Monday, 19 November 2012

Noirvember: Even Criminals Have Dreams, or: The Maltese MacGuffin: An Essay on John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon"

Alfred Hitchcock once gave a lecture where he described the term MacGuffin: [W]e have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin'. It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers." Later, in an interview with the director Francois Trauffaut, he illustrated the concept of the MacGuffin with a story:

"It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says "What's that package up there in the baggage rack?", and the other answers, "Oh, that's a McGuffin". The first one asks "What's a McGuffin?" "Well", the other man says, "It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands". The first man says, "But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands", and the other one answers, "Well, then that's no McGuffin!" So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all."

Basically, a MacGuffin is what drives a story forward, something that everyone wants- but doesn't really matter what that is. The most famous MacGuffin, I would argue, is the Maltese Falcon, the object at the heart of John Huston's 1941 film, The Maltese Falcon. A jewel encrusted statue of a falcon, it was made by the Knight Templars of Malta to pay tribute to Charles V of Spain, but on its voyage across sea, pirates stole it, and, like Mr. Burns' teddy bear, it has travelled around the world for more than 300 years. Private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) gets caught up with the criminals looking for it, headed by Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet). What's great about the Maltese Falcon, the object I mean, is that it transcends the usual definition of the MacGuffin, something arbritrary, and becomes important in defining the psychology of the villains of the film, particularly Gutman. The Falcon is part of the film's thematic concerns with obsession, history repeating itself, as well as fate, since it was made before any of the characters in this film were born, setting in motion of the events of the film. The idea of fate and of people being doomed from the outset is integral to the film noir universe.

The film, while shown through the perspective of Sam Spade, is at its heart the quietly tragic tale of a man obsessed with finding the Falcon, chasing a dream that's always just of out reach. As the title of this essay suggests, even criminals have dreams. Gutman tells Spade how he almost had the Falcon when a Greek dealer discovered it in a shop in 1923. Gutman went to find this dealer, only to discover he had been murdered and the Falcon stolen. "If I'd only known a few days sooner," Gutman sighs, and you can feel his disappointment and regret. For anyone who's almost had something that was still out of reach, even if it was something small, this is a painfully resonant moment.

At the end of the film, Gutman finally gets the Falcon, after it comes in by ship, but it turns out to be fake. At first he's speechless, and even more stressed out by his associate Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) calling him a stupid fat idiot and crying. Gutman then tells Cairo there's no point in calling each other names and being upset. They continue on their journey in surprisingly high spirits. While re-watching the film, it struck me that maybe the chase is more rewarding than the actual prize, even if Gutman doesn't realize it. What would he do with the rest of his life if he found it? History repeats itself, with Gutman and Cairo continuing to pursue the Falcon, possibly running in to another Spade like figure. That may be Gutman's ultimate fate, in search of something he'll never have.

But for Brigid O'Shaughnessy, (Mary Astor) the hunt for the Falcon leads her to prison. Sam discovers that she killed his partner Miles Archer and decides to hand her over to the police. How we view Brigid is a complicated matter. Do we sympathize with her or are we annoyed and disgusted at her constant lying?  I feel it's a little bit of both. Sam is pretty ruthless in sending her over, telling her if she gets out in 20 years he'll be waiting and if she's hung, he'll always remember her. Any dreams she had of a better life, a life with Sam maybe, are down the drain. At the same time, Brigid's constant lies are pretty exhausting and she could've come clean earlier, or, here's a thought, not killed Miles at all. There was no real reason for her to kill him, except for trying to fram her accomplice Floyd Thursby. Sam also makes a good point when he says if he lets Brigid slide, she'll have stuff on him she'll be able to use whenever she wishes, and vice versa, which may lead to her killing Sam. That's not exactly a healthy relationship. Ultimately, the situation is tragic for both of them, since, as Sam says, maybe they do love each other. Sam watches as Brigid is taken by the police in to an elevator, creating a metaphoric image of her behind bars.

The villain I sympahize most with in the film is Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr.), Gutman's gun man. He's just a kid and when Sam is trying to set him up as a fall guy, you see that Wilmer is on the verge of crying. I find myself actually wanting Wilmer to knock Sam out. I think this is because if I was Wilmer, I'd be in the same situation, being patronized and bullied by someone like Sam. Sam is kind of a bully in this film, whether it'd be "riding" Wilmer or beating up Cairo due to his "effiminate" nature. Spade also doesn't seem to care that his partner got murdered, kissing his widow the first chance he gets. In many ways, Sam is the least sympathethic character in the whole film.Though at the end of the film, he does show some nobility by saying that he even though he didn't like Miles, he was his partner and he deserves justice. Ultimately, Sam, while maybe not always the nicest guy, does remind of he is the hero of the film, even though he's an anti-hero.    

