As the United States progressed through the dark times of The Great Depression, and then almost immediately into World War II, there was a growing tension spread through country and an ever increasing sense of anxiety. What lay in the future was dark, foreboding and impossible for anyone to predict. Domestically, around 1940, millions were still feeling the effects of The Great Depression and were still hoping Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal would pull them from the depths of despair. Globally, the spread of communism and the increasing power of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich was the root of all concerns as World War II loomed. The ambiguity that surrounded the future began to take form, as Hollywood began to absorb all of these feelings, which was reflected in some of the films that began to be produced. From all of this anxiety and ambiguity, the film noir genre was birthed in Hollywood, as it became an artistic representation of the social concerns.
Film noir grew in the late 1930s and early 1940s and took on the culture at the time through films that were morally ambiguous, set in urban settings and which were littered with skewed camera angles, dark shadowing and treacherous narratives. The beginning of the popular film noir productions can perhaps be traced to John Huston’s 1941 film, The Maltese Falcon, which is made with all of the trademarks that would go on to influence the film noir genre. The film centers on the search of for the titular object that is the fancy of a group of foreign men, a femme fatale, and a hard-boiled detective played by Humphery Bogart, for the object is said to be worth an indiscernible amount. Despite the surface-level plot being driven by the search for this object, the narrative is truly about deception. Through the use of costuming, characterization, and the temporal convoluting, John Huston coded a film about deception within a movie mystery, which contextually, makes the film a commentary on the growing war-time culture.
The most notable deception in The Maltese Falcon is one that is played out right in front of your eyes. The mise en scene of the film immediately is deceiving through the use of costuming. Throughout the entire film, there is only one scene that contains a character that is wearing a piece of clothing that isn’t of a darker hue. Whether its wearing suits, coats, or shirts, all of the characters are clothed in dark hues that give an eerie impression. As members of the audience, we often see those who wear darker hues as “evil” or “ambiguous” and that they’re intentions can often be skewed or unknown. When we watch Star Wars, we inherently know that Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine are the bad guys not only because they are labelled as the Dark Side, but also because they are literally costumed in dark (black) hues. Thus, as we watch every single character dressed in darker clothes, we are confused in who we should perceive as the true protagonist and antagonist. Do we trust what the narrative wants us to believe, that the main character, Spade, is the protagonist, or are all these darker costumes meant to deceive us of who the real antagonist of the story will turn out to be? The fact that throughout the entire film the characters are all clothed in black, consistently acknowledges the fact that each character is trying to deceive the other, and there is a game of deception being played in the narrative, as each character is literally hiding their “true colors” behind this dark veil.
Furthermore, in all but one scene that contains clothing of lighter hues; the costume is that of the hard-boiled cop that became a staple for the film noir genre. The costume largely consists of the long trench coat with a low-sitting hat that conceals the character’s face in a mysterious shadow. Despite not being a dark hue, the clothing, nevertheless, furthers the deceptive narrative. The shadow thrown across the face, as well as the coat covering of almost the entire body of the character, once again gives the indication that the character is hiding their true intentions. For example, in both of the scenes where Spade makes a phone call from a pay phone, he his masked in shadows and in a trench coat, which forces us to wonder and be suspicious as to what he is been up to in the temporal time since the scene in which we last saw him. If Spade were to be well-lit and directly stating his plans, there wouldn’t be this air of ambiguity around him that gives the impression that not only the characters are being deceived by his actions, but as an audience, we are also being tricked by assuming the main character is the natural protagonist. In a game of deception, we are often tricked by what we see and what we are naturally prone too, however, when the characters move from scene to scene hiding behind their literal shrouds of darkness, we wonder what they are doing between what we are shown, and if they are actually the person we think they are.
