film criticism



USA 1941


First, a half-remembered anecdote that is worth telling. A few years after she had finished filming The Maltese Falcon, Mary Astor was in Mexico making the nowhere near as distinguished movie Fiesta. Her husband was the reserved and publicity shy Dr Franklin Thorpe. Thanks to an unscrupulous Hollywood publicity department and a few local roguish newspapermen Thorpe was reinvented as a stud, the only man capable of sexually satisfying the beautiful Mary Astor. The untrue tales of his behaviour in the bedroom excited the local population, especially the men who believed they had found a genuine hero. Before the filming of Fiesta was finished Thorpe travelled to Mexico to join his wife Astor. Unaware of what was happening below the border, Thorpe left the train expecting to catch a quiet taxi to a local hotel. The roaring football-sized crowd that welcomed Thorpe was a surprise, as were the songs being sung in his honour.   When some of the men lifted Thorpe on to their shoulders, the publicity avoiding doctor must have feared for his life. The truth was that Thorpe was a quiet and modest man and Astor was the philanderer.  She was also a great actress and as the treacherous but anxious Brigid O’Shaughnessy she has her finest moments.


The Maltese Falcon is based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett.  Raymond Chandler, the other great American author of 40s hardboiled crime, explained the appeal of Hammett. ‘He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before.’   The flourish in that sentence also defines the difference between the two writers.  Chandler wrote more elegant prose and was romantic. Hammett kept the phrases simple and rooted his stories in the double-dealing world he knew. The irony is that the romantic Chandler is straight-laced while Hammett, despite his no-nonsense heroes, is playful.  Both men had a passion for alcohol, and that helps explain why neither of them wrote more than a handful of novels.


Boozer he may have been but Hammett the man has heroic status. His mix of sour misanthropy and left wing idealism ensured he was his own person.  As a young man, Hammett worked as a Pinkerton detective but he left after witnessing their strikebreaking activities. When questioned about his politics, he refused to give names about his fellow travellers to the various committees and attorneys.  Dashiell Hammett was sent to prison where his job was to clean the toilets.  Playwright Lillian Hellman was the partner of Hammett for thirty years of her life.  She commented on his refusal to cooperate with authority.  ‘He had come to the conclusion that a man should keep his word.’

And so did Sam Spade. The detective in The Maltese Falcon tells lies, pushes people around and is dismissive of the misfortune that befalls others. If Sam Spade lacks feeling, he understands loyalty.  Spade is neither romantic nor idealistic which means that he is not interested in redemption. But he will bring the murderer of his partner to justice. He has professional pride and realises his worth depends on him understanding what he owes his fellow detective. Sam Spade is attracted to Brigid O’Shaughnessy but there is a problem. Brigid killed Miles. Sam hands her over to the police. ‘If they don’t hang you, I’ll be waiting for you.’ We believe him. Spade is attracted to dangerous people. If anyone can wait twenty years for a deceitful woman who murders people, it is Sam Spade.


Both the book and the movie are great. There are fine details but in neither the book nor the movie does any of it feel like embellishment. Instead, we have steady steps on which we follow characters through a fanciful plot to a conclusion that is a result of messy lives and flawed people but somehow crystal clear. The story travels as straight as an arrow. The inventive details that do exist are almost invisible.  The actors make gestures and adopt certain postures but no one scene steals. At one point Spade and O’Shaughnessy hold hands but it happens in the bottom corner of the screen and is not likely to be noticed. Throughout the film O’Shaughnessy is either wearing stripes or surrounded by them, the bars on the lift and the Regency wallpaper in her hotel room. The Gay overtones in the novel are reduced to one word, ‘gunsel’, which is how Spade describes the gunman Wilma. The names of the characters are all the creation of Hammett, and he has fun with them.


The Maltese Falcon is like early Elvis rockabilly. It is situated on the cusp of two genres and eras, the golden age of escapist detective fiction and the hardboiled realism that followed. The history of ‘the black bird’ actually sounds like a sub-plot in an Eric Ambler novel.  Ambler also merged genres, classical thriller and modern espionage.

In the films of Howard Hawks teamwork can lead to democratic exaltation. His teams consist of straight talking equals. Despite the left wing politics of Hammett his literary output was not didactic. Yet the treacherous individuals who form the group that is united in finding ‘the black bird’ evoke our own experience of working in teams in a modern economic system. The people who are desperate to locate the Maltese Falcon are associates but, because of their ambition, they are also rivals. This is it is how it is in most workplaces. When under pressure, rivals tell lies. To survive they form shifting alliances depending on changes in circumstances or the progress that is being made. Gutman is not only willing to betray Wilma when needed he fluctuates in his attitude to Sam Spade. At one point Gutman negotiates a deal with the private detective. After the La Paloma docks into port and Gutman discovers the whereabouts of the Maltese Falcon he dopes and abandons Spade. Joel Cairo and Brigid alternate between being friends and enemies. In a world where everyone is chasing that extra dollar this is how people in teams operate. Gutman and Joel Cairo switch as easily from being enemies to friends as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson do in the present British Cabinet. The bird that obsesses the members of our Government may have a paler countenance but she also has a history that preoccupies her pursuers.


