Film Noir Style: The Maltese Falcon (1941)
A life long interest with old movies. When others considered them out of touch, I was drawn to their offer of an alternate reality in black and white. Because they were filmed in black and white, they seemed unreal to me, a perpetual netherworld where everything, even the disasters, worked with sinister, clocklike precision. Indeed, with a cavalier slash of the remote anyone could teleport into this netherworld and move amongst these mysterious persons from the past and, for once, reverse roles where the living viewer haunts the ghosts. The characters and their motives were fascinating to me, they were us but they weren’t also. They spoke like us but differently, THEY were different, things LOOKED different, they SOUNDED differently. As an overly imaginative child my cinematic ghosts kept me company when I couldn’t sleep. In particular there was one ghost who wasn’t like the others, he wasn’t good looking, he wasn’t athletic, he wasn’t young looking and he had a stoop, but somehow when he spoke everyone else marched to his step. He seemed inimitably in a trench coat, and wiping his lower lip with his thumb. And he was always in situations where he was being lied to and needed to talk tough to people.
His name was Humphrey Bogart, and even then, I knew he went by “Bogie”. And before I knew the style of film (I should say art form) he often played in possessed a label, there was one he starred in that stood out in my subconscious. I would eventually discover that it was the movie that essentially launched what we call the Film Noir movement. That movie was the Maltese Falcon  (1941), and it was as good for its stylish wardrobe as it was for its riveting script and excellent “noir” photography. Noir, that black and white dream world populated with “grey” characters and their slippery half-truths. A world of shadow seemingly no different than the regular world on its surface except that when suddenly you find you are in it, escape is almost impossible. Film Noir, is a real life Twilight Zone, where the lead character is separated from the world of daylight by a fluid but invisible wall. Once one walks into the invisible wall (which is easy to do) one cannot easily break through again and the scenes of Noir start to play out as if from a loop from a reel. Film Noir, most powerful and abstract of all classic Film styles, yet as soon as you recognize its outlines that define its allure they are gone, like the dissipation of well formed smoke rings.
For those of you, who have not yet seen the Maltese Falcon, be sure to watch it at some point. It is a fantastic film in its own right. A plot summary is as follows (and minimizing spoilers), Humphrey Bogart2 plays a partner in a detective agency and his partner is killed while tailing a suspect for a client. It turns out that the client who hired the man to tail the suspect for her, neglected to tell him that she was interested in a highly and criminally sought after statuette of a jewel encrusted falcon. Humphrey Bogart, as Sam Spade, gets sucked into the entire drama which has a surprise ending. Along the way, the path is strewn with moral quandary and violence both potential and kinetic.
Although it is not the first film to be of the noir style3, it is the first to both popularize the medium and include most of the elements that would become associated with noir’s expressive art form. Included in that list of elements are a cynical detective (Often kicked off the force for excessive aggression) or hero with a heart of stone (possessed of fast talking slang and a soft spot for the femme fatale), the ignored girl next door, the cast of villains who never say what they mean and festoon the drama with enough double crosses to dizzy the casual observer. The sense of alienation by the lead (often anti-heroic), and of the audience’s identification that sense of alienation and impending doom. The moral dilemmas for the anti-hero which seem to worsen and become more complex as the plot unravels like a brittle sweater.
Film Noir’s low budgets and high level of censorship by ratings boards demanded ingenuity on the part of the director. Thus you get the grainy film, the neon lights outside of the bay windows creating an eerie, transient glare, the faces cloaked in shadow, the sinister wet streets, the abstract shots away from the violence that make the violence somehow more hair-raising. The lurid underworld and the candy coated rotten day life of many of the characters aided in the sense of bottomless-ness and paranoia which were beginning to grip the USA. It is interesting how much everyone seemed to love the clothes in this style of movie which makes some sense because most of the characters lived a peripatetic existence and probably had to wear their wealth on their backs.
