lizabeth Scott: Ultimate Femme Fatale

11 Nov

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Lizabeth Scott is simply one of the most unusual and glamorous stars of Hollywood. Her timing was impeccable because her smoky sensuality and husky voice came at the exact moment film noir was establishing itself as the dominant genre in post World War II America. She started out on Broadway as a sub for Tallulah Bankhead in a play called “The Skin of Our Teeth” though Lizabeth never got to shine because Tallulah never got sick.

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Instead, Lizabeth (she dropped the “e” to be different) was noticed by film scouts who brought her to the attention of producer Hal Wallis.  Wallis was the genius who brought us “Casablanca” and he saw talent in the young (Lizabeth was 20) would-be screen siren. Lizabeth tested at Warner Bros. and it was a disaster but Wallis still liked her look enough to bring her with him to Paramount Pictures when he left Warner Bros. – he and Jack Warner having had a bitter falling out over Warner “stealing” the Best Picture Oscar from Wallis for Casablanca. Wallis would remember this the rest of his career and wasn’t going to let anyone take his new starlet out from under him.

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Wallis dubbed Lizabeth “The Threat” and made her over into a femme fatale and perfect foil for some of the screen’s greatest leading men. Arguably the greatest was Humphrey Bogart, whose wife Lauren Bacall and Lizabeth had similar character traits in common. Lizabeth and Bogie got to work together in the noir classic “Dead Reckoning” and Lizabeth held her own against the formidable screen presence of Bogart. She was able to be charming at the same time rip smart-aleck lines right after another. Her portrayal of world-weary, potentially dangerous women on the outside of polite society looking-in was an instant favorite of movie goers. She suspected everyone of having an angle – as did a new generation of world-war-weary Americans. She was in good company from the start.

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But Lizabeth was quickly typecast as the femme fatale of noir. She made 20 films in her time in Tinseltown and more than 80-percent of them were classic noir scenarios. Except for her very last performance in 1957, when she starred opposite a young Elvis Presley in the curious “Loving You”. Curious because the King actually had screen chemistry with the Queen of Noir in a technicolor musical and one of his first of 27 Presley movies. Off-screen, the two became great friends and stayed in touch even after Lizabeth retired from films. In fact, Lizabeth was a singer herself and would release the eponymous “Lizabeth” which, true to its name, was full of torch-songs as well as light-hearted love ballads.

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The thing I love most about Lizabeth was truly how different she was to any other actress that came before, or after, her time in the spotlight. She projected a character that had seen the dark side of life, one that had survived in spite of the lousy hand she’d been dealt. The kind of alley cat that had been kicked around and never wanted to trust anyone or get hurt, again. Yet in spite of it all, she would fall in love again and again. Sometimes the guy was on the level, sometimes not and Lizabeth’s characters would take their lumps and move on. This classic noir archetype existed before Lizabeth but she brought it into vogue – the vamp with a heart – and made it her own signature style. It’s as distinctive as her voice and her angular, often smiling in spite of the pain visage. Many actresses would imitate this style later but few would come close to Lisabeth’s signature persona.

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It astounds me that Lizabeth hasn’t received more acclaim for her work in noir. The great actress is still with us (she was born in 1922 so you do the math) and I think that the new generation of neo-noir directors (i.e. Rian Johnson, Brian Helgeland, etc.) would want to cast this living legend even if just for a cameo – in their films. Or, maybe they’ve tried and Lizabeth has rebuffed their advances like her character did in so many of those inspiring, femme fatale roles she created. She’s truly like Garbo in this way – she does want to be left alone. Still, I would give my eye teeth to sit down and talk with such a classy, under-appreciated original like Lizabeth. It would be a privilege and an honor to sit across the table from the actress who starred opposite so many golden age movie stars. And probably more than a little intimidating, too.

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A classic publicity shot of the up-n-coming star during her heyday in the California sun.

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One of the few shots of Lizabeth smiling…right before she devours you!

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That’s more like it. The Queen of the Femme Fatales in classic evening gear. The cigarette is smoldering and so is her glare.