This was director John Huston's first film, and what impresses me most about the film is how Huston composes his shots, allowing us to see multiple actors in a single frame and seeing their body language. While the film's visual style is subtle, it's also quite dynamic. In the first scene, we Spade and Miles over Brigid's shoulder, highlighting them as an audience for Brigid's vulnerable girl act, which they like, even though they don't know Brigid's act hides darker intentions. Cairo's introduction is jarring, in a good way, when he's immediately standing over Spade's desk after Spade's secretary calls him in. It's startling and unnerving, showing how far down the rabbit role Spade is actually going.

The climax of the film, which is mostly exposition, and taking place in Spade's apartment, is a feat of staging as well as acting. Greenstreet is marvelous at delivering exposition while giving a sense of Gutman's personality. Huston also knows how to effectively isolate his actors in different parts of the frame. They're an audience for each other.  

The Maltese Falcon, like all film noirs, is very stylized, in its look and dialouge, and like those film noirs, reveals more depth on closer inspection. It's about the moral choices that define our futures, but also about how no choice is completely moral.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

50 Years of Bond: "Licence to Kill"

On the commentary for The Living Daylights, director John Glen says the film was tailored to fit the new James Bond, Timothy Dalton's strengths. Still, it's easy to see The Living Daylights as a transition film for the series as it moved from the more comedic Roger Moore outings to Dalton's hard edged portrayal. With Dalton's next film, Licence to Kill, the series would go darker and more violent then ever before, a big risk since the series has always been a little more kid friendly. I really like this film, and as I mentioned in the previous review, rewatching both of Dalton's films reminded me how passionate, romantic and urgent they are. You really get involved in the character and they have a strong emotional centres.  There's some solid storytelling in both of them and they feel like genuine updates of Ian Fleming's novels.

The film takes a different approach to the usual Bond movie plot. The film begins with Bond and his CIA friend Felix Leiter (David Hedison) heading to Felix's wedding when Felix's colleagues in the DEA call him in to help capture drug lord Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi), who has appeared in Miami. Bond comes along and in one of those great practical Bond movie stunts, Bond, while in a helicoptor, attaches a hook to Sanchez's plane and pulls it out of the air. Bond and Felix then parachute down to Felix's wedding, leading in to the title sequence. Sanchez bribes DEA agent Ed Killifer (Everett McGill) who helps Sanchez escape. Sanchez has Felix's wife Della (Priscilla Barnes) murdered and feeds Felix to a shark, who bites off his leg. Felix is kept alive and Bond swears revenge, to which M (Robert Brown) revokes his licence to kill, an earth shattering moments in the franchise. Bond then escapes from M and continues his quest.

What makes the plot so engaging is that this is one of the rare Bond films where Bond truly hates the villain. While the world isn't at risk this time, the fact the mission is personal for Bond, risking his career and his life for his friend, makes the stakes feel even bigger than saving the world. You really feel sympathy towards Felix, especially when we realize that, like Bond, he too has lost his wife on his wedding day. Felix even mentions that Bond was married to Della when Bond is uncomfortable when Della teases Bond about getting married one day. It's always nice when Bond's marriage is mentioned in the series. It reminds us of how tragic a character Bond is-one of the only times he's made himself vulnerable to a woman, she's taken away from him. He can never truly escape from his profession and have a normal life. Fleming's vision of Bond was a man who could have his heart broken, and we believe Dalton is that Bond.

In an interesting twist, Bond infiltrates Sanchez's operation and makes Sanchez view him as an ally. In a variation on Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, Bond makes Sanchez suspicious of the people in his organization, resulting in a pretty brutal sequence involving Milton Krest (Anthony Zerbe), who Bond frames for stealing Sanchez's money. It makes what Blofeld did to his minions look like mild spankings. The film's brutality, while it can occasionally seem gratutious, but at the same time, I've seen more violent films. Moreover, I admire the Bond franchise for actually making the violence sting and cringe-worthy. You really feel the deaths of the characters, even the villainous ones. It also suits the type of world Bond is entering, where drug lords like Sanchez are incredibly sadisitic. Davi is strong here and he doesn't have to work too hard to be believable as a drug lord. He does a fine job making Sanchez both terrifying and also charismatic at the same time, making us believe Sanchez could have this type of power.

Bond is joined on his mission by a CIA pilot named Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell). Pam is one of the more tough as nails Bond women in the series- and while Lowell occasionally over does it with the toughness, she meshes well with Dalton's performance. A love triangle forms between Bond, Pam and Lupe (Talisa Soto), Sanchez's girlfriend. I believe this is the only legitimate love triangle in a Bond film, where Bond forms an actual romantic relationship with two women. While it's obvious that Bond will end up with Pam by the end of the film, it adds some texture to the story- as well as Pam's character when she becomes jealous of Lupe. Thankfully, the script makes Pam's jealously feel in character so it doesn't result in a pathethic version of the character.