The screenplay is top notch, the directing by John Huston (who also wrote the screenplay based on Dashiell Hammett’s original novel) takes the viewer on a non stop theme park ride of deception and underworld double cross, and the script is ablaze with talented Hollywood stock actors who play their character roles with pluck. The sets are oddly abstract and yet reminiscent of a 1940s style that appears almost rent free. It was probably an accident that the movie became a cult classic and launch for an entire movement in film. Sydney Greenstreet, in his first starring role, almost steals the limelight away from Bogart with his masterful presence and delivery of his lines.
All the characters are in place, the fop, the heavy (In this case quite literally), the gunman, the bottle blondes, the overlooked “nice” girl, the Cops or detectives breathing down the main characters back, the rich politician or society man who is mired in corruption. It is so much fun to watch film noir it is a wonder they started using color film (Though, oddly enough, several color pictures were shot in the noir style). The fact is, almost everyone likes the style noir, and everyone knows what it is either directly or indirectly. We all like to incorporate some of that dramatic mood into our wardrobe because we would like to wear the mantle of the hard nosed detective who makes time with the ladies, and whom no one shoves around. Noir also makes us ask the difficult question when we watch these character’s behaviors of “Are we Americans?” and what exactly defines our culture and morals.
The movie was made 65 years ago, it is a slice of America I only know from the movies, and interesting that the characters still seem cool. Who wouldn’t want a soupcon of Sam Spade in their persona? He delivered wisecracks flawlessly and sans souci. He wore his fedora and suit like he expected the best treatment all the time and yet with an element of mystery. He was a tough talking private dick in 3 piece peak lapel suits and double breasted chalk stripes. Men pinned their shirt collars as a matter of fact back then. You will notice the absence of collar stays in Bogart’s shirt collars which gives the collar a more degage air to it4 . A modern look amongst the more uptight, restricted villains he interacts with. Perhaps this is a parallel to the Fred Astaire in those myriad movies made with Ginger Rogers where he wears the modern clothes rig while the rest of the male cast is, over starched, over stuffed and over blown.
Back then (1940s and 50s) the suit was heavier. The wool used was maybe 14 or 15 ounces per yard as an average (right through the summer!). You would want to approximate the look of that time but updated. Today, 11 oz. per yard fabric is generally the heaviest a city dwelling office worker would want to wear, and 9-10 oz are quite common. There was a time when the issue of drape came to mind, that is the heavier the wool the finished suit behaved itself gravity-wise. One doesn’t want their jacket curling up around the bottom edges because the fabric is too flimsy to keep a crease. Luckily, in recent years, the textile industry has pioneered lightness and substantiality into the weaving of men’s suit cloths. In general, as long as the cloth is 2 ply in both directions of the weave, you are assured a good drape right up to 6.5 ounces per yard. Adhere to some of these principles and you’ll find your outfit is the “stuff that dreams are made of.”
1 There were two other movies based on the popular Dashiell Hammett’s story The Maltese Falcon; The Maltese Falcon (1931) and Satan Met a Lady (1936). It is interesting to note that the script Director John Huston was expected to use to adapt a screenplay was the same as from the 1931 version. Warner had made the prior two versions of the movie and was not about to expend more money on a fresh rewrite. At the time it seemed like the fates would not favor Huston’s directorial debut. Both Bogart and Astor were aging “B” actors and the script was literally the same as for the 1931 version (which indicates how tight the budget was) and it was rather outdated for the times. Huston wasn’t interested in a 10 year old script and was determined to write a fresh screenplay directly from Hammett’s work. Huston was nominated for best screenplay adaptation. Not only did Huston make the screenplay good, he made it seem au courant with the zeitgeist of the times, and, as such, a fascinating link for us back to the mood and feel of 1941 America.
2 George Raft turned the part of Sam Spade down. He may not have made a bad substitute but he was too fit and healthy and precise for the jaded dilapidation that the role required. Raft was a dandy in his day, dressed to the nines at all times and an excellent actor.
3 Movies such as Fritz Lang’s M (1931) and the original King Kong (1933) were precursors to the Noir movement.
4 Although, in the 1940s, shirts were made of heavier fabric to better protect leaner frames in leaner times, today one should wear 100s and up for general business shirts. There are some exceptions, notably involving wool and cotton mixtures. However for the modern weight of suit a 100s 2 ×2 fabric and up will feel better against your torso and complement the lighter wools used for suits.