The Maltese Falcon (1941)

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Conrad Veidt’s character in Casablanca said that in Casablanca, human life is cheap. In the hard-boiled detective novels that were so often put to film in the 1940s, human life isn’t cheap but it certainly is a commodity. The scheme to get the falcon in the John Huston adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel The Maltese Falcon involves many people paying high monetary prices in exchange for the lives of others. Wealth is valued higher than human life.

When Detective Sam Spade holds the falcon and sarcastically calls it “the stuff dreams are made of” in the scene pictured above, he’s bemoaning the value placed on the falcon that was thought to be worth millions and led to several murders including his own partner’s. But that doesn’t mean he valued people any more than the story’s villains. This is the second time he gets his hands on the statue. The first time, he’s convinced that it’s going to make him a millionaire too. He staggers around like he’s drunk because he’s so overcome by the possibility of seeing this fortune. Human lives don’t matter for him anymore than for the villains when he thinks there’s a chance of getting the falcon.

Like Humphrey Bogart’s character in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre a few years later, Bogart’s Sam Spade gets so drunk with greed that all the moral convictions and integrity he used to value, whether or not he acted according to them, are completely clouded over by his pursuit of the “stuff dreams are made of,” the object that he thinks is going to make him rich.

Just the year before CasablancaThe Maltese Falcon joined actors Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre (M), and Sydney Greenstreet for the first time. The Lorre and Greenstreet characters in The Maltese Falcon are just a few of the seedy characters that think they can take advantage of Sam Spade and use him as a pawn in the plot to get the falcon. When motivated by greed, Sam loses a lot of what seemed to make him a decent human being in the past, but he doesn’t lose his smart detective capabilities. He knows he can’t believe a word coming from the corrupt gang of people acting like allies to get them to do what they want. But he stays a detective even when joining them in pursuit of the falcon.

Sam Spade’s willingness to join the crew in all their unscrupulous behavior is exactly what it takes to crack the case. Like most of the great detectives of 1940s movies, Sam is not a likable character. Humphrey Bogart’s acting is so brilliant because of the way he can keep the audience invested in a hero that they’re not supposed to like, who’s only a hero because he cracks the case, not for doing anything truly heroic.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about The Maltese Falcon is its willingness to let its hero be caught up so deeply in the dirty deeds of the villains that we can’t always tell that he’s the hero even though we know he must be because his name is Sam Spade, and Sam Spade was always the hero in Dashiell Hammett’s novels. All the complexity and moral confusion that the characters experience make it clear that they all know right from wrong but just don’t care when they’re motivated by money. The Maltese Falcon shows vividly from beginning to end that the love of money really is the root of all evil.

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The Films of Michael Curtiz

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Throughout the month of April, Turner Classic Movies is spotlighting the films of director Michael Curtiz. Here is the list of all the Curtiz films I have seen along with a grade for his directing in each one.

Captain Blood (1935) B+

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) A+

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938) A

Four Daughters (1938) A

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) A+

Casablanca (1942) A+

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) B+

Mildred Pierce (1945) A+

 

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Amadeus (1984)

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33 years before Jordan Peele made Get Out, a brilliant existential horror comedy about a cult of white people acting violently out of their psychopathic obsession with being black,  Milos Forman made an occasionally terrifying and occasionally hilarious film about the depth of one man’s obsession with another man’s talent and the results of his anger for not being that person.

25 years before Quentin Tarantino made the first of his trilogy of revisionist history (Inglourious BasterdsDjango Unchained, & The Hateful Eight), Milos Forman adapted a play about a real historical person that had no basis in history whatsoever but told exactly the compelling, daring, and audacious story that Forman and the playwright Peter Schaffer wanted to tell.

And 14 years before Shakespeare in Love began the trend of telling speculative stories of how an artist was inspired to create a masterwork, Milos Forman crafted a story through stringing together Mozart’s entire body of work, telling the story of a fictional life through the real work of a real life.

Milos Forman’s Amadeus is a historical epic, a supernatural thriller, a psychological horror, a dark social satire, and a screwball comedy. Contrary to the usual biopic and the expectations developed from the title, Amadeus really isn’t even about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It’s about how Mozart’s enemy perceives him and how that enemy defines his own life by measuring it against Mozart’s. Amadeus plays by no rules and is just as shocking, delightful and powerful for it 36 years later. In making Amadeus, Milos Forman changed the movie world forever.

