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Tough Guys and The Women Who Love Them in 'Notorious' and 'The Maltese Falcon'

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Wednesday, Sep 8, 2010
Viewed against each other, these two films show the power of women’s roles in the classification of film noir.

The Maltese Falcon and Notorious are two films in which professionally unaffected heavies tamp down their feelings for their leading ladies in order to stay out of trouble. Humphrey’s Bogart’s iconic Sam Spade knows all the angles and, like Bogart’s equally hard-boiled Casablanca character, “sticks his neck out for nobody”, especially dames with a troubling talent for turning up dead bodies.  Cary Grant’s G-man, T.R. Devlin, is the very model of unruffled knowingness in Notorious. Grant’s coolness is much more refined than Bogart’s, his detachment more elegant than tough. He never bats an eye, not even when Ingrid Bergman’s beautiful German defector tears drunkenly down the road in an open topped car with him in the passenger seat.


The Maltese Falcon and Notorious are, respectively, a quintessential noir detective tale and a romance/spy story/suspense potboiler, each directed by masters of their respective genre(s), John Huston and Alfred Hitchcock. Their designation within the classic film noir tradition is determined stylistically by their directors, Falcon positioned centrally in the noir aesthetic and Notorious figuring somewhat left of center to this tradition. But parallel to these films’ stylistic designations are the plot variations of each leading man’s emotional availability to his femme fatale, as well as the differing personality traits of these female characters. The difference between these two movies is most marked not by the two male leads but between Bergman’s Alicia Huberman and the sweetly conniving Brigid O’Shaugnessy, as played by Mary Astor in Falcon. Viewed against each other, these two films show the power of women’s roles in the classification of film noir.
  
In The Maltese Falcon, Sam Spade is tempted by the damsel-in-distress act of Brigid O’Shaugnessy, yet always cognizant of her air of desperate self interest. Spade only wants to get along in the world and ply his trade, and his cynicism is only a right assessment of that world’s readiness to cut him off at the heels. The dryness of his manner, as well as the deep creases of his face hinting at the “dark past” requisite of all noir characters, speak to his well-secured defenses against any temptation to emote or truly accept the affection of the fairer sex. Minimization of harm is the name of Spade’s game, the rules of which the audience is right away reminded in the death of his partner within the first few minutes of the film. Yet, against all odds, Spade would seem available to O’Shaugnessy’s wiles, if only they represented something, anything worth having.


The rogue’s gallery of colorful characters trotted out in the persons of Cairo, Wilmer, and Kasper Gutman are, on some level, a test of O’Shaugnessy’s character. In that Spade somehow seems to actually care about her baldly duplicitous story, the “element” with which she confers, indeed, the whole of the film after their initial meeting, is Spade’s test of that story. It’s as if all of the events in Falcon are Spade’s wondering aloud, “Who does this person run around with? And how?” Underlying Spade’s involvement in the question of who rightly owns the “dingus” and all the legal problems that issue forthwith, Spade’s involvement with O’Shaugnessy determines her viability as an object for his human need, which Bogart performatively hints at under the veneer of his toughness. Of course, she fails all tests, and Spade’s cynicism proves to be well-conceived, his toughness not some act to save himself from being hurt but a matter of survival.


While Sam Spade is hard-boiled because that is the quality of his world, T.R. Devlin’s emotional distance to Alicia Huberman is not so much tough as childish. Notorious begins as a romance; Devlin and Huberman are thrown together by circumstance and fall in love in all the usual ways. But there is nothing usual about the palpable heat of the scenes where their love flourishes, this mostly due to Bergman’s wry softness, her unflappability against Grant’s surprisingly taken tough guy. Being first established as the strong, silent type, Devlin comes off throughout the rest of the film as wounded and lovelorn. And when Notorious downshifts into a second act spy story, his stilted vulnerability is what drives Bergman’s Huberman so deeply into her espionage high-wire act. She wants to show him how she’s changed from the spoiled, jet-setting heiress into a person worthy of his love—I imagined Bergman’s character at the film’s outset as more educated, less horrible, 1940’s version of Paris Hilton—except her new duties include acting like that less respectable version of herself.


Huberman must pretend she’s still loyal to the hotbed of German nationalism into which she’d been born, and much more, marry into the very center of a terrorist plot. But the act Huberman achieves in her sham marriage is more effective on Devlin’s wounded self-pity than in its actual purpose. Devlin is too focused on his own pain to properly protect her; he defends her against the snide comments of his fellow government stooges but not against the machinations of the German killers she has sidled up to. She is found out by her terrorist husband, played with subtle menace by Claude Raines, and the film’s pot-boiler third act follows the scheme against Huberman by her husband and mother-in-law. Notorious is, thus, noteworthy not only as a terrific film but an example of two classic Hitchcockian tropes: the abused leading lady and the ghoulish mother. Devlin understands his error only at the very last moment, though not before Huberman is repeatedly poisoned by the murderous mother/son duo.


Huberman’s heroism and the pettiness of Devlin’s emotional confusion situate Notorious outside of the film noir tradition. Notorious’s audience feels too much for Huberman’s plight for her to a be a noir heroine; film noir features characters with little to no redeeming qualities, the human interest of which are but varying shades of their depravity. Narrators are the only noir characters with any level of decency to them, this only because they can see the bleakness of the world for what it is. Notorious is, thus, too tragic, and perhaps even too dark, to be noir. Huberman’s heroism makes her audience feel, where with Falcon’s O’Shaughnessy we’re interested only in how and when she will fall.


Spade and Devlin are somewhat defined by which women show up in their respective films. The ways that that these two tough guys respond emotionally to women is closely tied to their films’ genres. How each woman actually behaves in each film also determines genre, in that they have a choice to “break out of” the expectations placed upon them; no character should be so tied to genre that his/her actions become predictable. Films most representative of their genre usually tend to be not especially good examples of that genre. A film’s real strength is almost never its rigid genre definition, which come out of quality, rather than vice versa. That the genre definitions of both films are highly conflicted is an indication of their great worth.


Spade’s attachment to O’Shaughnessy represents Falcon’s rising above its noir designations. That she ultimately fails in this regard does not decrease the tension represented in Spade’s deliberation over the matter. Conversely, Notorious changes genre twice because of Huberman’s like deliberations. She breaks her film out of a conventional romance into a spy story when presented with the choice to do as much by Devlin’s insecurities about her past. Then when she is found out by her mark, the genre shifts again; Huberman has opened herself up to become the object of treachery (something that Devlin never does), and the film shifts into a suspense story. In a way, Huberman “teaches” Devlin vulnerability, though the film never explores their relationship that far.

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Alfread Hitchcock explains to Francois Truffaut the long kissing scene in 'Notorious'
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