Q (Desmond Llewelyn) gets an expanded role in this film when Moneypenny (Caroline Bliss) calls him in to help Bond. Llewelyn's performance is always a highlight and I like that Q's expanded role make sense in the context of the film-it doesn't feel forced, and there's a little more warmth between Bond and Q due to Dalton's performance. Dalton's "You're a hell of a field agent" shows how much Bond admires Q. On the other hand, Wayne Newton's cameo as a corrupt televangelist Professor Joe Butcher working for Sanchez, while humorous, feels like it belongs in a Roger Moore Bond film. It's a little too cheeky-clashing with the gritty nature of the rest of the film.

The finale of the film, involving tankers full of cocaine, is excellently staged- director John Glen establishes a pretty clear sense of geography and Dalton, while 45, was still an able physical performer. The final confrontation between Bond and Sanchez, where Bond lights Sanchez on fire with the leiter given to him by Felix, is a great emotional payoff to the film. Sanchez tells Bond that he could've had everything, to which Bond asks him if he wants to know why-finally showing him the leiter. Usually the Bond villain knows why Bond is trying to stop him. Here, it's only when the villain loses everything he finally knows why-it was out of friendship and love.

Unfortunately, this would be Dalton's final film as James Bond-due to the next Bond film being delayed so long that Dalton eventually bowed out. Licence to Kill wasn't a huge box office hit, which I think was due to a combination of audiences not warming to Dalton's portrayal or the gritty nature of the film, as well as Licence to Kill coming out during the summer when Tim Burton's Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade coming out. In retrospective, Licence to Kill is a really involving revenge action thriller that showed the lengths Bond would go to to help a friend. Up until Daniel Craig, Dalton felt the most believable as a rouge agent out for revenge. Six years later, the series would return with a film that's close to my heart, what I think is the Bond film of my generation. James Bond will return in: GoldenEye.

Friday, 9 November 2012

50 Years of Bond: "The Living Daylights"

The idea of a classically trained, Shakespearean actor taking on the role of an action hero sounds like the makings of an SNL sketch rather than an actual reality. But that's what happened when actor Timothy Dalton took on the role of James Bond after Roger Moore finally left the role he had played for seven films over 12 years, his final film being 1985's A View To a Kill. Dalton had been approached by Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli back in 1968 when Sean Connery had first retired from the role and Broccoli was looking for a new 007. Dalton, who was 24 at the time, thought he was too young and declined the offer. Dalton was approached several times during Moore's tenor, including after when Moore finally retired. Dalton had committed to another project at the time. Producers turned to Pierce Brosnan, who was eventually locked in to play Bond. Remington Steele, the TV show on which Brosnan was appearing at the time, had been been cancelled, leaving Brosnan free to play the role. At the end of the fourth season, NBC decided not to cancel the show. Even though NBC was willing to alter Brosnan''s schedule in order for him to play Bond, Broccoli reportedly did not want Brosnan playing both roles at the same time. NBC had a 60 day deadline in which to decide whether to renew the show or not. On the 60th day, they made the decision to renew it. In an ironic twist of fate, the delay on the new Bond film eventually became allowed Dalton to finish his work on the film Brenda Starr and then begin filming the Bond film, which was The Living Daylights.

Rewatching both this film and Dalton's subsequent, and final Bond film, Licence to Kill (1989), reminded me of what I love about the two Dalton Bond films, which is that they're two of the most emotionally resonant and character driven of the Bond series. It's been said that in preparation for the role, Dalton went back and read the original Ian Fleming novels in order to stay true to Fleming's original vision. The Living Daylights, despite featuring the trademark stunts and gadgets of the Bond films, is one of the rare entries in the series, along with From Russia With Love (1963) and Casino Royale (2006), that feels like an authentic spy thriller. It has the double crosses and black  and dagger intrigue that reminds us of what world James Bond was inhabiting at the time. Dalton also feels more human than Moore did in many of his films. From the first shot of Dalton in the film, watching a fellow 00 agent fall to his death via a Russian agent during what's supposed to be a routine training exercise, his eyes squinted, his jaw hardened, you know this is a more hard edged Bond. Dalton is almost like a proto-type Daniel Craig in that, like Craig, he's not as obviously suave or sophisticated as we imagine Bond to be but if you're willing to go with the interpretation of the character, Dalton provides a fascinatingly vulnerable and grounded portrait of the character. Moreover, Dalton's one of the strongest actors to play the part. I would say that, up until this point, Dalton was the best Bond since Sean Connery.