The world of Sam Spade is not an open landscape of romantic possibilities. There is just one shot that is not of a studio set and that looks like stock footage borrowed from another film. Instead, Spade moves from one crowded room to another. This is how he meets and measures people and exchanges the necessary gossip and lies for business. Competition and intimacy are two claustrophobic elements in modern life. In the great radical American thriller Tucker’s People the author Ira Wolfert poses this question on the first page. ‘Is the world a cloth that may be cut to fit its people? Or are people cloth that must be cut to fit the world?’ The characters in The Maltese Falcon not only tell lies and contemplate sacrificing others. They are willing to cut themselves and others to fit a world where corruption and greed dominate.

The 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon was the third attempt by Hollywood at adapting the novel for celluloid. It succeeds and sparkles because of the exceptional talents involved. Mary Astor is obliged to be an ingénue, a cynical operator, a violent and angry warrior and finally to acknowledge defeat and despair. All the actors are great.   For once the glamour of Bogart is kept under control. There are a couple of moments that reveal his limitations but he convinces as the fast talking tough guy.   When Joel Cairo accuses him of always having smooth explanations, Spade snaps back, ‘What do you want me to do, stutter?’


The voice and figure of Sydney Greenstreet dominate the film but the actor provides more than the flamboyance and bulk for which he is remembered.  The final exit of Gutman produces a strange waddle walk that almost makes his villainy endearing. When Wilma is pulled away from Gutman to be used as a patsy, Greenstreet underplays and looks like a man who has noticed a stain on his sleeve. The history of ‘the black bird’ is told twice in the film. At the end of the opening credits the screen is filled with a written account, and the same tale is told to Spade by Gutman. Rather than this repeated information being boring it adds to the power of the icon and suggests mystery and myth.  To succeed, though, the explanatory speech needs the confident delivery of Sydney Greenstreet, an actor who in more ways than one could fill a cinema screen. But all the actors grace the screen with their presence.  And the movie does something similar for its audience.  The movie may have certain playful notions but no one who watches the film is deceived.   The characters on the screen are as grubby and as untrustworthy as the rest of us. There is, though, consolation in the competence and achievement of director John Huston.  If only we could say something similar about the present Government.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.










USA 1960


There is more talk and a lot less action in The Magnificent Seven than people remember. Not all the confrontations between the good and bad guys are violent. There are just two battles between the seven gunslingers and the marauding Mexican bandits of leader Calvera.  And this is in a Western that is over two hours long.  Chico is accepted as the seventh member of the hired American gunmen not because he proves his worth as a tough guy but because he catches a couple of fish for lunch.  In one scene the seven mercenaries hand over their weapons to the Mexican bandits without a fight. Later, though, they return to do the decent thing on behalf of the poor villagers and claim their manhood. Something similar happens in The Wild Bunch. The two movies can be viewed as almost alternative ways of telling the same story. The difference is that the heroes in The Magnificent Seven can hold their booze and do not mess around with whores or rob banks. They are the men without women that Ernest Hemingway identified in his marvellous short stories, men who will struggle in a hostile world.

If The Magnificent Seven is a remake of Seven Samurai, it is The Wild Bunch that honours the Japanese classic. All three films are romantic and poetical but only Seven Samurai and The Wild Bunch persuade us that their heroes are attempting to survive in a real and harsh world. But even if The Magnificent Seven can neither claim authenticity nor originality, it is a marvellous movie and, thanks to its charismatic actors, is always consistent with the glamorous world that is created. There are no false notes in The Magnificent Seven.

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Chico is the not yet adult in the gang but by the end of the film he understands his nature, his need for a wife and why he must settle and become something other than a warrior and a man without a woman.  He communicates his decision to Chris, the leader of the gang, with just one word, ‘Adios’, and nearly sixty years and God knows how many viewings later that moment still dries my throat.  The triumph of The Magnificent Seven is how it makes its action hungry audience feel for its characters. The conversations and debates between the heroes and villains are not just polemical argument although that exists in the film.  The scriptwriters, and despite what the credits say there are two of them, provide solid characterisation. The competent actors do more than play their parts but we also grieve because we have recognised the existential promise and potential of these seven brave but not so great men. The film ends with us sharing their glory but realising the truth about their and our own existences.   Life lasts too long to be sustained by promise and potential. The final shot shows Chris and Vin riding off together into a gorgeous landscape. The two men have everything and nothing, memories of nobility but an empty future.