No historical evidence shows that Mozart and Salieri ever even met let alone had the rivalry depicted in the movie, but it’s the fictional depiction of Salieri that makes everything in this movie work so wonderfully. The whole story is told as a priest comes to Salieri offering to perform his confession. What Salieri confesses isn’t guilt. He has no attitude of penitence. He confesses his anger at God for giving Mozart more talent than he give him. He confesses rebellion against God for what he perceives as proof that God is unjust and unkind. He confesses arrogance, claiming himself greater than God. And he confesses his self-justification for a murder that was necessary to his appease the god he actually worships—himself.

This very unique frame for telling Mozart’s story also conveys the power of music (and all the arts for that matter). Salieri’s spiritual pride that convinces him he’s entitled to everything Mozart has that he wants, including Mozart’s very life is infused through everything we see about Mozart. As we see how Salieri’s love for music and jealousy of one with more talent than him collide, we see both lives spin fully out of control.

We understand to a degree why Salieri feels the way he does about Mozart. Mozart, as portrayed by Tom Hulce, is an obnoxious, self-absorbed, entitled and perverted man. But the majesty of his music transcends all of his personal flaws, so that nobody will ever think of those flaws when at a Mozart opera or concert. That’s what Salieri longs for that he knows he will never achieve. Salieri, as portrayed by F. Murray Abraham, is even more self-absorbed, perverted and entitled than Mozart but is blinded to his hypocrisy by his greed, anger and shallow understanding of right and wrong. According to Salieri, Salieri is always right, and Mozart is always wrong.

As the movie shows the power that art has to transcend the moral failures that the artist is known for, it also shows a very theological explanation of the dangers and evils of greed. The further Salieri falls into his obsession, the more he blames God. The more he blames God, the more he convinces himself that he can punish God by harming the person he considers to be so touched by God’s gift of musical talent. All his anger, greed and hatred toward Mozart stem from the false belief that God abandoned him and is forever distant from him, so he will never be able to be good enough for God. So, he only needs to be good enough for his own sick sense of justice.

In these 700+ words, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of how intelligent, important, and game-changing Milos Forman’s Amadeus is. So I can’t really make a fitting conclusion when there’s so much more to say. Instead, I’ll just say thank you Milos Forman, and rest in peace.

 

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Films about the Victorian Era

One of Turner Classic Movies’ spotlights this month is on movies set during the Victorian Era: 1837-1901 England. Here are my picks for the best movies set in that era.

10. Nicholas Nickleby (2002)
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9. An Ideal Husband (1999)
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8. Around the World in 80 Days (1956)
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7. Jane Eyre (2011)
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6. A Little Princess (1995)
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5. The Importance of Being Earnest (2002)
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4. Hysteria (2011)
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3. Gaslight (1944)
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2. Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (1997)
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1. Wuthering Heights (1939)
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Metropolis (1927)

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At a time when Germany was attempting to rebuild after the devastating effects of WWI, the nation was as divided by class as the U.S. is by political affiliation today. Out of that division and a plea for unity, Fritz Lang (M) made his masterpiece Metropolis. The film opens with a title card that is repeated throughout the movie, “The mediator between the brain and the hands must always be the heart.” The creator of the corrupt and oppressive Metropolis is the brain in this analogy. The members  of the working class are the hands. Metropolis takes us on the difficult, painful, and sacrificial journey toward the reconciliation needed.

Metropolis is arranged in three sections, each one full of Biblical imagery. In the first part, Freder, the son of the city’s creator, goes to the depths where the workers are. He calls them his brothers and sisters and tries to set them free, just like Moses. The second part is the battle for all lives, where the mediator becomes bigger than Moses with a plan to save all, so he becomes a mediator more like Jesus himself. The third part is the final battle, the battle between the very existence of good and evil, between light and darkness. Following a Biblical pattern of salvation, the film shows the harsh realities of the very real world but the ultimate hope for that same world through reconciliation.

As a movie about reconciliation and unity, Metropolis is always honest about how difficult it is to reach that goal. First, it requires repentance. The great city that the mediator’s father made is constantly compared with the Tower of Babel. That self-centered glory its creator enjoys from the system of slavery existing in that city is not something he wants to give up. If there’s any hope for the unity of a divided culture, it requires the repentance of those who created the divide. We’re not getting there yet in the U.S. yet as we’ve seen with the reboot of Roseanne on TV that Trump has praised so highly. On the first episode, we learned that Roseanne has disowned her sister because her sister won’t support Trump. At the end they have a very fake reconciliation where Roseanne takes no responsibility for creating division within the family but instead claims to forgive Jackie, even though Jackie did no wrong and didn’t choose the separation but was a victim of it. Rosanne just continued to deflect her own faults on someone else, just like the president does. Until responsibility is taken for the division by the most divisive person in the country—President Trump—and his followers, there is no hope for the reconciliation many of us in the U.S. are pleading for.

