Day Three: It Cannot Hear the Falconer - MacGuffins and the Great Lie
The title cards come up on John Huston’s legendary noir, The Maltese Falcon, with a history of the object in question. It is a needlessly convoluted history, involving The Knight Templars, Charles V, and pirates, all of which is smoke and mirrors pomp, but pomp that elevates the falcon from object to idea. It is this idea Sam Spade chases.
Spade, played with equal parts menace and gruff cut of sex appeal by Humphrey Bogart, is a detective waist-deep in a bedlam of villains, policemen, smugglers, and, naturally, a beautiful, but dangerous woman. They all want the falcon, not the object, but the idea. It’s a classic noir MacGuffin, a plot device that brings the characters together, but means, ultimately nothing. Hitchcock’s protagonists clamored endlessly for such things, a strip of celluloid in North by Northwest, or a song in The 39 Steps, but Huston’s The Maltese Falcon may be the first movie to deconstruct what the MacGuffin’s essential nothingness means. If the chase is more important than what’s being chased, as The Maltese Falcon suggests, then a self-imposed deception to ignore this fact is necessary for the pursuit to continue. The falcon may not be worth risking everything, but in order to be able to risk everything, and fully submit to that dangerous freedom, the lie is paramount.
Then there’s Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor), the femme fatale catalyst for Spade’s involvement in the chase, who has Spade’s partner killed, and hides behind Spade’s muscle while the falcon is positioned into place. More empathetic than Bette Davis’ enigmatic Leslie Crosbie in The Letter, Ruth vies for sympathy from Spade as well as the audience. Doomed from the start, when the elevator gate, which might as well be the cold bars of a jail cell, finally closes on Ruth, a great loss is felt. Here was a woman who knew the score, who knew Spade, or pretended to know Spade, or - what’s it matter, anyway? She’s gone now. Things fall apart.
Ruth, like the falcon, is a fake, a lie for which men and women are betrayed and killed, for which they betray and kill in turn. When asked about the falcon in the film’s climax, Spade replies it’s “the stuff dreams are made of,” with equal parts bitterness and longing, now that he’s woken up. With one final, pathetic glance at Ruth as she’s taken away by the police, Spade sees the elevator gate cast a shadow of the falcon’s claw over her face. Was she worth the chase? No, Sam decides, and descends down the long staircase to the street below, and by the time he’s reached the bottom, he may even believe himself.
Catch Up on Noir Week!