The script of The Magnificent Seven is credited to William Roberts. He also contributed to the Sam Peckinpah gem, Ride The High Country.  Apart from that effort his career was spotty but talented Western directors brought out something in Roberts.  No one can deny that Sam Peckinpah and John Sturges were exceptional.  Not all of the films of Sturges succeeded, and he was less innovative as he became older.  At his best, though, he was a master craftsman with a fine eye for the outdoors and a firm control of action. Ten years before The Magnificent Seven, Sturges made the low budget B movie, Mystery Street. The Time film critic called it ‘modest but perfect’.   Jeopardy is also a neglected classic. Its tension is managed with real expertise, and there is not a wasted moment in the whole film. There is also the masterwork Bad Day At Black Rock. Perhaps Sturges needed lyrical dialogue to create his own outdoors visual poetry.  Not to complement the dialogue but to ensure his own work was worthy of comparison with that of the scriptwriter. He had his failures, and his motivation may have consisted of nothing but competitiveness.  But to misquote what Steve Judd says in Ride The High Country, John Sturges could enter his father’s house justified.


Walter Bernstein is the not named screenwriter on The Magnificent Seven. He is now 98 years old and still works as a visiting instructor at New York University.  In the 50s he was blacklisted in Hollywood for his membership of left wing organisations. Many including me have already written about how The Magnificent Seven dwells on the meaning of masculinity and what constitutes heroism, morality and loyalty, and how it all relates to violence.  The political element, which is likely to have been contributed by Bernstein, is usually overlooked.   The script makes clear that responsibility and application are important to personal worth but so is resistance. The heroes of both The Wild Bunch and The Magnificent Seven progress from individual non-conformism to communal rebellion. There are villagers in The Magnificent Seven who are willing to compromise and accept the demands of their oppressors. These moderates, or what today we call centrists, settle for supposed expediency.  Rebellion means that the villagers are obliged to make decisions about themselves, their lives and the presence of unjust authority.  Democracy requires not only respect for others but also resistance, defiance and a stand against oppressors.


Such thoughts are not present in the economic approach of bandits like Calvera.   He says to Chris, the leader of the seven gunfighters, ‘Men in our profession do not worry about things like that.’ Near the beginning of the film he kills the villager who attempts to prevent the bandits taking food from the village. The scene reveals that Calvera is not only violent but regards all protest as stupid and unacceptable. He is not unlike the people who set up the blacklists in Hollywood. It may be taut but there is a lot of dialogue in The Magnificent Seven. Calvera is as talkative as anyone.   He has conservative values, and his hatreds include people who are restless and not willing to conform, the decline in religion and the immorality of modern women.  Rather than see himself as an exploiter of ordinary people who have to work hard for a living he complains about the extra responsibility of the powerful.  His men have to be fed, he insists.  Calvera forgets to mention that he only feeds them so they can rob on his behalf.  Calvera argues that the people he persecutes are weak and that their exploitation must be what God intended.  They should know their place and not be curious about how the powerful operate.   After the final battle the old man of the village understands the cost of resistance. ‘Only the farmers have won. They remain farmers.’ Somebody once said the same about the working class but that was before the arrival of consumer capitalism and the supposed death of struggle.   Now, though, we have globalisation and increasing inequality.  Who knows what will happen.


The recent leak of the Paradise Papers has added to what we know about tax havens and their clients. Estimates vary as to the exact amount being syphoned away from the taxman but whatever is the exact figure it relates to trillions. Something around £7trillion has been robbed from government funds around the world.  Reluctant billionaire taxpayers prefer to pay millions to right wing extremists to dismantle government services rather than fund a local hospital.   These rich tax evaders are like Calvera. They act friendly and somehow manage to feel like victims while they rob everyone blind.  If only ordinary people would stop being restless, they say to their political lackeys.  Whatever the entrepreneurial prowess of these fortunate few the creation of a wealthy elite requires ordinary people to hand their money over to someone else.  Just in case that fails there are governments that impose taxes on the people who have already handed money over to the wealthy few.  Governments use the money they have raised to make investments in schemes that help the rich to make more money.  And if that is not enough, financial institutions create even more money and circulate debt. It sounds like pigs in the trough because that is what was created by the people who got ahead. Calvera spoke about the needs of his men, and global capitalists talk about their portfolios and businesses.  ‘Men in our profession do not worry about things like that.’


Calvera could have been speaking on behalf of the richest 47 people on the planet, the same people who own over half the global economic wealth and ignore the billions of minions who live on less than $2 a day.   Jacob Rees-Mogg is by some people thought of as a potential Prime Minister.   He believes that the folk who criticise the £7trillion tax scam are ‘hypocritical and not very bright’.   Calvera thought the villagers deserved to be exploited.  He felt that they were submissive sheep created by God.   If Calvera had not been such a short-term thinker, he may have understood that his way of life and unnatural hierarchy could not be sustained.  The short-term approach of this Mexican bandit was, of course, a consequence of his hypocrisy and not being very bright.  There was a time when the Tory Party was supposed to represent solidity.  Now it prefers houses of glass.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.