It is also these moments between scenes, which spur forward the deception of the narrative from the audience’s point of view. Throughout the film, there is only very few instances where there is a direct reference to what time it is in the day, setting up a convoluted temporal narrative, that seems to move quickly at times, then slowly at others. The key to deception is to be doing things that go unseen and that are hidden. Thus, if a film is going to code for deception going on in the world at the time, what can be inferred (or not inferred) between subsequent scenes is vital to the symbolism. Much of the film occurs at parts of the day that are indiscernible and amounts of time between scenes are also confusing, giving us no basis on how long the character has had times to do specific things. This is brought up early in the film, in which Spade returns to his home, where he is immediately questioned by detectives as to his whereabouts. The detectives give a clear amount of time for how long it would have taken Spade to complete all of the things he claims to have done, however, it appears that it took him far longer, suggesting that he may have been a part of the crimes. Although Spade gives a reason to why he took longer to get back to his apartment (he was clearing his head), it establishes Spade as an unreliable main character. His progression from scene to scene is as erratic and inconsistent as his behavior, giving us no formal basis for which to analyze what he has been doing during the times we aren’t shown. In effect, the way in which Huston convolutes the timeline deceives what could really be going on, blocking our ability to attach specific timelines for the characters, which is the main goal in deception: Always keep everyone guessing as to what you have been doing.
Our inability to discern a specific timeline adds onto what the characters are seen doing, skewing the characterization within the narrative. The ambiguity that surrounds the characters and their backgrounds alters our ability to clearly understand what their motives are. If we expand the narrative timeline beyond the beginning of the film, the characters are immediately pegged as ambiguous. The backgrounds of each of the characters are not readily known for any of them, and none of them are readily open about their past. The gang of three (Gutman, Cairo, and Cook) all have unknown backgrounds, O’Shaughnessy’s character as a femme fatale leaves us wondering to what lengths she has gone to in her past in her search for the titular item, and even Spade is characterized as being a shady person, having affairs with the wife of his deceased partner. In addition, all of the main characters go through a multitude of lies, some of which are directly caught and some of which that are then implied, but all of which make it harder to attach specific attributes to them other than their dishonesty. Their characters are built up such that they all have similar characteristics to that of spies. They’re actions are surrounded in deceit, lies and a constant stream of misinformation that makes you second guess which side everyone is on and what the end goal is for not only each character, but also the narrative that has been built around this entire game.
This narrative of characters that are constantly playing a chess match makes sense, given the context of the history at the time, as the world was caught in this ambiguity and its own literal spy game. In a sense, the deception that the narrative is soaked in is a mirror for the growing World War at the time. The film contains many different people who all come from various backgrounds and cultures, all fighting to be the first to beat out the others. O’Shaughnessy, based on her name, can be read as the representation of the U.K. who pleads for the help from the character who best represents the United States, Spade. She is also going up against a man who seems to be from Eastern or Middle Europe and who’s partner is of a Mediterranean descent and would serve to represent the Italian’s who supported the Axis powers. That only leaves the character of Wilmer Cook, who although may seem to also be from America, could serve to be the lower and middle class who are tossed back and forth and who are used as pawns, sacrificed for the better of the nations, in an attempt to win the game.
What’s more, the film also has some commentary toward the effects of deception and, therefore, war. In the film, there are two points, one after Spade shows an outburst of deceptive emotion towards Gutman and one at the end of the film, where there appears to be physical blowbacks for playing along with this game. In the first scene, Spade is shown visibly shaking after using deceit to force Gutman’s hand during an emotional outburst, showing that playing everything so close to the chest and participating in lie after lie, has its physical consequences that can be detrimental. In the final scene, we see that participating in the deception, also has its spiritual implications also. After choosing to give up Brigid, Spade seems to physically struggle with the decision he made, as he had fallen in love with her. He chose the right path, and essentially removes himself permanently from continuing to participate in the lies by forgoing the opportunity to cover up for her. We can read that it is apparent that all the lying and deceit have a way of catching up to a person and can eat away at the character of a person due to the choices you are forced to make. This reading could also be attributed to the wartime sentiment at the time. The entire narrative would appear to be a warning for what would happen if the U.S. were to engage in the conflict. Spade’s entrance into the “war” causes physical and spiritual regressions, garnering the sentiment that the U.S. should remain out of the affairs of these foreigners, for fear of what detrimental effects it could because after all is said and done.
Thus, The Maltese Falcon may superficially serve as a mystery, detective film, yet on a deeper level, it’s a symbol for the deception and spy games that would have been being played at the time it was produced. The clothing, narrative and characterization all allegorically relate to the war that was growing, and that the U.S. would enter in eventually, as they all build to create an ambiguous world built on lies and violence. The Maltese Falcon became the signifier for a true film noir, and was the predecessor to the great noir pieces such as Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), which built on the themes that were presented in John Huston’s film. Film noir was built out of a war time anxiety and culture, and which has served, ever since, as a mode to reflect the current ambiguities and dysfunctions of our society.