Along with repentance, the type of unity that Metropolis is about requires forgiveness. The workers in this movie have experienced brutal abuse and slavery at the hands of Joh Frederson, creator of Metropolis. A prophet named Maria is in prepares the workers to fight against the injustice they are subject to and to forgive their oppressors if and when repentance occurs. This is never a simplistic forgive and forget type of forgiveness that pretends as if the offenses never happened or weren’t that big of a deal. It’s real forgiveness, the same that the Bible teaches, a forgiveness that is willing to overlook offenses of the past to restore relationships between people, even very grievous ones, if and only if, the offenders are willing to admit the error of their ways and initiate the reconciliation needed. But many of the workers are so full of bitterness that it is understandably difficult for them to recognize genuine repentance when it occurs but must become willing to let go of that bitterness in order to receive the justice they seek.

Most of all, the reconciliation that Metropolis is about requires a mediator. Freder allows himself to live on both sides of the struggle at different points in the movie. He reaches across the aisle to eventually bring the two sides together. That means he subjects himself to the same slavery his father has subjected others to. He sacrifices all of his own needs and desires because he believes the words of the prophet Maria and that he can be the mediator she speaks to them about. In today’s America, that means we need people who are willing to put aside politics, comfort and selfish motives to help bring the two sides together. Right now, the two sides look impenetrable, but Metropolis is so perfectly crafted in how it shows a culture even more divided than our own (much more divided actually) and gives hope that the division doesn’t have to be permanent.

The Films of William Holden

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William Holden is Turner Classic Movies’ Star of the Month for April, 2018. Here’s the list of every William Holden movie I’ve seen with my grade for his performance in each movie.

Our Town (1940) C

Sunset Blvd.
(1950) A+
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Born Yesterday (1950) A-

Stalag 17 (1953) A+
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Sabrina (1954) A-

The Country Girl (1954) B

The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954) B

Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955) B+

Picnic (1956) C-

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) B-

Casino Royale (1967) B+

The Wild Bunch (1969) A-

Network (1976) A+
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The Chair (1963)

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Robert Drew’s brilliant documentary following the legal team that fights for clemency in the case of convicted murderer Paul Crump was made in 1963 but was never screened in theaters or on TV until 2014. Every scene of it makes the reasons clear. The death penalty wasn’t the hot-button issue in 1963 that it is today, but this film profoundly addresses the questions about the topic that most people weren’t willing to ask in 1963 and could have made quite an impact if people had an opportunity to see it earlier.

Attorney Donald Moore tells the documentarians that he doesn’t believe in God. Yet when we see him on phone calls, he constantly uses religious language for the purposes of public relations. As hypocritical as this is, every time Moore discusses the nature of the death penalty with the film crew, he shows that he understands the Bible better than many of those around him, even if he doesn’t himself believe in God. He quotes the passage, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” but he doesn’t use it to claim that the death penalty is always wrong and a dismissal of God’s justice. Rather, he argues that America’s  use of the death penalty is an excuse to play god and to claim divine rights for a nation that no nation actually has. It is nothing but a self-justified act of revenge.

Moore makes this argument by ripping to shreds all the common reasons that Americans have to defend the death penalty. If it were intended to deter people from crime, condemned criminals would be executed in broad daylight in front of entire communities, especially for children to see so they’d be afraid of that outcome of the most heinous crimes. He claims that in other countries it is used as a deterrent and works effectively, so he would support it in such a case. If the death penalty were about justice for the victims’ families, those family members would receive something that gave them some level of satisfaction, but most don’t even show up or give any indication that they really want the death penalty, so there’s little to no evidence that justice is ever served better by the death penalty than by a life sentence.

Moore’s case for Crump’s clemency is based on the idea that Crump has been rehabilitated. Prior to this case, rehabilitation was not legal grounds for clemency, since it wasn’t commonly believed that a person receiving the death penalty could be rehabilitated. So the legal team had its work cut out for him, not only trying to prove that Crump had changed his life but proving that such a change is possible. This is far more important than one case. Both sides argued relatively well (though Moore’s more so) for their case about Crump, but only the side in favor of clemency had any ground to stand on in the bigger argument of whether or not rehabilitation is possible.

The outstanding work of Moore’s team came as close as anybody could come to proving that even inmates on death row are capable of remorse and repentance. If rehabilitation is possible, as Moore’s team showed, then Moore has completely shattered any possible reason for accepting the death penalty in America as anything other than a divine pretension for revenge.