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13 June 2005 @ 04:45 pm
First assignment for my film noir class...  
Not really an essay, more like paragraphified notes...


Assignment One:
Comparing “The Public Enemy” and “The Maltese Falcon”


Overall Tone:
The first thing I noticed was lighting. In “The Public Enemy,” the lighting is non-essential. Almost every scene is brightly lit. Lighting is not used to convey atmosphere or emotion. It serves a purely functional purpose. It almost always comes from directly in front of the scene, so that the whole scene is well lit. There are no particularly interesting shadows. It serves a purpose that is entirely functional and not at all interpretive. In contrast, the lighting in “The Maltese Falcon” is generally darker, but is also more varied. It comes from different directions depending on the location or tone of the scene. (When Archer is murdered, the scene is very dark except for a bright light shining on him. In Sam Spade’s home, the light is warmer and comes from the bottom up, as if it were coming from table lamps.)

The second thing I noticed is how the two films deal with gun violence. In “The Public Enemy,” the only time we see any shooting is when Matt is shot by the Burns gang. He is shot from a distance, and we see the effects of the shooting in his body movements rather than actually seeing bullet holes. Otherwise, shooting is done off-screen. When Tom and Matt go after the horse responsible for Nails Nathan’s death, when Tom kills Putty Nose, when Tom takes revenge on the Burns gang for Matt’s death, the shooting is off-screen. In “The Maltese Falcon,” we watch Miles Archer being shot from what seems to be the perspective of his shooter. This is close, this is real. It leaves nothing to the imagination.

There is a valid argument for why each of these approaches towards violence is effective; in “The Public Enemy,” the writers’ intention was to show how bad the life of a gangster is. What the audience would imagine when hearing the shots, wheezes, and screams, is probably much worse than what they would see. “The Maltese Falcon” is showing a grittier view, without the intention of delivering a particular moral, and thus showing the shooting itself is more effective.

Lastly, I noticed the differences in camera movement. In “The Public Enemy,” the camera is almost always focused on a person or persons. We are constantly seeing faces, feeling sympathy or disgust based on how people are affected by the events happening around them. Much of the camera work in “The Maltese Falcon” focuses on objects such as the light on the floor of the office coming through the window, or the telephone as Sam picks it up when he finds out that Miles has been killed. This focus on objects rather than people adds to the sense of alienation that Borde and Chaumeton describe in “Towards a Definition of Film Noir.”

Protagonist’s Attitude:
Tom Powers, the protagonist in “The Public Enemy,” is very optimistic. He always assumes that things are going to go right for him. He glides through life trusting that he will be able to get what he wants. When something goes wrong, it angers him and he takes action in response to it. When Matt is killed, Tom gets his revenge, to the point of ultimately causing his own death. He did not expect such a thing to happen, and the fact that it did, and that it was entirely out of his control, angers him.

Sam Spade, the protagonist in “The Maltese Falcon,” has a more fatalistic attitude. He tends to operate under Murphy’s Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.” He is surprised at nothing. When his partner is killed, he is not shocked in the least. That said, he is not happy or even complacent about it. He shows this when he turns over Bridget O’Shaughnessy to the police. He will not let his partner’s murderer get away with it. He does not get “revenge;” he is not outraged. He is, nonetheless, unwilling to know that his partner’s murderer has walked free. Whatever his motivation is, be it business or some unspoken and mostly unindicated attachment to Archer, he does not sit idly by. He actively reports Bridget to the police, despite all her pleas of love.

Protagonist’s Fate:
In “The Public Enemy,” Tom Powers dies at the hands of a rival gang. He does indeed get his “just desserts,” but what is especially powerful is that it does not happen at the hands of the law. The life of a gangster is so dangerous that rivals are a greater threat than the police could ever be.

In “The Maltese Falcon,” Sam Spade solves the mystery and has no trouble with the police. He does have to turn over a woman he could potentially love. In this circumstance, the true “criminals” aren’t the protagonist, but are the supporting characters. While there is some justice in that two murderers are arrested, these two murderers are not really the power players in the scheme. Gutman escapes to continue his quest for the Falcon. He has power and he gets in no trouble with the law despite being ultimately responsible for all three deaths and a great deal of robbery.

Protagonist’s Problems:
Tom Powers’s problems appear to be psychological. While he is interested in crime because it brings him money, he seems to do it more for fun than anything else. He has a very supportive mother and, when we see him as a child, does not appear to be lacking for anything materially. He does, however, seem to have a troubled relationship with his father, talking back even as his father beats him. We also repeatedly see that he has a difficult relationship with his brother, who seems “perfect,” as he works a legitimate job full-time, attends night school, and enlists in the Marines. Tom possibly enters into a life of crime to forge a unique identity for himself, to separate himself from his father and brother.

Sam Spade’s problems appear to be material. He only gets involved with the case of the Maltese Falcon for profit, and at no point does he seem psychologically or emotionally invested in it. It’s all money to him, and as long as he gets paid, he seems satisfied.

Synthesis:
“The Public Enemy” and “The Maltese Falcon” serve as prime examples of their respective genres. In “The Public Enemy,” we see an optimistic character living in a world where justice is served, whether by the law or by fate. In “The Maltese Falcon,” we see a hard-boiled, fatalistic man who lives in a world turned by money, where if you are powerful enough you can get away with murder.

Unclassified Observations:
I couldn’t quite make this fit in in any of the other categories, but it seems to me that the lives of Tom Powers and Sam Spade seem intimately tied to their geographical location. Chicago and San Francisco are not just any places; they each have a unique character of their own. I look forward to paying closer attention to this theme of location as it may play out in other gangster cycle and noir films.
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