Ava Gardner: I’m a Fool to Want You

8 May

Years ago I headed to the Santa Anita racetrack and found myself in a diner in Arcadia, California. Living in LA as long as I did, I never really saw that many movie stars – Matthew Modine checked out my beard one day at Farmer’s Market on Fairfax, but that’s another blog entirely. But sitting at the bar of the diner that morning was none other than Mickey Rooney. Mickey is a tiny, jovial guy and a Hollywood legend. But all I could think staring at him was, “That guy was married to one of the most beautiful women who ever lived.” Ava Gardner.

Ava was a knockout of the highest order. She was literally discovered in a store window, or a photograph of her at least, by an employee of Loews theaters who fancied himself a talent scout for his parent company – MGM. Ava was only nineteen when she screen tested for movie mogul Louis B. Mayer. He purportedly said that she couldn’t do anything, but the camera absolutely loved her. A star was born.

In my opinion, Ava’s most iconic role was her first along with Burt Lancaster’s in the 1946 thriller The Killers. She played a dangerous beauty in the black and white and what a showstopper she was. The two ascending stars were gorgeous together. Interesting how she went from loving Burt on screen to marrying Mickey off. Their marriage only lasted a year and later Mickey could never stop talking about the sex. Funny, Ava said there was nothing to talk about.

No, Ava’s true love would end up being ole’ blue eyes, The Chairman himself – Frank Sinatra. Sinatra left his wife Nancy for Ava and was crucified in the press and in Hollywood for being such a louse. But then again, he left his wife for Ava Gardner and the two would end up loving each other for the rest of their lives. And they were good for each other. Ava was especially good for Sinatra. She would use her considerable star power to get the crooner an important role in From Here To Eternity – which would earn him an Oscar. And Frank confessed later that Ava taught him how to really sing a torch song. By his own account, he wrote I’m a Fool to Want You for Ava. And what fool wouldn’t want a woman so undeniably beautiful.

Dear Ava would die of emphysema at the age of 67 after a life in front of the screen. She never one an Oscar, but her mark on film will forever be The Barefoot Contessa with Humphrey Bogart. Ava was said to love to run around in her bare feet on and off the silver screen. She was earth angel after all. And I can’t help smiling every time I see her on camera. The girl whose picture was in a store window became one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. The story is so improbable it’s probably true. No matter. Ava was destined for fame. One look at her and you know she’s the kind of woman who gets what she wants. And in return, we get to stare at this rare beauty decades later and wonder how Mickey Rooney – the tiny guy at the bar – got so damn lucky.

CINEMUSES: Mary Astor, The Ultimate Femme Fatale

9 Jan

There is something so deliciously bad-ass about Mary Astor. She was the ultimate femme fatale, Brigette O’Shaunessy, from The Maltese Falcon starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston. The first and arguably best Film Noir, Falcon is as perfect in its structure and form as Casablanca. And as perfectly beautiful and virtuous as Ingrid Bergman was as Ilsa, Mary Astor is as the beautiful, deadly and duplicitous Brigette.
Now, the very definition of a femme fatale is a woman so beautiful and beguiling that a man would willing walk into his own open grave to please her. She must be so intoxicating that a man would off-himself if only to have her one-time. Mary Astor was smoking-hot in Falcon, but she was also smart, brassy, quick-talking and utterly shameless in manipulating men. Sparks flew between her and Sam Spade. They only grew more intense when she killed his partner, Archer. And by the end, she’s so messed up Bogart’s insides that he almost considers doing time for her. Almost.

To be honest, I haven’t seen many Astor movies. They’re hard to find and many of them were lackluster, never talking full advantage of Astor’s formidable talents. She was a force to be reckoned with, on and off the screen. One of her earliest appearances was opposite Clark Gable in Red Dust, with Jean Harlow. I’ve got to tell you that Jean, though I love her, couldn’t hold a candle to Astor’s sexual attraction with hair slicked back and an animal stare than threatened to vanquish everyone in her sights.

Off-screen, Astor was a free-spirit and got into trouble with the powers that be and press for her sexual escapades. She wrote a sordid autobiography and was open about her sex life when such things were considered tawdry and unbecoming a lady. Mary was quick to call bullshit when she saw it and stood her ground. She had to. She made several movies opposite Bogart, Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre – a tough crowd by any measure. But that’s what I love about Mary – she gave as good as she got.

Mary Astor should have been a much bigger star in my estimation. She had the beauty, brains and balls to take on any comers, and I only wish that I had met her – only to be vanquished immediately. of course!