The plot revolves around the supposed defection of Russian General Georgi Koskov (Jeroen Krabbe), who Bond protects from a sniper, Kara Milovy (Maryam D'Abo), a cellist from the concert hall from which Koskov is sneaking out. Bond deliberately misses her, angering Saunders (Thomas Wheatley), the MI6 agent heading the mission. Bond gets Koskov out of the country. Koskov tells the British that the reason he defected was because General Leonid Pushkin (John Rhys Davies), the head of the KGB, is ordering the murder of American and British agents. Koskov is later snatched back by the KGB at the MI6 safe house. In fact, the defection and the kidnapping are all part of a ruse by Koskov to have the British kill Pushkin because he discovered Koskov was embezzaling Russian funds as part of an arms deal operation involving arms dealer General Brad Whitaker (Joe Don Baker).

The plot is somewhat convoluted but I admire thaat the film takes its time to establish all the pieces of the plot and how everything clicks together. I also like realistic nature of the plot. No one's trying to conquer the world- it's essentially about corrupt military officials. What also makes the plot work is the emotional centre of the film, which is the relationship between Bond and Kara, who is actually Koskov's girlfriend, hire by Koskov to pose as a sniper. Bond pretends to be Koskov's friend so Kara will help Bond find him. Their relationship is actually quite touching, which is due to the contrast between the rough around the edges, devilishly handsome Bond, and the more innocent, angelic and free-spirited Kara, who begins to warm Bond's heart, even as she occasionally annoys him with things like having them go back for her cello when the KGB are after them. This brings me to an interesting characteristic of of the Dalton Bond, which is while he still has a thing for the ladies, he's not ready to jump in to bed with Kara the moment he meets her. Dalton's Bond is a harder nut to crack in many ways, in terms of his sexual appetite, which makes the relationship between him and Kara feel more authentic. It's not just a fling but something that is developing over time. And by the end of the film, you feel Bond and Kara could actually have a real relationship outside the events of the film.

Kara is also one of the more complex Bond women in the series history. Kara loves Georgi, and tells Bond she owes him everything, including her career. At the same time, she's falling in love with Bond, a man she eventually learns was hired to kill to kill her but chose not to. D'Abo is quite lovely in the role, both innocent and naive but still assertive and occasionally funny. You actually care about her fate and the ending of the film gives her a real happy ending. I think Koskov is an effective villain because he's not megalomanical.  Rather, he's a more down to earth, weaselly and smug type of villain, the type of guy you want to be taken down because he resembles something more authentically real world villain, a corrupt official. Don Baker, who would star as a Bond ally in the Pierce Brosnan Bond films, GoldenEye (1995)and Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), combines jovilaity and cold-bloodedness in his portrayal of Whitaker, making him a surprisingly intimidating foe.

One of my favourite parts in the film is the reunion between Bond and Saunders, where Bond asks Saunders to help him find information on Kara's cello. At first Saunders is reluctant, due to the red tape he'd have to cut through, but he eventually helps Bond out. Later on when Saunders gives Bond a lead on the cello, Bond tells Saunders thanks, to which Saunders gives him a slight smile. As Saunders leaves the cafe he and Bond are sitting in, he's killed by an explosion set by Necros (Andreas Wisniewski), of one Koskov's henchmen. I find this scene quite powerful because while Bond and Saunders really didn't like each other at the beginning of the film, Bond saying thanks is also him saying "You're okay." Their brief exchange implies Bond and Saunders had put their differences behind them and could become really good allies and maybe even friends down the line. With Saunders dead, that partnership can never happen. 

The film is an interesting time capsule in that Bond teams up with the Mujahideen, the Afghan resistance to the Pro- Soviet Afghanistan, and their leader Kamran Shaw (Art Malik), in order to defeat Koskov. The real life conflict in Afghanistan at the time becomes the backdrop for the climax of the film, a fight in the desert between the Mujahideen and the Russians. The highlight of this sequence is probably when Bond plants a bomb on a plane full of opium that Koskov is going to sell-Bond then has to fly the plane away during an attack. There's a terrific fight between Bond and Necros on a net outside the plane and when Bond finally gets back in the plane, he forgets for a moment there's a bomb in the plane. The Necros fight, as well as the bomb on the plane is a great way of creating overlapping suspense, and it's a very human moment when Bond forgets there's a bomb on board.

The Living Daylights may not be everyone's ideal Bond-nor Dalton everyone's ideal Bond. Personally, I really love this film. Romantic, adventurous, intense, funny and smart, this for me is an excellent Bond film and I wish  Dalton had the oppurtunity to take on the role earlier and made a few more films. He would play Bond only once more-in what I think is probably the darkest and most violent Bond film to date. James Bond will return in: Licence to Kill.