Avuncularity: The Maltese Falcon (1941)

26 Sep

Maltese FalconFurther dispatches from the nephew visit: Monday night was a night of unhealthy processed food, too often cheese-based, and The Maltese Falcon, which they chose for reasons I’m not clear on but which may be related to the fact that their aunt and I are in possession of one of those movie prop replica black birds that belonged to their grandfather. (Do not burn our house down, Templars. We do not possess the real Falcon.)

As a performer I have a preference for comic roles, partially because I grok their ways and enjoy them, but partially because of that moment-to-moment sense of whether it’s working. Laughs and snorts are clear and evident and one knows immediately whether it landed or whether it did not.

Similar issues arise when watching a non-comedy with the boys. Are they enjoying this? Usually deep sighs are the surest negative – at this age, even wandering off isn’t a sign, since a) they’re used to watching things from which one can easily wander and b) Food & Soda are the primary objective. Always.

So I took their relative lack of fidgets and their spate of questions as we approached the end as good signs.

maltese wilmerWatching a movie you’ve seen time and again is always better with virgin eyes in the room. I know these boys well enough that when Spade disarms Wilmer (Elisha Cook, Jr. long having been one of my favorite parts of this movie) I should be looking at them and not him that I may revel in vicarious response. Were I a parent, I would also fully expect one of them to try the coat-around-the-elbows move as soon as it gets cold.

maltese cairoI’m also intrigued at how this lets me reevaluate my own youthful movie-watching in certain ways. The Maltese Falcon is, for example, a plot teeming with sex- Brigid and Spade’s burgeoning and manipulative relationship, Ida and Spade’s dwindling affair, Archer’s lechery, Cairo’s obvious homosexuality if one is used to period codes (or read the book), the etymology of the word “gunsel” – which was entirely lost to me at that age and yet is vital to understanding what even the hell is going on. The boys got that Spade was having an affair with his dead partner’s wife, but that’s about it. Which is probably what I got at 11 or 12.

Also worth mentioning is a habit that the younger nephew, 11, has, seemingly a spontaneous reaction each time. He has a visceral need to say aloud that a thing didn’t really happen – this from a boy who enjoyed the Transformer movies. You’re right, 11, Wilmer’s kick to Spade’s head is not the best bit of staged combat in film history (“that was fake – he didn’t really kick him”). My seemingly spontaneous reaction each time has therefore inevitably become “It’s all fake; those aren’t even their real names.”

As to their real names, the boys seemed intrigued by our incidental knowledge of the names and careers of seemingly every single actor in the movie, all of whom have faces familiar to anyone who’s seen an average of about seven of your basic pre-1968 classics, but one forgets what a childhood of watching these (and Remington Steele) will leave stuck in your head.

On that front, Walter Huston’s cameo (which is a surprise to me every single time; it just doesn’t stay in my brain) made me bring up The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, which piqued their greedy little interests. So we add another to the slate for Christmas… 

maltese_falcon_walter_huston

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